Is Darren Fletcher United’s missing link?
Sir Alex Ferguson’s stubborn reluctance to buy a solution to Manchester United’s perceived central midfield conundrum is now starting to make sense.
Darren Fletcher, the Scottish international sidelined for the last 10 months due to illness, is back.
Just how ‘back’ he is remains to be seen. As does whether he’ll ever be as fit and effective as he was in the earlier stretches of his career.
But in the Capitol One Cup tie with Newcastle mid-week, the 28-year-old made his first start since his battle with ulcerative colitis began in November 2011 – a significant and emotional step, given the nature of the disease.
Colitis sucks the life out of you. It is an exhausting, draining, frustrating syndrome. It is a victory in itself that Fletcher has actually returned to professional football at all.
It would be daft to rush him back into the thick of things, particularly since this is the kind of disease that can flare up and attack just when you think it’s gone away.
But it feels safe to say the absolute worst is over. Ferguson thought enough to name him in his UEFA Champions League squad, and a Premier League comeback must only be a few more hurdles away.
And it’s not a moment too soon. United is simply screaming out for his full-time return.
It is nearly cliché, now, to reach back to Manchester United’s ‘midfield problem’ every time the side puts in a lacklustre shift.
It almost feels like a non-argument given that, since Roy Keane walked out the Old Trafford door in 2005, Manchester United has added four Premier League titles, three League Cups, a Club World Cup and a third Champions League triumph to their honour roll.
But for a last-gasp Sergio Aguero goal, they could quite conceivably be reigning English champions.
If it’s a problem, yet the silverware is piling up, it can’t be that problematic, can it?
When other Premier League sides are lifting their game, yes, yes it can. And Sir Alex’s lack of action here has been perplexing, since he’s barely hesitated to fix every other part of his squad which has required mending.
The Red Devils left Anfield last weekend with a 2-1 victory, but only courtesy of the referee and that glorious ingrained ability to win when they have no right to.
Liverpool played straight through them, even in patches after the contentious send-off of Jonjo Shelvey.
Ryan Giggs was in no man’s land, and that meant too much was asked once again of the overworked Michael Carrick and the still-not-quite-settled Shinji Kagawa, for whom winning the ball is not in his job description anyway.
Not that Manchester United ever set out to control the game. Away to a side that has so whole-heartedly embraced the cultish phenomenon of possession football, Ferguson was happy to play on the counter attack.
But that doesn’t mean accepting it when an onrush of misty-eyed red shirts dominate for one half, and then continue to dictate terms with one less man.
With the only other options in the middle of the park being that riddle wrapped in a mane of dreadlocks, Anderson, the near-geriatric Paul Scholes and the fresh-faced Tom Cleverley, it’s a wonder how Sir Alex will get out of this one without looking outside the club.
But then, maybe he has left the door ajar for Darren Fletcher this whole time.
Maybe his reluctance to dip into the transfer market is because he thinks Fletcher is the missing piece. Is that not a grand incentive for recovery?
Ferguson has faith in his countryman, so it wouldn’t exactly be out of character.
He stuck with Fletcher back when nobody could quite figure out what he was good for, when he was wallowing below Giggs, Scholes, Carrick and Cristiano Ronaldo in the pecking order.
He nursed him from the academy conveyor belt into a dynamic ‘big game player’, a back-four screener who could handle it all – a player who lived to zip around the park, incessantly breaking up attacks, but then could also drive United forward with the right pass or thrust.
Fletcher may no longer have the stamina for that last part, but his refined grit in midfield next to the intelligence of Carrick and the vision of Scholes sounds a far sight better than the present configuration.
Maybe that’s the plan.
Vince Rugari is an Adelaide-born journalist who cut his teeth on the sporting graveyard that is the Gold Coast. He fancies the round ball and the Sherrin, and used to be a handy leg-spin bowler before injury curtailed a baggy green push. He is a Port Adelaide fan by birth, as painful as that has been recently. He's now sports editor of The Area News in Griffith, NSW.
Budweiser Hosts the FIFA World Cup Draw: London
On December 6th football fans come together for the first major moment of the 2014 World Cup: the final draw. In five cities around the world, Budweiser hosted local community events around the World Cup Draw to reveal the fans' experience of this important night.