Chances are there weren’t many Manchester United fans packed into Stamford Bridge to watch Guus Hiddink’s side take on West Brom and in all honesty it’s probably a good job there weren’t.
It just so happened that I had the pleasure/indignation (delete as appropriate) of having a Red Devil by my side. He spent 90 per cent of the match staring at the pitch in awe and waxing lyrical at one of the most commanding, slick and assured midfield performances you will see in the Premier League this term.
As he lavished praise on the man running the game from a central berth he seemed to turn a slight shade of envious green before turning red with anger, it was the realisation that the man orchestrating the show was one of his own.
That’s right, it wasn’t the World Cup winning Cesc Fabregas who was catching the eye, it was West Brom skipper Darren Fletcher. The Scot spent 90 minutes giving his Spanish counterpart the run around as he rushed and harried the Chelsea midfield on every possible occasion, winning the ball back with alarming regularity – see Craig Gardner’s opener in which Fletcher forces Pedro into relinquishing the ball.
While watching the Baggies number 24 patrolling the centre of the pitch you couldn’t help but think that Manchester United had made a terrible mistake in letting him go, a point my fellow observer made on numerous occasions. The 31-year-old would surely get into this current Old Trafford side?
The base of the midfield has been a problem area for Louis van Gaal, just ask any Theatre of Dreams regular who has watched Marouane Fellaini aimlessly wander around in the holding role.
Bastian Schweinsteiger has been wildly inconsistent and while steady on the ball, he appears immobile and is easily taken out of the game with the simplest of passes. Michael Carrick is showing his 34 years and appears a walking injury. Only Morgan Schneiderlin has been a definite success in one of the two deeper roles on offer, and it has taken the manager a worryingly long time to notice.
Fletcher was an integral part of United for such a long period that it seemed he would never leave Old Trafford but a debilitating bout of ulcerative colitis pretty much forced his hand. The illness robbed the Scotland international of pretty much four seasons and, for many, his career was over.
It’s fair to say that Louis van Gaal was probably one of those people. When he let him depart to the Midlands last season, he would never have expected him to have played 35 league games by this stage and be swanning around Stamford Bridge like the trophy-laden reluctant star that he is.
The Dalkeith-born man was always one of Sir Alex Ferguson’s loyalist of lieutenants. The legendary manager put massive faith in the midfielder, deploying him in the vast majority of big matches and placing immense responsibility upon his shoulders.
Under Fergie’s stewardship he was a stopper, a recycler of the ball; the man who allowed the likes of Scholes, Ronaldo, Rooney, Tevez, Giggs etc. to go and play. It was a job he was excellent at. He knew he was never going to be as good as Paul Scholes so he became that most underappreciated type of footballer, the all-rounder.
However, a switch to the Baggies has seen the shackles come of, it’s as if he has been freed. For the moment free of illness and in sparkling form, Fletcher is thriving. At West Brom he is given the license to play a little more and push on a touch higher. This has seen him display his excellent passing game, a trait so undervalued in his time at Manchester United, while his ability to get around the pitch and force a mistake from the opposition has not waned.
When placed in a midfield alongside Scholes or Carrick, it is obvious that you give the ball to them to play but with Claudio Yacob giving the protection behind him, Fletcher can be the driving force of the Throstles and it is proving to be pivotal in the Baggies’ recent showings.
Ask any West Brom fan, you may as well give him the player of the year award now, he has been that good. If he had been a summer purchase he’d be featuring in all the ‘signing of the season’ lists and be receiving lashes of praise from all corners.
However, that’s just not very Darren Fletcher is it?
After the game at Stamford Bridge the proud skipper should have been receiving the plaudits from his teammates, and no doubt he was, but what stood out was the way he went round to each of the West Brom players congratulating them on a job well done and saluting the fans who constantly chorused that he had indeed won more than Chelsea.
Fletcher the player has been an excellent acquisition. West Brom’s gain have very much been Manchester United’s loss. Fletcher the man is having just as big an impact at the Hawthorns. He is an individual who oozes quality, determination and class, he is everything Manchester United used to stand for and everything they currently fail to represent.