It was the summer of 2001. Any father of teenage daughters will tell you the phone rings incessantly for their offspring and this was a time when mobile phones were not quite yet the mass production must have item they are now. Answering the phone for what seemed like the three hundredth time that day, my patience was at breaking point.
‘Yes?!’ I snapped, my telephone protocol long since discarded.
‘Oh, hello Mr Smith. I’m sorry to trouble you but I was wondering if Laura was around?’
Daughter Laura was fifteen years old then and being a teenager in Dalkeith her circle of friends were normally of the grunting, sniggering variety. Therefore, this well-spoken, polite young lad had me immediately on my guard.
‘Eh, no’ I replied somewhat hesitantly, ‘she’s not here’
‘Oh, that’s okay’ the young man responded, ‘would you mind telling her that Darren called?’
‘Darren?’ I sniped. ‘Any message?’
‘No, it‘s okay Mr Smith. I’m sorry to have bothered you. Thanks for your time’.
Said daughter duly arrived some time later and my inquisitiveness got the better of me. ‘Some laddo called for you earlier. Says his name is Darren but he doesn’t sound like he’s from round here’ I said, hoping to extract further information on this mysterious and, for all I knew, potential chaperon to my elder daughter.
‘Darren?’ my daughter asked with eyes alight. ‘That’ll be Darren Fletcher. I knew he was back in Dalkeith - I’ll call him later’
At that, I threw an inquisitive look towards my daughter. ‘Darren Fletcher? The laddie whose folks live down the road? The laddie who has signed for Manchester United?’ I asked.
‘Aye, that’s him’ came the almost nonchalant reply.
Daughter Laura went to the same St. David’s High School as Darren Fletcher and even though there were a couple of years between them, they were friends. But then Darren Fletcher had lots of friends. He was polite, courteous, approachable and as was evident at even that early age, had immense skill as a footballer. It was little wonder that Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson made the journey north to Mayfield, Dalkeith in July 2000 to make a personal visit to Darren Fletcher’s family in order to persuade their gifted son to join the Red Devils. Not that he would need much persuasion to join arguably the biggest club in the world. Fletcher’s family knew their boy was going to make it as a professional footballer but they harboured concerns that he might not get his chance to do so at Old Trafford. After all, a year earlier United had been crowned champions of Europe and with likes of David Beckham, Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes were destined to add to the multitude of honours. What chance would young Darren Fletcher have of breaking through into this team? Ferguson merely placed his hand on their shoulders and said ‘trust me’. Fletcher joined United as a trainee in the summer of 2000 and signed professional terms six months later. Nearly a decade on that trust that Sir Alex Ferguson asked for has never been questioned.
Now 25 years old, Fletcher is approaching the years when a footballer hits the peak form of his career. Last month Manchester United lost 1-0 to Chelsea at Stamford Bridge. To most observers, United were unlucky to lose the game and only a controversial refereeing decision cost them three points. The Reds had chances before John Terry’s late winner to take the lead and this added to Ferguson’s bitter frustration that his team left the west end of London empty-handed. Particularly when you consider the guilt-edged chances for Wayne Rooney and Ryan Giggs were set up by the subtle skills of Darren Fletcher. The joust between the Scot and the home team’s Frank Lampard was one of the highlights of the afternoon and, as always, Fletcher did not let anyone down. The Dalkeith boy - and despite fatherhood and the responsibilities of having twin boys brings he still looks a young laddie himself - has matured from a gangly, enthusiastic squad player to one of the first names Sir Alex Ferguson puts on the United team sheet. Fletcher’s absence from the United team that lost to Barcelona in the Champions League Final earlier this year was, in my view, one of the reasons the Old Trafford side relinquished their hard-earned title from twelve months earlier. Fletcher was sent off in the semi-final victory over Arsenal by a referee who got the decision badly wrong. Fletcher made a magnificent tackle on Cesc Fabregas but referee inexplicably decreed it was an illegal challenge and sent off the young Scot thus depriving him of a place in the Champions League final. As he trudged dejectedly from the Emirates pitch, Fletcher displayed the dignity and professionalism with which he has become associated; in fact, the same good grace and excellent manners he displayed while trying to locate my daughter all those years ago.
Fletcher’s obvious ability to support the front players with runs into the box and also provide exquisite passes to his highly-priced team mates mark him out as a special talent, one of the most gifted players to emerge in Scotland in recent years. It’s not just his ability to pass the ball that makes him special; his extraordinary vision of where the passage of play will take place next is something we more mature fans used to associate with the likes of Alex Young of Everton, Hearts and Scotland - a man they called the Golden Vision.
Mention of Scotland, of course, brings the quite ridiculous criticism that Fletcher isn’t the same player in the dark blue as he is in the red of United. The award for Stating the Bleedin’ Obvious should go to those critics; the national team are hardly world beaters and what is often seen as a poor pass from Fletcher is, in reality, a great pass - it’s just not seen by his colleagues. I recall Fletcher scoring his first international goal against Lithuania at Hampden in October 2003. I said to my mate at the game I thought Fletcher was actually too good for the Scotland team - his team mates in dark blue just didn’t seem to share his vision and passage of play. Fletcher’s winning strike that afternoon took Scotland to the play-offs for the finals of Euro 2004. Little wonder, then, that Scotland manager George Burley has appointed Fletcher captain in the absence of Barry Ferguson.
It is the fervent hope of every Scot that Darren Fletcher doesn’t end on the same trail as his United team mate, the equally gifted Ryan Giggs. The Welshman, despite being one of the best players ever to play for Manchester United, has never played for his country at the World Cup or European Championship finals. At 25, Fletcher still has plenty of time on his side to achieve this.
At a time when the standard of Scottish football has slipped alarmingly, we should be thankful that evidence that this country can still produce gifted footballers remains. Darren Fletcher is one those rare breed; a immensely talented football player who never causes any trouble for his managers either for club or country. His sublime goal against Everton today brought the house down at Old Trafford. His name is the first to be considered for both Manchester United and Scotland. For that, we should be hugely appreciative.