Fletcher's Heroic Return Provides Fuel For United's Weary Engine Room

It wasn’t among the more sensational football headlines of the past few days, but the long-awaited return of Darren Fletcher on Sunday could prove to be one of the most significant benchmarks in the Premier League season.

In replacing Ryan Giggs for the last 20 minutes against Aston Villa, the Scottish midfielder received a rapturous reception, treading the turf of a Premier League ground for the first time in a year; his appearance marking another improbable turnaround in a career narrative that has been beset by disequilibrium.

For the past three years, Fletcher has been battling ulcerative colitis, an inflammatory bowel disease that has affected his weight, energy levels and general health. Moreover, the illness has seriously threatened his entire career, with rumours of his imminent retirement surfacing on more than a few occasions. 

Diagnosed in 2010, it  couldn't have come at a worse time - just as Fletcher was in the form of his life. A fixture in the Manchester United midfield and their vice captain to boot, he had just been named in the 2009/10 Premier League team of the season, an accolade voted for by his fellow professionals. At 25 and reaching his prime, he was Fergie's prize midfield asset. 

It wasn’t always like this, though. Originally touted as David Beckham’s natural replacement on the right wing, Fletcher’s Old Trafford initiation took much longer than that of the previous generation of Fergie Fledglings. Whereas Becks, Scholes, Butt and the Nevilles took to the first team like ducks to water, Fletcher's rise was staggered, and somewhat blighted by negativity.

Having made his debut in 2002, Fletcher took a long while to endear himself to the Stretford End. He was a scrawny clogger with no stand-out attributes, it was levelled. He must be Sir Alex's illegitimate son, so went one rather niche joke. 

It took several years - and dog's abuse - before Ferguson’s belief in his countryman showed vivid signs of flower. But in time opinions shifted, critics were converted, and Fletcher flowered beyond comprehension.

Between 2006 and 2010, he became a central figure as United won three Premier League titles and reached two successive Champions League finals. Essentially, he formed the foundation on which the club's flair players could operate. As Cristiano Ronaldo swaggered, Wayne Rooney poached and Nani glided, Fletcher probed and passed, covered blades of grass like a giant supercharged lawn-mower, and took on the responsibilities of snuffing out opposition threats, and driving his team's tempo.

Fletcher doesn’t swagger, nor does he glide and seldom will you have seen him poach a goal. But too many cooks spoil the broth, and as Sir Alex so pertinently put it: "For every Ronaldo or Rooney, you need a Darren Fletcher."

An integral cog in Ferguson’s engine room, Fletcher listened attentively to instruction and carried out his job with minimum fuss. His superhuman energy levels are his key strength, and it must be said that concerns exist as to whether his illness has robbed him of such assets. That remains to be seen, but what we do know is that there's been a gaping hole in the United midfield during his prolonged absence. With that in mind, Fletcher's latest return is certain to aid the club's mission to get back on track under new boss David Moyes. 

Of course, there's a chance this could be yet another false dawn, as we saw this time last year - and the year before - when on each occasion he played a handful of games before succumbing to his illness once more. But this time he looks fitter and more durable, no longer the ghost of a man who appeared fleetingly last term.

At 29, Darren Fletcher now stands at a pivotal point in his quest to become something more than one of 21st century football’s great lost talents. Here's hoping he can rediscover the superhuman fitness levels that made him a jewel in Fergie's crown.

Only then will his career narrative find a new equilibrium, as the comeback kid begins making sensational headlines of his own.

Click here to read more from Ben Cove.