Darren Fletcher’s Manchester United career has been struck with significant ill fortune amid the trophies and personal glory since the Scotsman’s début a decade ago. Indeed, the Dalkeith-born midfielder’s first appearance for the club came almost two years after manager Sir Alex Ferguson had intended to deploy the then very callow youth. That the Premier League blocked 16-year-old Fletcher’s proposed introduction against Aston Villa in 2000 was perhaps a marker for a career to come. Since then Fletcher has suffered a serious leg injury during his youth, and then later ridicule from the terraces, a missed Champions League final and now a serious chronic illness.
On each occasion the midfielder’s determination, arguably far greater than his natural talent, has taken the 27-year-old to the very top of the game. Yet Tuesday, after officially announcing an extended absence from the game, Fletcher’s career is at more risk than ever. Suffering with an inflammatory bowel disease, ulcerative colitis, the Scot is to take an indefinite period on the sidelines; a huge blow both to player and club.
“Over the past year he has had several absence periods which we have attributed to a viral illness in order to respect his right to medical confidentiality,” read a United statement issued on Tuesday.
“Darren has, in fact, been suffering from ulcerative colitis (a chronic inflammatory bowel condition) for some time preceding this. Whilst he was able to maintain remission of symptoms for a considerable period this has proved more difficult recently and Darren’s continued desire to play and his loyalty to both his club and country has probably compromised the chances of optimising his own health and fitness. He has therefore accepted medical advice to take an extended break from the demands of training and playing in order to afford the best chance possible of achieving full remission once again.”
The Scottish captain first became ill last March, missing two months of the run-in with what was then described as a ‘mystery virus’. We now know it was nothing of the sort. But signs that Fletcher’s condition was serious were clear on the player’s return against Schalke 04 in the Champions League last May, with the Scot appearing gaunt having lost more than a stone in weight. Fletcher’s appearance had changed too, with the medication reportedly bloating the 58-cap international’s features. It is now clear the midfielder returned far too soon.
“The biggest thing was the weight loss,” admitted Fletcher in September.
“I lost close to a stone which for someone like me — I don’t have a stone to lose — was massive. That was the biggest thing, building my strength back up and putting my weight back on was a real struggle. I was stuck in bed for two weeks. But I had constant reassurance from the doctor that it was a bit of bad luck, a combination of different things that had a domino effect which set me back.
“I am a positive person so I expected to be back the next week, then it was a week later, and then I thought the next week. I just had to eat as much as I could to try to put it back on but even that is a struggle for me. I just ate as much as I could, protein shakes, meal replacements drinks.”
Fletcher’s absence, perhaps for the remainder of the current season, comes soon after captain Nemanja Vidić was ruled out for the campaign with injury. With Anderson out until the Spring and Tom Cleverley past New Year, Ferguson will now face up to life without a significant chunk of experience through his team’s spine. More to the point, the Scottish manager is facing a crisis over midfield numbers in the coming months. Even for a club of United’s size, the dual absences are a crushing blow.
Indeed, the question of whether United will now enter the transfer market in January – or at least entertain the thought – is a crucial one. After all, reports that the Glazer family has placed the club cheque book into lock-down are widespread and well sourced.
It is almost impossible, with the club’s senior central midfield options reduced to Michael Carrick and Darron Gibson, for Ferguson to now claim, as the Scot so often does these days, that he is happy with his resources. Throwing 37-year-old Ryan Giggs and Korean winger Park Ji-Sung into the mix hardly inspires confidence. Indeed, United’s options are so thin on the ground that Wayne Rooney and Phil Jones have been pushed into central midfield in recent weeks.
But United’s statement also raises plenty of questions. After all, the club has now admitted that not only did the medical team know of Fletcher’s condition well before Tuesday’s statement, it deliberately concealed it over the past nine months. The lack of veracity, even if Fletcher’s condition was obscured for reasons of privacy, will raise eyebrows. The cloak of secrecy only served to generate speculation.
Moreover, there is now an admission that deploying Fletcher has worsened the player’s condition. On the face of it, the club’s acknowledgement reflects poorly on the institution. After all, if United’s medical team knew of the player’s condition then it will also have advised – or been advised of – treatment options, presumably including the lengthy rest now prescribed. The question, coming so soon after Owen Hargreaves alleged mis-management of his own long-term problems, is a pertinent one.
Then there is the curious case of Fletcher’s contract, with the player signing a new four-year deal on much improved terms in May. It is perhaps the first known case of the normally parsimonious Glazer family extending a hand of financial generosity.
Further details will emerge in the fullness of time, but until then Ferguson is another man down, and a player’s career hangs in the balance.
United’s unanswered questions
- Why did Fletcher play on with a condition that, in hindsight, was so serious?
- Did Fletcher, as intimated in United’s statement, insist on playing in May and then August, or was any pressure brought to bear on the Scottish international?
- If the player insisted on playing, why did United’s medical team not intervene? Was he cleared to play?
- Why has United now broken typical club protocol, and Fletcher’s privacy, to announce the player’s true condition and absence?
- Why is an extended break now the prescriptive cure if was it not in May? Or August?
- Why was the player offered an extended contract when his long-term fitness was in doubt?
What is ulcerative colitis?
UC is an inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), which affects the large intestine. The sufferer usually displays constant diarrhea mixed with blood, although the condition is intermittent, with periods of exacerbated symptoms, and periods of remission. From the NHS:
The colon, also known as the large intestine, absorbs nutrients from undigested food and passes out waste products through the rectum and anus in stools (faeces). Ulcerative colitis causes the colon to become inflamed (swollen) and in severe cases, ulcers (painful sores) may form on the lining of the colon. These ulcers can bleed and produce mucus and pus. Symptoms of ulcerative colitis can range from mild to severe, with the condition being very unpredictable.
Symptoms can flare up and then disappear (go into remission) for months or even years. At its most severe, the entire colon can become inflamed (known as pancolitis). This form of ulcerative colitis is particularly challenging to treat. The causes for the condition are unknown, though research suggests that both environmental and genetic factors are involved.
Ulcerative colitis is an uncommon condition. It is estimated that there are ten new cases a year out of every 100,000 people. There are currently 100,000 people in England with ulcerative colitis. The condition normally appears between the ages of 15 and 30. The condition is more common in white people of European descent, especially those descended from Ashkenazi Jewish communities (Jews who lived in Eastern Europe and Russia) and black people. The condition is much rarer in people of Asian background. The reasons for this are unclear.
The outlook for most people with ulcerative colitis is usually quite good. Symptoms are often mild to moderate and can usually be controlled using medication. However, an estimated one in five people with ulcerative colitis have severe symptoms that often respond less well to medication. In these cases, it may be necessary to surgically remove the colon.