Fletcher pushes for United armband
ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- The Manchester United and Real Madrid players stood in position, waiting for kickoff in front of 109,318 spectators at Michigan Stadium, the largest crowd ever to watch a soccer game in the United States -- a game worth $20 million to the Ann Arbor economy.
Two light aircraft and an airship buzzed above the vast single-tier bowl, trailing advertisements for banks and cars. Their noise was drowned out when the bass of the White Stripes' "Seven Nation Army" started pumping through the public address system. The crowd joined in.
Some will have known that it was the song that United fans sing for Robin van Persie, but attention in Michigan wasn't on United's absent star. The Dutch striker is resting after the World Cup and will return to training on Aug. 4. That doesn't give him sufficient time to be fit for the start of the season, but his place on the team is all but assured. New United manager Louis van Gaal knows all about his compatriot, who is a front-runner to become club captain.
Van Persie will face competition for the club's armband from some unlikely sources. Midfielder Darren Fletcher, 30, started what will now be a five-game, three-week tour -- United play archrival Liverpool in Monday's Miami final of the International Champions Cup -- as one of several players whose future at the club was in question. Fletcher overcame illness to return for a peripheral role on United's troubled side last season and has started this term like a man on a mission.
He was the game's best player as United beat Madrid 3-1 and was involved in two of the three goals. Fletcher led from the first minute. Twice named captain on the tour, he hooked a great long ball to Juan Mata after 13 minutes, something a quarterback would have been proud of. Fletcher is a big fan of American sports and buys multiple NBA magazines. He's also an unlikely looking hip-hop aficionado.
"I know, the white Scotsman into hip-hop!" he said when I spoke to him about the subject in 2009. In the same interview, he quoted a review from one of the many magazines he buys.
"I wasn't happy the other week when they reviewed a Jean-Claude Van Damme film and said: 'It's good, but like Darren Fletcher it tries too hard.' I laughed at that," said Fletcher.
In the 14th minute Saturday, Fletcher took a shot on goal. That's not always a given. After returning from an operation and recuperation in December, he came off the substitutes' bench on a filthy winter night at Stoke away. The 5,000 United traveling fans began to sing: "If Fletcher scores, we're on the pitch." Thankfully for the nervous stewards, he didn't, but he took his shirt off and threw it into the away end, exposing a pallid torso that last saw sunlight in 1994.
Against Madrid, Fletcher cajoled and instructed. He played a part in United's opening goal, performing a one-two with Wayne Rooney before feeding the ball to Daniel Welbeck, who gave it to Ashley Young. United's goal took 20 moves and achieved a level of football seldom seen last season.
Young is another playing with a question mark over his future. Like Fletcher, he had an excellent game. Wing-back Young scored after a Gareth Bale penalty equaliser, though the stadium oddly announced both him and Rooney as goal scorers.
While substitutions affected the rhythm of the match in the second half, Fletcher was a constant. When a nervy Wilfried Zaha entered the field as a replacement for the injured Welbeck just before the break, United's captain went straight to him with words. Zaha still has much to prove if he's to have a United future. Twice against Madrid, he found himself in a dangerous position before acting indecisively and losing possession.
The Scottish midfielder is good with younger players and corralled new signing Luke Shaw onto the team bus in Denver, for he knew that Van Gaal was waiting.
"Fletch has been unbelievable," said Shaw after United's victory over Madrid. "He had another great game, playing 90 minutes, and deserves all the praise. I've been at the club for two weeks, and he's been a great lad with me, really nice. He's the experienced one and knows what it's like to be a young lad joining a squad at a big club where you don't know many people."
"Fletch brings calmness and composure," added fellow United midfielder Tom Cleverley. "You saw that in the first half. He always knows where his passes are going and uses his experience well. That's something me and Ander [Herrera] can learn from. He's a good captain, and he's been playing really well."
One-club man Fletcher has been well-schooled.
"It's not about fame at this football club. It's about winning trophies," he said to this writer in 2009. "Young players see that straightaway when they join. They see Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes and Gary Neville. The heroes and inspirations are already at the club every day. "They see that when they've finished their career that they can look back on a successful times with the trophies to show for that."
He added, "Me, Carra [Michael Carrick] and Wazza [Wayne Rooney] have achieved a little bit of success, but Giggsy blows us all out of the water. We're all jealous of him, and we want more of what he's had. We want to match his medal haul."
Giggs watched from pitch side Saturday as Fletcher was involved in United's third, a glorious headed goal by Javier "Chicharito" Hernandez. It came after the Mexican substitute combined with fellow replacement Shinji Kagawa to score. Fletcher also assisted, something the stadium announcer was keen to mention.
The fans watching replays on the huge screens at each end of the stadium roared with approval. Fletch hugged the pair.
The childhood Celtic fan was a nonplaying substitute in the 2008 Champions League final. A year later, he was suspended for the final -- and sorely missed as United were taken apart in midfield by Barcelona.
"When I got sent off at Arsenal [in 2009], I had my little sisters and mum crying on the phone," Fletcher said. "I had to be strong for them. They were not at the game, but I called them straight after. I saw the missed calls on my phone.
"Mum and dad and my three little sisters, they were distraught. They thought I would be distraught, but I had to put a brave face on it and promised that I would drag the lads to another Champions League final. I said, 'What's meant to be will be. If God doesn't want me there, then it's not meant to be.'"
It was meant to be for United but not for Fletcher. By the time of United's 2011 Champions League final appearance, he had developed the debilitating condition ulcerative colitis and was again an unused sub. His situation would get worse. He started only nine games in 2011-12 and seven in 2012-13. Plenty thought he might never play again, but he did, eventually.
Whether he's the solution to United's central midfield issues is another question, but he more than deserves his place back in the sun.
Andy Mitten is a freelance writer and the founder and editor of United We Stand. Follow him on Twitter @AndyMitten.