For a Leeds United fan, yesterday’s news that Man U had won 3-0 at their perennial rabbit team Aston Villa was hardly welcome or, in itself, inspiring. The two Uniteds from either side of the Pennines share a mutual loathing that has become legendary and transcends geographical proximity or considerations of direct rivalry, the normal prerequisites for a healthy hate-hate relationship. The fact that Leeds and the club I fondly refer to as the Pride of Devon are miles apart both in location and in status has not affected the poisonous depths of the antipathy between the two. We sing about them in terms of extreme dislike, they reciprocate in tones of mixed cockney and that characteristic West country burr. Neither set of fans would cross the road to save one of the enemy, by means of micturition, from a death by conflagration. It’s been like that for years.
However, some things are more important than football’s strife and conflict, on or off the field. The other news to emerge from Villa’s capitulation was without doubt positive, welcome and a thing to be celebrated by anyone who loves football – indeed by anyone at all. It is the story of a young athlete with a glittering career before him who was struck down by a chronic and debilitating medical condition, yet who has overcome that awful setback to regain a place among his team-mates playing a highly demanding game at the top level.
Darren Fletcher made his senior bow for Man U in 2002 and performed with versatility and industry in midfield and defensive roles, depending on the requirements of his club, up until 2011 when he was finally struck down by the bowel condition ulcerative colitis, something he had been coping with whilst playing on – but which now necessitated rest and treatment. It was announced that Fletcher would take an extended break from football to address his problems and, obviously, there were fears in some quarters about whether he would be able to return to such a demanding way of making his living. Yet return he did, in September 2012, only to be then ruled out for the remainder of last season after undergoing an operation to lessen the effects of a condition which can have life-altering consequences depending on its severity and treatment. Last Saturday at Villa was Fletcher’s second comeback – but this time it seems that the problem may have been overcome for the longer term.
Fletcher himself certainly believes that he is back to stay, having beaten his health problems. “This is it, I’m back for good,” he told MUTV, the club’s in house TV channel. “This (the Villa game) is hopefully the game which means I’m back now.
“I seem to have come through the setbacks and health issues and I’m thankful for that. It’s onwards and upwards now. I always believed I would come back, I kept that mind-set. I think other people around me were trying to make me think otherwise, but I stayed strong and believed I would get back.”
All football fans should be wishing Fletcher the best and hoping earnestly that he is right to be optimistic about the future. At 29, he still has a good part of his career ahead of him and, having shown the character and courage to overcome such a potentially demoralising and energy-sapping condition, he surely has much to give for club and also his country. As the captain of Scotland, his will be an example of determination and courage in adversity that many will look up to, especially those stricken with this or similar conditions at an early age as Fletcher was – and many who are suffering at much younger ages.
Fletcher appears to have fought his fight and won – something that will give hope to many thousands of people who might otherwise be tempted to succumb to a belief that their health problems will stop them from achieving their life goals. Darren Fletcher looks set fair to achieve much more in his career, adding to what is already a glittering trophy and medal haul. That he can do this despite such a serious setback is greatly to be admired. The positive example he might set to others is difficult to over-state, and to call him a role-model is no exaggeration. Good luck to him as he regains full fitness and resumes a career that must at one point have been in doubt. That is something which Darren Fletcher – to his eternal credit – has clearly never accepted.