Darren hits the ground running

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The Independent Football

The Scotland midfielder returns to Norway, where he made his international debut two years ago, seeking the three points which will keep alive the hopes of Walter Smith's side of reaching the World Cup finals, via the back door of the play-offs. Three days in the Norwegian capital will seem almost hedonistic to a young man who only took a weekend in New York as his break from football. Sir Alex Ferguson ordered his Manchester United players to return early for pre-season training, limiting them to just two weeks' holiday, but Fletcher preferred to augment that with a spartan regime of his own that included daily workouts.

"The gaffer wanted us to hit the ground running," explained Fletcher. "We came back early for pre-season, and that seems to have happened. We were back way before the beginning of July. It cut the holiday short - it's not all glamorous being a professional footballer. You cannot give yourself a month off in the close-season now. That's how important it was for us to respond after what was a disappointing season."

The hurt of being left in Chelsea's Premiership wake and that FA Cup final defeat by Arsenal was not softened for Fletcher by the award of a new four-year-contract. The 21-year-old has already embraced the man's world of the Old Trafford dressing room. "I think being completely written off has hurt everyone, especially the manager," said Fletcher. "He is a very proud man. I had two years left on my contract but when you're given a new contract by Manchester United, you are hopefully going to be there for a long time and be seen as part of their future."

He is also part of Scotland's. Fletcher's injury-hit campaign last season did not help his country either, as it fumbled about in the dying days of Berti Vogts' reign and spilled seven points from the three opening Group Five fixtures. The Edinburgh-born player returned in June to help post another four points on the board from the games with Moldova and Belarus and now Fletcher wants to finish the home stretch in emphatic fashion.

However, walking out on to the pitch at the Ullevi Stadium on Wednesday for his 18th cap will underline just how much Fletcher's status has changed since his baptism there as a teenager in 2003. "I don't even think I had played in the Premiership for United at the time," Fletcher said. "I remember being on the bench and with about 15-20 minutes to go being told to get warmed up and then coming on to make my debut. I don't think it was a memorable game, a 0-0 draw, but it was great for me to make my debut.

"Norway are similar to Scotland. They will pack their midfield, have one striker, and be a bit more direct. There was not much between the two teams at Hampden [Norway won 1-0 last October]. A penalty kick is basically what separated us."

Two years ago, Fletcher was considered as a replacement for David Beckam on the right but it is a more overlooked Englishman whom the young Scot says is his role model as he builds a reputation as a central midfielder. "Paul Scholes is the most naturally gifted player I have seen in my life," said Fletcher. "He has helped me a lot."

Ironically, it was Scholes who broke Fletcher's heart six years ago by scoring twice at Hampden Park in the Euro 2000 play-offs. "All Scotland wants is to get to a major tournament and I'll be doing my best until that eventually happens. When you get one you want more."

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