His gangling frame still retains an awkward coltishness at the age of 27 and the Scot’s presence for the last furlong of a Champions League semi-final against Schalke was in the manner of a trial run.
It was Fletcher’s first appearance for 10 weeks after a stomach virus had stopped the galloping Scotland captain in his tracks. The midfielder was reported to have lost 10 pounds from an already spare frame.
The appearance as a substitute as United strolled to a 6-1 aggregate victory over the Germans has given Fletcher the chance to play a significant part as United target a most prestigious double. He is unlikely to start in what could be a title decider against Chelsea at Old Trafford on Sunday afternoon but he is already in the thoughts of Sir Alex Ferguson for the Champions League final against Barcelona at Wembley on May 28.
“Some players are big-game players and he is one,” said Ferguson immediately after reaching his fourth Champions League final as manager of Manchester United. “The perfect example is Mark Hughes, he was one of the best big-game players in United’s history. He never failed in a big game and Darren is the same type of player.”
Ferguson has always believed in his fellow Scot. Fletcher has taken time to mature into a top-class midfielder but his manager never had any doubts about his ability.
His signing is one of the great Fergie tales. Alerted by United’s scout in Scotland that Fletcher was considering offers from Newcastle United and Liverpool despite training with the Old Trafford club since he was 12, Ferguson asked the player, then 16, and his father to come down to the manager’s home.
Over a game of snooker, Ferguson asked Fletcher Sr: “Do you want to turn to Darren in 10 years and have a chat about how you both turned down a chance to join Manchester United? Is that a conversation you want to have?”
Fletcher signed, of course, and Ferguson almost immediately wanted to put him on the bench against Villa in 2000 but FIFA rules prevented a player of schoolboy status performing such a role. The Scot had to wait until 2003 to make his full debut after a series of injuries, including a broken foot, hampered his progress.
He has become an increasingly important player for United. Ferguson, pondering a way to combat Barcelona, knows that Fletcher was badly missed when the teams contested the 2009 final. Pep Guardiola’s side dominated the midfield during that 2-0 victory and Ferguson must have looked back on the semi-final victories over Arsenal and wondered what might have been had Fletcher been available for the final in Rome.
The Scot, however, had been sent off by Robert Rosetti, the Italian referee, in the second leg at the Emirates and so missed the final through suspension. Fletcher had nullified the threat of Cesc Fabregas over both legs and he would have been employed to negate Andres Iniesta and Xavi in the 2009 final.
It would have been a Herculean task but one that Fletcher would have welcomed. Speaking when his player entered the Scottish Hall of Fame by winning his 50th cap against Liechtenstein in September last year, Ferguson told me: “He is obviously technically a great player and has marvellous energy and commitment but it is his team play that makes him such a significant asset for United.
“Some young players have to be told again and again to do certain things. With Darren, it is like that old saying from your mother about putting you hand in the fire and then never doing it again, excepts he never needs to learn through failure. He takes instructions and puts them into practice. He has a wonderful discipline in a match about where to be and what he should be doing.”
The Scot’s fitness has always been one of his strongest points. He was a Midlothian schools cross-country champion and even at 15 he was finishing in the top two or three in sprints or in longer races when training with the first team.
But he has also learned the imperatives of modern midfield play. Fletcher’s ability to press quickly and aggressively will be needed at Wembley but he also has the ability to shut off avenues of passing by his clever positioning.
Ferguson has a healthy respect for Barcelona but he approaches the Champions League final with an air of relish. “Their form has been good and we are playing a fantastic team,” he said. “But they haven’t got the terror against us. We cannot be frightened out of our skins. We have to find a solution to playing against them.”
It is impossible to envisage a Ferguson team playing with fear, it is to be expected that the manager will come up with a viable strategy and it is surely reasonable to suppose that Fletcher will have a part to play as United attempt to be the underdogs with a telling bite on an intriguing night at Wembley.