The wretched look on Darren Fletcher's face as he dragged himself on to a coach out of the Emirates Stadium last May, after the dismissal against Arsenal which had just deprived him of a place in the Champions League final, told you that the evening's Italian referee Roberto Rosetti might well haunt him for all of his footballing years.
Fate can conjure all manner of outcomes, though, and the Fletcher who was back in London for the Community Shield on Sunday, before flying to Oslo to join the Scotland squad for tonight's key World Cup qualifier against Norway, could reflect that the red card in question might just have been the making of him. Fletcher's absence against Barcelona in the final at Stadio Olimpico and the United midfield's subsequent struggle to contend with Lionel Messi, Andres Iniesta and Xavi Hernandez have, to Fletcher's mind, contributed something unexpectedly valuable to his own reputation. "People talk about Rome and the fact that I couldn't play because of the suspension but sometimes you become a better player in some people's eyes when you don't play," he said. "That's been the only thing anybody has ever said to me all summer: that I might have made a difference. It has been nice to hear that."
It was a compliment that Sir Alex Ferguson was the first to pay as the inquisition into United's 2-0 defeat to the Catalans began. "I thought before the game it may have been a problem, he is a big-game player," Ferguson said minutes after the final whistle, and the net result is that Fletcher can finally go into a Premier League season with not just hopes of a regular place in United's starting XI but expectations. "I feel as though I am right in there and fighting for my place in the starting line-up now," he said. "Though I know that I can't take anything for granted because you only have to look at the quality of the players who can come in."
Those contenders are not quite such a force as they might be, though. Owen Hargreaves did not, as had been expected, join up with United for light training with the squad during their pre-season visit to Munich and the England midfielder's return to first-team action could be delayed until late autumn as he continues his rehabilitation in the United States from operations on both knees. Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes are also likely to feature less prominently as their twilight seasons roll by, and the difficult night Anderson experienced in Rome reinforced the sense that Fletcher will edge him out. It represents a good 12 months since last summer when Everton were understood to be among several clubs inquiring as to Fletcher's availability and the midfielder was expressing mild frustration about a season which had brought him only 16 league appearances. That Ferguson quickly convinced him to sign a new four-year contract was "the relief of the season" the manager has since reflected, and Fletcher responded by scoring two early goals in an impressive opening to the last campaign.
Though Fletcher will lead out the Scots in the Ullevaal Stadium this evening, the 25-year-old was not willing to jeopardise his position with United to accede to his nation's request to forego the Community Shield to preserve himself for an encounter which, with George Burley's side second behind runaway leaders Netherlands, could leave them needing a win against Macedonia at Hampden next month to secure the runner-up spot and challenge for one of the eight play-off spots available. "If you take your face out of the picture, somebody else is always waiting to come in and perform, so that's why I wanted to be [at Wembley] too, fighting for my place," Fletcher said.
It will a different, less attacking United fighting for a record fourth consecutive Premier League title from Sunday, he believes, though that might be no bad thing. "We've always been tight and we have a great defensive record to back that up," he said. "But maybe we have been a little bit too expansive. The Manchester United ethos is all about attacking football though and that's what the fans expect. You can't be wide open all the time, though, you have to be disciplined and I think you will see a much more rigid 4-4-2 formation this season, with the ability to go 4-3-3 when we need to."
Fletcher was also able to cast his mind forward yesterday to thoughts of South Africa next year. "I'd love to play in a World Cup and I'll be doing my utmost to get to one. Some great players don't get the chance. I want to make sure I do get that opportunity," he said. But there is little doubt that the fight for permanency at United is the biggest in his own footballing firmament. It gets under way again at 1.30pm at Old Trafford four days from now and Birmingham City should be on notice.
Dazzling Darren: Fletcher's factfile
*Born: 1 February 1984, Dalkeith
*Club career: 2001-present Manchester United (213 appearances, 12 goals)
*Scotland career: 2003-present: 42 appearances, four goals (Debut v Norway, August 2003)
*Scored goal which ended Chelsea's 40-game unbeaten run in 2005.
*Became youngest Scottish captain in 118 years in win over Estonia in 2004.
*Won three Premier League titles, FA Cup, League Cup, Champions League and Club World Cup with United.
Group Nine: Team news
*Cardiff City goalkeeper David Marshall could deputise for Scotland in Oslo tonight in place of the injured Craig Gordon and suspended Allan McGregor. "I think David will play and deservedly so," fellow goalkeeper Neil Alexander said. "[He's] been through a lot because of circumstances and he probably deserves to play."
*John Carew admits he is surprised at Norway's lowly placing. "I didn't expect us to be in this position," he said. "We haven't been good enough and have been a bit unlucky as well.Reuse content