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Fletcher replacing illness with a healthy ambition

After three years of frustration and enduring moments of helplessness, Darren Fletcher is back feeling like his old self.

All Smiles: Darren Fletcher led Manchester United to a win over Real Madrid in front of a crowd of 109,318 fans. Picture: EPA
All Smiles: Darren Fletcher led Manchester United to a win over Real Madrid in front of a crowd of 109,318 fans. Picture: EPA

This is the product of days spent alone working privately on his fitness or considering carefully his health as he came to terms with the chronic bowel disease ulcerative colitis and so he is entitled to make a spectacle of the return to his best. On Saturday the Scot captained Manchester United to an impressive victory over Real Madrid in front of 109,318 supporters.

The scoreline was 3-1 in the friendly match held at Michigan Stadium, but the result was much more significant for Fletcher. By the end of the game - the midfielder played the full 90 minutes - he had completed his 270th minute of pre-season action; more than any other player in the 26-man touring United squad. It also comprises a significant increase in the amount of time Fletcher has spent training in pre-season since his diagnosis in 2011.

His condition replaced the normal routine of a footballer with "running to the toilet 10, 20, 30 times a day" and caused Fletcher to spend almost two of the last three years of his career on the sidelines. Only his mind was permitted to play games, Fletcher's private narrative occupied with questions of whether or not he would be able to return at all, and in what condition his body would be able to reach. He was given a positive answer in Ann Arbor on Saturday.

"I don't want to look back, but everyone knows I've been through a lot," said Fletcher, whose return to full fitness is a fillip for Scotland too. "I have not had a pre-season for three years. But now I am back in the gym and I am feeling the benefits from that. I am getting stronger and hopefully I can get as fit as possible. I am looking forward to the new season."

That was not only a reference to his physical condition. United are also beginning to look fighting fit again following a debilitating campaign under David Moyes which left the Old Trafford side out of Europe and in some discomfort. The squad has been salved by the arrival of Louis van Gaal as manager this summer.

"Liverpool, Manchester City and Chelsea all finished above us last year so it was disappointing for us," said Fletcher. "Next season we all want to show what we are capable of. We have got a fantastic team spirit. We were talking about it the other night among ourselves.

"We are all pulling in the right direction and we all want the best for Manchester United. We realise some experienced players have gone and it's up to us to come together and get us back up there."

It may just be pre-season, but the fact that three of United's four wins on their tour have come against some of Europe's top clubs has given the squad optimism about the season ahead. Van Gaal will take credit for installing that confidence among the playing staff, a feeling which will likely endure even the absence of Robin van Persie from the opening league fixture against Swansea City. The Dutchman was given an extended break following the World Cup and has not yet reached the fitness levels required to play, according to Van Gaal.

The Dutch coach does not lack self-belief either and he approached United fans in Ann Arbor to pose for photographs and sign autographs. He was in his element, having won over his new squad already.

"We are just enjoying it," said Fletcher simply, when asked about the difference between this season and the last. "The manager expects a lot from us and he thinks we have got the ability to do it. He demands a lot, but the players have responded. We are enjoying playing in a new system and under him."

A sense of enjoyment would translate into more tangible celebrations should United round off their pre-season tour with a win in the final of the International Champions Cup today. The match offers a prize is $1m (£600,000) but also the opportunity to draw first blood, since United will meet traditional rivals Liverpool in Miami. "It's Man Utd v Liverpool. It doesn't matter if it's pre-season. We want to win," Fletcher added, who insisted that a minor calf injury would not prevent him from being available to start in the match.

The Scotland captain has had to overcome much worse to get this point, after all.

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