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Gone but not forgotten: Fletcher recalls more than just a manager

NOW that there is little left to do with Craig Levein's Scotland reign other than sift through the ashes of it, it will remain a permanent puzzle that he got such poor performances and results from a set of players who almost universally held him in high regard.

Darren Fletcher struck up a close relationship with Craig Levein
Darren Fletcher struck up a close relationship with Craig Levein

There's a joke in there somewhere – just how bad would it have been if they hadn't liked him? – but the point is valid. From captain Darren Fletcher down, the players had affection and respect for Levein and enjoyed being a part of his squads. That much was evident throughout his time in charge. If it wasn't for pesky results he could have remained in the post for years.

It was no surprise to hear Fletcher speak mournfully of Levein's removal as he headed to Luxembourg for tonight's friendly under caretaker manager Billy Stark. Fletcher and Levein were close, their connection deepening as the manager sympathised and offered endless support during the Manchester United player's serious bowel condition. Fletcher didn't have any answers about how it had all gone wrong for Levein, but the genuine sadness he felt about that was obvious.

"Personally I'd have liked to see the manager staying on," he said. "The good work he was doing wasn't coming to fruition on the park, we weren't quite getting the results. I was sorry to see him go because I'd a lot of respect for him personally and professionally. I spoke to him briefly just after his departure. He rang me, wanting me to thank all the boys for the time, support and effort they'd put in on international duty. He didn't think he was going to have enough time to speak to all the lads although in due course he maybe will. He asked me to relay that message, that he appreciated all the hard work and effort we'd put in.

"It's disappointing because he'd wanted to achieve good things for Scotland. He felt as if he could achieve good things when he took over the job. A lot of the good work he did off the park didn't transmit to the results but I have so much respect for him. I wish him all the best in his career because he's a very good manager. I can't put my finger on it, we'd all love to know why. You obviously need a bit of luck in football.

"I don't want to go on about that but we didn't have much luck under Craig when big decisions went against us. Some of the performances weren't quite there."

Fletcher did not play for United between November and September because of ulcerative colitis. It was a period in which his career was put on hold, with some fearing he would not be able to resume at the highest level. As far as Fletcher is concerned, Levein showed his class in those months. "The support I got from him was unbelievable. He was in constant contact and that's something I'll always remember. Outside of wanting me to play for Scotland there were times when he would say, 'I'm phoning you as a human, as a person, and it's nothing to do with whether you're available for Scotland', which was touching," he said.

"He'd been through a lot of injuries in his career and, although illness is slightly different, he'd been at low points as well. He passed on good advice about how to deal with it and stay strong. It's something that I will always remember."

So what now? Fletcher has played under five permanent managers in a nine-year Scotland career: Berti Vogts, Walter Smith, Alex McLeish, George Burley and Levein. "I've been through a lot," he said. "Continuity is important. You need longevity, you need someone who's going to come in and try to take the team forward and be given time to."

He is far too shrewd to name who he would like as manager – it would then be uncomfortable for him if the job went to someone else – but he has been heartened by the names linked with it so far. "I have been encouraged by the calibre of the candidates. There seem to be quite a few Scottish managers who aren't in jobs at the moment, which is surprising really. The SFA have a tough decision on their hands as to who they choose.

"It's always a key moment when you've suffered disappointments and the next manager has to be 'the one'. But it comes down to players as well. Hopefully the SFA can put somebody in charge that can lead us – not that Craig didn't – but who can take us to a tournament. It's what all the players want, it's what the fans want, it's what the press want, it's what everyone in the country wants. So if they can make the right appointment it'll be fantastic.

"I think we need a Scottish coach. With no disrespect to Berti, who gave me my debut, I think sometimes things got lost in translation. There will be 100% commitment from me whether it's a Scottish or foreign manager. The boys will be 100% behind him."

That's how supportive they were to Levein, too, yet ultimately they all failed together. The next manager would do better with points than popularity.

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