Darren Fletcher: Success at West Brom would match Manchester United glory
It will be 83 Premier League starts and counting when Darren Fletcher leads out West Bromwich Albion at Old Trafford on Saturday, just over two years since the Scot left Manchester United to prove "there was a lot more football in me."
The 33-year-old has not missed a league game for Tony Pulis's team in his time at The Hawthorns, even playing against Aston Villa last season with a medial ligament injury, and the magnitude of his achievement in staying fit, healthy and free of suspension is summed up by the fact that his last 83 league starts for United came over a period of six and a half seasons.
Fletcher's arduous battle at United against ulcerative colitis, the debilitating condition that plagued him for two-and-a-half years between 2011 and 2013, has been well-documented, with the midfielder fighting back from the depths of despair to re-establish himself as a Premier League player at West Brom.
He returns to Old Trafford on Saturday with many at United still mourning his departure in January 2015, but for Fletcher, although he regards this weekend as a homecoming, he insists the time was right to go.
"The first time I went back, I went out into the tunnel for the line-up and stood on the wrong side!" Fletcher told ESPN FC. "I was conscious of not making that mistake, but I was in the zone and ended up standing on the left side. I had to be told that the away team was on the other side!
"When I am on the pitch at Old Trafford, it just feels comfortable. It feels like home. When you are looking around, it just feels normal. It doesn't feel daunting, that I am playing an away game. It is like a home game, except I am playing against the red shirts, rather than playing for them.
"After West Brom, United are the next team I look out for, and I always want them to do well. I know a result for us on Saturday would be detrimental to their hopes of finishing in the top four, but they are good enough to win every game after ours, and hopefully that happens."
Fletcher's consistency at West Brom has been a personal victory for a player cut short in his prime by his illness.
Having fought to save his career, he now has Matt Holland's all-time Premier League record of 115 consecutive Premier League starts in his sights, but Fletcher insists that his return to fitness dates back to his final year at United, when he was unable to convince Louis van Gaal of his first-team credentials.
"From midway through the 2013-14 season, I never missed a day's training under David Moyes or Louis van Gaal," he said. "I was fit and ready for every game. I broke my toe in the final game of the 2013-14 season and then had a break during the summer, so I didn't miss a day's training during the season.
"So I felt, when I joined West Brom, that it was just the match fitness that I needed. The manager, Tony Pulis, trusted me and kept playing me, but since then, I have just grown stronger and stronger.
"Do I have regrets about leaving United? Well, I wish I had listened to Louis van Gaal during the first three games and played the way he wanted me to play, rather than playing silly passes at 0-0 in an attempt to win the game.
"But seriously, I do look back with a little bit of regret because I actually thought I played really well for six months under Moyes and Ryan Giggs.
"I really surprised myself, so maybe I was due a drop-off at some point, and that perhaps came at the start of the following season.
"But to be honest, I don't think I was ever in van Gaal's plans in the first place. I probably surprised him in preseason, and that enabled me to stay when a lot of other players left, but ultimately, I couldn't stay and not play. I would have been a bit-part player. That's what I was for six months, and it was really getting to me. It wasn't a case of me being patient. I just couldn't see a way of out it. I needed a new challenge.
"I was seen as a voice around the place, a good guy and all that, but I just felt that I had a lot more football in me, and I wanted to get out and give myself a chance to play. It was nothing personal. I just felt the time was right to start a new challenge."
Fletcher was one of many departures from United during van Gaal's first year in charge, with the likes of Danny Welbeck, Michael Keane and Javier Hernandez also offloaded.
"Lots of players who left under van Gaal should still be there, in my view," Fletcher said. "That's not me having a go at anyone, but the day Danny Welbeck was sold to Arsenal was a sad day.
"He is what a Manchester United player should be about -- a local lad, young, great player, team player, somebody who sacrificed himself for the greater good of the team, loved by his teammates. He was on the brink of becoming a top, top player and he would have been a top player for United."
Fletcher's trophy haul at United, with winners' medals in every major competition, ensures his place in the club's hall of fame. But he admits he is now determined to leave his mark at West Brom and add another successful chapter to his personal story.
"I played so many games for United and was there for such a long time. United is the biggest club in the world, so you will always be remembered for your time there," he said.
"But I'd like to think I'm carving out a second career at West Brom, and hopefully I'll be able to look back in a few years and say, yes, I played for Manchester United, but look also at what I achieved at West Brom. If that means finishing on a record number of points, getting to a cup final or qualifying for Europe, they will be as satisfying as winning something for United.
"When I came to the club, the initial priority was to stay in the division, and we achieved it. The step now is to establish ourselves as a top-10 club and break the 50-point barrier for the first time in the Premier League. But I like to think that the likes of myself and Jonny Evans have helped the manager drive us higher and onto better things by bringing that United winning mentality with us -- the drive to push yourself to be better and not accepting mediocrity.
"The lads have bought into it, without a shadow of a doubt. That is the environment that has been created, and if you're indifferent to that, you'll get left behind and alienated. If you want to moan and go through the motions, you will get left behind at our club now, and that's how it should be. People want to better themselves, and I am constantly praising people who want to do well and are doing extra in order to do that.
"Craig Dawson is a prime example. He is the most dedicated lad I have ever seen. He is trying to better himself, 24/7. He listens. He learns. And from that, his performances have gone through the roof."
Fletcher's determination to see Dawson, a former England under-21 international, become the best he can be, chimes with the role played by Roy Keane in his own development at Old Trafford.
The Irishman, who infamously criticised some of his teammates during the MUTV interview, which triggered his United departure in November 2005, was the driving force within the dressing room during Fletcher's early years, and he insists that Keane was good for him, rather than a destructive presence.
"Missing a Champions League final, the illness and Roy Keane," Fletcher said. "They are the three things that people always mention. Goals and performances against City and Arsenal very rarely get mentioned, but the main three, all the time.
"Me and Roy were fine. Ninety-eight percent of the time, he was the guy who helped me the most and believed in me, spoke to me and praised me, but people only remember the 2 percent, when he let me know some home truths. That's the one people remember because it's a better story to tell.
"But the likes of Roy and Giggsy, they made you winners and made you realise it was about winning at all costs and that drawing a game was a disaster, not winning titles is a disaster. The standards they set, they were driving forces every day and pushed you to reach incredibly high standards and become better team players. It was a constant learning curve for me, how to be a man and how to be a winner.
"Giggsy was the standard-bearer. He ended up with 13 title winners' medals, and I have won five, which is great, but I would always look at Giggsy and think five is feeble in comparison. That sounds really bad, but Giggsy and Paul Scholes were the yardstick, and their medals tally were what you would strive to match. Five is an amazing number, and when you look back, it should have been more.
"I do take great pride in what I won, but you always think of what might have been, of getting sent off in a Champions League semifinal, suffering the illness, injuries, etc. But all those downs and lows are character-building, and they are what builds you up. It was a roller-coaster ride, but I enjoyed the good times so much that I try to forget the down times."
Saturday offers Fletcher the opportunity to experience another good time, but at the expense of his former club and old teammates. It is one he is desperate to take.
"I have played against United four times and won two and lost two," he said. "We've had a bit of success, and hopefully we can have some more. We are on 43 points with nine games to play, so we want to hit 50 points as quickly as we can and then set our sights higher again."
Mark Ogden is a senior football writer for ESPN FC. Follow him @MarkOgden_