Darren Fletcher glad to be back as Scotland captain
It is why leading Scotland out against Malta tonight, for the 28th time, will seem as special as the first occasion he did so, against Estonia in 2004. Only George Young, Billy Bremner and Gary McAllister have captained Scotland in more games. Fletcher will draw equal with Barry Ferguson at the Ta’ Qali national stadium this evening.
But it barely needs stating that it could and should be more. Fletcher, indeed, could well be out on his own by now had his career not been interrupted by the chronic bowel condition, ulcerative colitis.
One way of taking a positive from a completely bleak period in which he feared illness might cost him his career, and more, is to ponder whether the enforced lay-off means Fletcher could now play for longer than might otherwise have been the case.
Had he pounded away for club and country these last few years, he could, like Scott Brown, have taken his creaking knees to mean it’s time to call it a day. But he feels as fit as ever, he reports.
Can Scotland therefore treat having Fletcher for this upcoming campaign as a bonus? Two years ago, as reporters discussed Scotland’s opening Euro 2016 qualifier against Germany with Fletcher, it was put to him that this could be his last chance to reach a major finals with Scotland.
In the event, Fletcher started just two of Scotland’s ten matches, the effort of returning after such a long lay-off eventually catching up with him. One consequence was the loss of the captaincy to Brown, who announced his international retirement last month.
It is Brown who is now destined never to play for Scotland in a major finals. But this is probably, surely, the last chance for Fletcher, Scotland’s finest player of this millennium, to sample a stage he so richly deserves.
“I’m not putting a time-frame on it, I didn’t really think about quitting,” he said yesterday. “You just think about what input you are having and how much time you are getting on the pitch.”
Proud as he is, personal landmarks such as the one he achieves tonight cannot compare with the scratching of Scottish football’s most frustrating itch – qualifying for a finals, in this case the World Cup in Russia.
“As you get older you reach all these [individual] landmarks and it’s nice,” he said. “It doesn’t reflect on how good you are as a player – it doesn’t mean I’m better than guys I’ve overtaken. You are a long-time retired and you want to have nice memories.”
The last comment wasn’t intended as a reference to Brown, but it was impossible to avoid thinking of the Celtic skipper, becalmed back home this weekend while his former international team-mates re-engage with another campaign.
It is a time of flux for Scotland as manager Gordon Strachan seeks to inject new blood into a team trying desperately to shed the skin of serial qualifying failures. Fletcher was the future once, to paraphrase a recent prime minister. Now he is charged with helping guide those such as Oliver Burke through their nascent international careers.
Many will be looking to Burke in the way they looked to Fletcher when he first burst on to the scene. Having Manchester United next to his name tends to help ratchet up pressure on a player. Similarly, the initial £13 million sum that took Burke from Nottingham Forest to Red Bull Leipzig is more than enough to identify Burke as Scotland’s next great hope.
“I put more pressure on myself than anybody when I was at Manchester United and I still have it now,” commented Fletcher, who is as excited as anyone by Burke’s potential. “I felt like I had to take big responsibility myself, that I am the person who has to go and do something special. Sometimes that’s to your detriment and sometimes that’s [interpreted as] bravery. Tommy Burns told me never to lose it because he saw it as bravery.”
It might say West Bromwich Albion next to his name now, but Fletcher is determined to be no less influential having re-claimed the armband. The circumstances in which this has happened are regrettable, like those which forced him to temporarily give it up. Fletcher would prefer Brown’s retirement wasn’t the reason for his reinstatement.
Sidelined for such a long spell by serious illness, Fletcher made a fleeting return at the start of the last qualifying campaign. However, his lack of first-team action for Manchester United resulted in his slip from the Scotland starting XI, Brown taking over captaincy duties.
But Strachan had few doubts about his preferred candidate for captain when Brown surprisingly quit international football earlier this summer.
There was little fanfare, little fuss; just a nod from the manager to reporters that he was going to ask Fletcher to resume these duties. The midfielder was just as happy to step back into the role. Not that he’d ever vacated it in his own mind.
“I initially went out because of illness, a new manager [Strachan] came in and Broony did a great job as captain,” Fletcher explained. “Now Scott’s not here unfortunately and it’s back to me being captain.
“I’ve not changed and I’m exactly the same as I’ve always been. I will do things the same as I did in the last campaign. I’ll still speak and try to be a leader just as I was in the last campaign.
“For me personally it’s just the fact that I’m named as captain, but I’ll do the same as I’ve always done. I was always there to speak in the dressing room. For me it didn’t matter who was captain as we had a lot of good leaders in the squad.
“I’ve been available and hardly missed a day’s training since I came back from illness,” he added. “It’s just taken a while to build my strength and fitness back up. I feel like it’s there now and I am looking to add to it and kick on.”
When he first came back for Manchester United, under David Moyes, he reckoned he was playing as well as ever. “But that was sheer adrenaline,” he realised. “My lull was always going to come and that was around the time it came. The first period of that season, the first few months, was a definite lull and you find yourself out the team so then you find it hard to get that form back and then you go to West Brom and it takes time.
“I am not saying I am ever going to be 25 or 26 again,” he added. “I am 32, but I’d back my fitness levels against most people. I am very comfortable with where I am at now.”
It’s where he will be in the summer of 2018 that most interests Scotland fans.