Darren Fletcher: Fergie's faith rewarded by the quiet aura of a rising son

He makes Roy Keane play better and he makes his manager purr over the future. Steve Tongue talks to a Scottish midfielder undaunted by expectation
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Sir Alex Ferguson's son Darren may have flown the nest long ago, to Wrexham via Wolves, but there is something almost paternal about the Manchester United manager's handling of another young Scottish midfielder at the club. Another Darren, too, who he clearly believes is capable of realising the potential Ferguson Jnr could not quite maximise.

Sir Alex Ferguson's son Darren may have flown the nest long ago, to Wrexham via Wolves, but there is something almost paternal about the Manchester United manager's handling of another young Scottish midfielder at the club. Another Darren, too, who he clearly believes is capable of realising the potential Ferguson Jnr could not quite maximise.

Consider the manager's column in last weekend's programme for the home game with Newcastle United, when a run of scrappy Premiership performances continued, but brought a more pleasing result ahead of today's trip into The Valley at Charlton: "One of the factors missed by most [people] during our lean spell was the absence of Darren Fletcher, who I believe contributes a great deal to the effective functioning of our midfield. He is especially helpful to Roy Keane in allowing him to continue his influence at the heart of the action... With Fletcher's help, he can help us keep the FA Cup to show that perhaps we haven't been quite as bad this season as some people like to make out - and also show that there is still life in the manager after all!"

So this month's task, young Darren, is keeping the Cup, keeping the captain going and keeping the manager in a job.

Just as well, then, that this particular 21- year-old, with fewer than 50 starts in senior football, is such a grounded lad as well as such a highly regarded prospect. Ask about his socialising at a (football) club where a night out with Rio, Rooney and the boys tends to end up on the front pages and he sounds insulted: "You won't see me out on the town very much unless it's a special occasion, a team-bonding session or something. Football these days, there's that many games, you've got to be preparing and getting your rest."

Any reports of Jack-the-laddishness would certainly go down as badly back home in Maybank as in the manager's office. It was there, in a working-class district of Edinburgh, that Fletcher was born and his love of football bred. "My roots are still firmly with me. When I go back home I'm still just the same Darren they see in the streets. My family still live in the same place where I grew up, playing football all the time - in from school, out playing, days off out all day, come back for lunch and dinner, that's all I can remember from my boyhood."

Plus, a little later, having a season ticket to watch Celtic and his particular heroes, Paolo Di Canio and Pierre van Hooijdonk, from whom he wisely appears to have derived talent rather than temperament. "They played some wonderful football with Tommy Burns as manager, who I was fortunate to work for with Scotland later. But Rangers kept beating us so I never actually saw many trophies."

Signing for his favourite club at an early age might have been considered the obvious thing to do, but a steely, stubborn and ambitious streak attracted him to English football at an early age, despite a rule that Scottish lads could not join clubs south of the border until they were 16. It is something that he believes handicaps the development of young Scottish talent. "I first came to United just for training when I was 12, and then every school holiday I was always down and loved every minute of it. But it was quite a difficult time, I actually don't agree with the whole process. You have to be patient and confident in your ability, so when you get to 16 you're still going to be able to go to an English club.

"A lot of young kids have the pressures of signing for a Scottish club at 12 or 14. For a Scot to wait until he's 16 before he can come down to an English club is terrible. Facilities in Scotland are nowhere near up to the standard of the English academies, so that's a disadvantage for a start. But I always wanted to play in the Premiership."

Sadly, the story that he was won over with a game of snooker chez Ferguson is a Manchester myth; no persuasion was ever going to be necessary. What is more firmly rooted in fact is the extraordinary tale that the manager wanted to use him as a 16-year-old in an end-of-season game at Aston Villa when the 1999-2000 championship was already won. But there was a complication with his registration and he had to settle for travelling with the squad.

Never mind walking into the first-team dressing room; even signing for the European champions just after their Treble season might have been considered sufficiently daunting to have worried any teenager less than completely sure of himself. Fletcher, although softly spoken, has a quiet confidence that remains on the right side of arrogance, and the manager's faith gently reinforced it. "I think in my year there were 12 of us under-17s, and you always know you're not all going to make it. But you've just got to be confident in your own ability, which I am, give it your best shot, be dedicated enough not to be drawn to the bright lights of Manchester and stuff like that. So if I failed, though I never contemplated failure, I could always say I gave it my best shot."

It has not all been plain sailing. In that first summer, he broke a foot representing Scotland's Under-16s in a tournament that controversially took place on artificial pitches. The same problem kept recurring, and he played only one game in the whole season. A scrawny physique worried some of the coaches while he was still growing, but he has won them over: "I've learnt how to use my body, though I'm not the strongest-looking. We've got a professional weights person who comes in and he was always saying, 'We need to get you into the gym'. When you're injured you have hockey matches against the staff, and he came to me after one of them and said he didn't realise how strong I was, the couple of times I was holding him off. It showed you don't have to look strong to be strong."

An additional boost was continued international recognition, for Scotland's Under-21s and then, under Berti Vogts, the senior side. In the temporary absence of Barry Ferguson, Vogts even made him captain, so not surprisingly Fletcher remains better disposed to the German than most of his countrymen ever were: "I've got nothing but respect for Berti Vogts; his whole philosophy and the way he prepared for games were second to none. The language was a bit of a problem when he was trying to get across points in an aggressive manner. That was the only thing you could point a finger at in the whole era. He came into Scotland at a time of an old team and tried to rebuild, and we're still in that process. Someone had to do it and he took the risk and it kind of backfired. The progress hasn't shown yet, but I'm sure it will in a couple of years."

His breakthrough at club level came in 2003, thrust into a debut in the Champions' League against Basle in front of 67,000 at Old Trafford, then impressing on the summer tour of the United States. A bad injury to Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, who was supposed to be replacing the departed David Beckham, offered further opportunities, shared with Cristiano Ronaldo, and then Fletcher moved to his natural position in the centre, featuring strongly in the FA Cup semi-final and final.

This season has brought the frustration of two further injuries, the second, in the derby game with City, coming just as the team were putting together some impressive form. Now, he says: "It's going to be a real hard battle for second place, which isn't Manchester United. It's not where we should be. We've obviously got the FA Cup to look forward to, a massive competition for the club and all the players, but the League's contested all year round and the best team always wins it."

It could be Ferguson talking, or midfield partner Keane. The influence of both is obvious and acknowledged: "It's nice to have any manager saying nice things about you, but when it's Sir Alex Ferguson... I've had one or two rollockings, but not the real hair-dryer treatment. And Roy's just a legend. You just have to watch how he prepares on and off the field. What he says is we're professional footballers, that's our job, and you've got to treat it like that. It's no good for instance being late for your job, anything like that is disrespecting your team-mates and yourself. People see him shouting and that, but the thing I've noticed close up is how good his touch is, his passing and the way he controls the game, playing at whatever speed he wants."

Enquire what is the worst thing about his chosen career and he is genuinely perplexed, repeating the question to buy some time and still not coming up with an answer: "I don't think there is a bad thing about being a professional footballer." Only when reminded about his broken foot, double hernia, knee ligament and hamstring damage does he admit that, yes, injuries can be tiresome. "It holds you back, though it's something I've learnt to deal with it in terms of not rushing back. When I broke my foot, I pushed myself and pushed myself but I knew it wasn't right. Give it maybe an extra week and that can save you a couple of months in the future."

"He's a nice lad," the taxi driver agrees later on the way back to the station. "It's not so long ago that he was living in one of those, what d'you call them, safe houses?" Club houses? "Yeah, that's it. Nice lad." And, to Ferguson's delight, safe as houses.


Darren Fletcher

Born: 1 February 1984 in Edinburgh.

International career: Scotland: 12 caps, has scored two goals.

Club career: Joined Manchester United as a trainee on 1 August 2000. Premiership debut at Leicester September 2003. Has made 49 appearances (32 League, four FA Cup, five League Cup, eight other). FA Cup winners' medal 2004. Scored only one goal (v Middlesbrough, New Year's Day 2005). Contract runs to June 2007.

Other: Celtic fan who trained for one year with Rangers.

They say: "He has only cold water in his veins" - Berti Vogts. "He reminds me of the young David Beckham" - Gary Neville.