Manchester United’s reassuring 3-0 demolition of Aston Villa last weekend was notable for more than just the club’s long overdue return to form. It was a game which also marked the return of fan favourite Darren Fletcher, who finally made his long-awaited comeback after 12 months out with a bowel condition. Many had questioned whether he would ever pull on red shirt again.
Fletcher’s return is a major boost for United. Not only will he bolster the side’s struggling midfield and possibly prove a vital player for the latter stages of the Champions League, but will also boost the spirits of a flagging team. As manager David Moyes said after the fixture at Villa Park: “Today was a big message to a lot of people – keep believing. If you are not well then keep believing that you can get yourself right.”
Fletcher has quietly dedicated his career to Manchester United with little fanfare or self-promotion, making over 300 appearances, captaining both his club and country and being chosen in the 2009 PFA team of the year. At his best, Fletcher is a buccaneering, driving force in central midfield, a pest of an opponent, who also possesses the happy knack of capping his best performances with significant goals.
To celebrate Fletch’s return, here are five of his best games in a United shirt.
United 3-0 Everton (November 2009, Premier League)
Fletcher scored perhaps his finest goal for United in a 3-0 home win against Everton in 2009, executing a perfect waist-high half-volley finish from the edge of the box following an Antonio Valencia knockdown. Not normally associated with great finishing, Fletcher displayed impeccable technique, getting over the ball and directing it into the top corner in a fashion reminiscent of Paul Scholes at his finest. The goal enabled United to run out easy winners against David Moyes’ former side.
United 4-3 Manchester City (September 2009, Premier League)
This game will go down in history as Michael Owen’s defining moment in a United shirt, but the real star performer was Fletcher, who scored a smart brace of headers and asserted complete dominance over a strong City midfield. Michael Owen’s winner, deep into the six minutes of second half injury time, clinched a 4-3 victory for the Old Trafford side.
United 1-0 Chelsea (November 2005, Premier League)
Fletcher was one of the players to come under attack from Roy Keane in that infamous MUTV interview in the wake of a 4-1 defeat to Middlesbrough in October 2005. Keane’s words resulted in his hasty dismissal from the club, but Fletcher went from strength to strength, turning in a performance in the club’s next league game which the former United captain would have been proud of. He capped it off with a fine back post header, a goal which proved enough to clinch a valuable victory and end Chelsea’s 40-game unbeaten run in the process.
United 4-0 Arsenal (February 2008, FA Cup 5th round)
Another man of the match performance against the highest standard of opposition. United’s attack was led by a Wayne Rooney masterclass, but the striker was only able to operate in such clinical fashion with the knowledge that he had Fletcher at his most feisty and combative behind him. Up against Cesc Fabregas and Gilberto Silva in the centre of midfield, the Scotsman was in imperious form and successfully negated Arsenal’s influence as an attacking force. His performance got the goal it deserved in the 74th minute, when he nodded in a perfect Nani cross at the far post to make it 4-0.
United 4-0 AC Milan (March 2010, UEFA Champions League)
The combined attacking threat of Ronaldinho, Andrea Pirlo and returning former Old Trafford hero David Beckham was nullified almost singlehandedly by a fired-up Fletcher in this match, one of United’s most emphatic European wins in recent years. In typical Fletcher style, he capped off his fine display with an excellent diving reader from a Rafael cross.