Paul Scholes column: It was a joy to play alongside Darren Fletcher – a superb team man. I wish him all the best at West Brom

EXCLUSIVE: Darren Fletcher will be sorely missed at Manchester United... my blurred vision was nothing like the ulcerative colitis he went through

I can still recall the time Darren Fletcher arrived at Manchester United as a 15-year-old kid from Scotland with a big reputation and I played with him on the day he made his reserve team debut as a teenager and impressed us with his determination and his will to win. You don’t spend 16 years of your life at Old Trafford without a lot of talent and a strong personality.

Fletch left for West Bromwich Albion on Monday, bringing to an end another one of those careers at United that has stretched all the way from the academy to the first team. Along the way he has had to overcome some major challenges. In his early years he took some stick before he established himself as a big part of the team and then, of course, there was his battle with ulcerative colitis which could so easily have ended his career.

 

First of all, Fletch is a great lad. He was a very popular figure in the United dressing room. There was no nonsense from him. He said what he thought to people. He would take the mickey out of anyone. He got on with his team-mates. Most of all he was an excellent footballer. No one at United got a free ride – not even if you happened to be Sir Alex Ferguson’s only Scottish player.

I would say that Fletch’s greatest asset is his ability to get around the pitch. He has the strength and the speed to get to the opposition player in possession and win the ball. I really enjoyed playing with Fletch. He is technically excellent, he can read the game and he is a superb team player. He never plays for himself. He did what was right for his team and got the best out of players around him.

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Darren Fletcher left Manchester United for West Brom on deadline day

For a good few years he became central to what the team did and there were so many Champions League nights when he was important to us. He played very well in the run to the 2009 final and was then suspended for the game in Rome. By then he had already been diagnosed with his condition, although none of us knew.

I think his greatest performance for United was the 2004 FA Cup semi-final against Arsenal. He was all over Patrick Vieira that day. The two teams in the other semi-final were Millwall and Sunderland so we knew that whoever won was going to be runaway favourites for the Cup. Fletch did as much as anyone to get us there.

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Fletcher was an integral part of Sir Alex Ferguson's success

In more recent years, Fletch was fighting to recover from his condition and there were times when we saw him and wondered if he would ever come back. He lost a lot of weight and was grey for certain periods. He would come back in for a training session and then not be able to take part in the next. Having always known him as such an energetic and bubbly character, that was shocking to see.

No one would have blamed him if he had decided to call it a day. He took a while to make up his mind over whether to have the operation on his large intestine, which was a success and put him on the road to a comeback two years ago. I know that the support of the manager, Sir Alex, was so important to him over that time.

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Scholes, Fletcher and Ryan Giggs after winning the Premier League title in 2011

When you are injured or ill as a footballer for a long period of time, the question on your mind is first, “Will I come back at all?” And then you find yourself wondering, “If I do come back, will I be the same?”

I never dwelt on that second question. My feeling was that you did your best but that, ultimately, you could never control these things. Fletch’s experience with ulcerative colitis was horrendous. The closest I got to a career-ending condition was a dispersed blood clot on my eye that clouded my vision.

I suppose the fact that today I am not sure which eye it affected – the left one, I think – tells you that the problem has gone away, for now at least. I first recognised it when I was playing a game at Birmingham City in December 2005 and looked up into one of the floodlights. My vision just went in that affected eye. I also suffered from migraines at the time so I assumed it was related to that.

Looking back, I should really have told the manager that I needed to come off but I never liked doing that. The next time the ball came over to me I looked up and saw three footballs instead of one. I thought, ‘Sod it, I’ll just hit the middle one’.

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Scholes at St Andrews in December 2005

The doctors told me that I was not to do any physical exercise for six months. I didn’t play again until the start of the next season and because I wasn’t allowed to do any running I had to get back into condition first. The first step to coming back was to work with the goalkeepers, firing shots at them with the goalkeeping coach Tony Coton. I quite enjoyed it.

Of course, I wondered whether my sight would be the same when I came back. Generally my vision is good, I don’t need contact lenses or spectacles. I had been coached as a youngster at United by Eric Harrison to be very aware of what was around me in a game – both team-mates and opponents. Finding space was a major part of my game. I didn’t fancy doing it with just one eye.

My condition was nothing like as bad as what Fletch went through. He missed two years as a United footballer, with all that that entails – being away from his team-mates, playing games at Old Trafford and winning the Premier League title in 2013. I won’t be the only United fan looking out for West Brom’s results from now on this season, and wishing the best to a former team-mate who never gave up – whatever the challenge.

Redknapp seemed to have lost his energy and belief at Queens Park Rangers

There are not many old-school managers left now Harry Redknapp has quit Queen’s Park Rangers. He always struck me as a great motivator who gave players confidence. The energy and belief that he usually had didn’t seem to be there this time. QPR’s obvious problem this season has been their away form of played 11, lost 11.

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Redknapp quit as QPR boss on Tuesday

At United we never used to change our style much away from home. The aim was always to score goals and dominate the match. Obviously, when a team is further down the table that is not always possible. In QPR’s situation I just don’t know why they haven’t tried harder to shut up shop and keep a clean sheet.

Perhaps the players just don’t know how to do it. When, for instance, QPR went to Old Trafford in September, United’s confidence was low. They had been through three Premier League games without a win and that defeat to MK Dons in the Capital One Cup. QPR had a chance then to set up defensively and keep them out but they could not manage it. They conceded after 24 minutes and lost 4-0. Where QPR are now, even a 0-0 draw would be an improvement on what they have done away from home so far.

Chelsea have done the best window business – again

OK, so I never had a transfer in my career, but I used to love deadline day: Dimitar Berbatov turning up at Manchester airport with hours to go, Robinho coming to Manchester City instead of Chelsea. On Monday night I think I turned the telly off at 9pm. I decided I could wait until the next day to find out whether Carlton Cole was joining West Brom.

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Chelsea made a profit in the January window despite spending big on Juan Cuadrado

There were not many surprises this time around and as usual it looks like Chelsea have done the best business. They made a profit of around £7m on their trading, having sold André Schürrle and Ryan Bertrand and loaned out Mohamed Salah for a fee. They seem to be clinical about it these days. You knew that if it was Juan Cuadrado they wanted, they would get him.

Looking at his stats, I’m not sure that over the course of his career he is an outstanding goalscorer or maker of assists. A bit like Willian, he is one of those players who does not have the big numbers but he still manages to impress you with what he does. What is clear at Chelsea, however, is that if you do not perform you do not last long in the squad.

What caught my eye

Player of the week

Harry Kane. I really like the way he plays and he scored another two goals against West Brom

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Harry Kane scored a brilliant double at West Brom

Moment of the week

Kane again. That first goal reminded me of Ruud Van Nistelrooy. Ruthless

Match of the week

Chelsea v City. Some thought it was a damp squib. I found it fascinating

Manager of the week

Steve McClaren. My former United coach is top of the Championship with Derby

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