HAVING been a regular starter in Sir Alex Ferguson’s all-conquering Manchester United side for over a decade, Darren Fletcher had plenty to celebrate and savour during his trophy-laden career.

Yet, one of the most successful Scottish players of his generation, of all-time in fact, was no stranger to dark periods too.

The mental wellbeing of professional footballers is, as in all walks of life, a major concern just now amid the coronavirus crisis. Group training sessions have been cancelled, matches are not being played and there is no end in sight to the shutdown. For many, the future is uncertain.

HeraldScotland:

Fletcher, despite all of the success that he enjoyed with both club and country and the adulation he was showered with as a result, can understand only too well the toll that will be taking psychologically on them.

The former midfielder spent lengthy spells on the sidelines battling ulcerative colitis, an inflammatory bowel disease, at his peak and at one stage feared he might never play at the highest level again because of the debilitating condition.

The 80-times capped internationalist talks candidly about that difficult period with his former Scotland team mates Kris Boyd and Robert Snodgrass in the latest episode of The Lockdown Tactics – a new podcast which focuses on mental health issues in conjunction with the Kris Boyd Charity – this afternoon.

HeraldScotland:

"When you are a footballer you think you're invincible,” he said. “I was in the prime of my career, in the team at one of the biggest clubs in the world, then all of a sudden I was struck down by illness.

"Mentally it was tough. The biggest thing for me was the illness was defeating my body. At first I tried to stay positive and reassure myself that the next medication will work. Slowly but surely, the medication wasn't working and that's when it started to hit home.

"I had to give myself a little pep talk every morning because I thought to myself that if I go mentally here, I'm probably not going to recover. I'd tell myself to put a brave face on, stay positive, and that I was going to beat it. I had to do that every morning."

HeraldScotland:

Fletcher was an icon to thousands of schoolchildren at the time thanks to his feats on the football field with United and Scotland - but he had his own inspiration.

"I had good family around me and good support,” he said. “I'd sometimes talk to my wife, but you are also focusing on trying to stay strong for her and the kids.

"My mum is great but my dad was the one person that every day I'd speak to every day, show my emotion. He'd pick me up when I was down.

"I trained with Hearts, Hibs, Celtic and Rangers when I was a kid. Dad would take me everywhere. We'd be in the car for hours and hours every week and we'd be open and honest. As a kid, he guided me, helped me make decisions.

"Then, he was the one I could open up to about my embarrassing illness and the challenges I was facing mentally. He is the one I rant to and get everything off my chest. My dad is my hero."

HeraldScotland:

Many others helped Fletcher, who took an extended break from football in 2011 and 2012 and then underwent surgery in 2013, to get through the ordeal and get back playing and he appreciates the support each one of them gave him.

"The first surgeon to tell me if the operation was a success he thought I'd be able to play again was Professor Sagar,” he said. “That's all I needed to hear. Other doctors had told me I'd never play again, that it would be impossible.

"I kind of knew I wasn't going to be the same player when I came back and that was the case. But I was willing to play at any level.

"A coach called Michael Clegg, who used to work at Manchester United, I went to see him. Once I was back, knew I was close to playing again, I decided to see him. He was away from United by then.

HeraldScotland:

"He is great at training for reaction and speed. It's more like brain training and psychological training. I knew he'd get me in a mental position to be ready.

"He knew the football stuff would come back, but it would be amazing how much I'd lose with my reaction time. I'd like to thank him. If I didn't spend that time with him I probably would have struggled.

"But I wanted to get back as close as possible to where I was before the illness and thankfully I didn't do too badly in that respect.

"I still have my challenges, but I'm in a great place and I'm grateful. There are thousands of people suffering from ulcerative colitis, from young kids to adults. It's a very difficult illness to deal with."

Fletcher was raised in a less-enlightened era when the mental wellbeing of players wasn’t a great concern for football coaches or clubs and has been pleased to see the significant strides forward which have been made in recent years. He urged anyone who is struggling during the Covid-19 outbreak to seek help.

HeraldScotland:

"People are now more aware of mental health and football clubs prepare young footballers for it,” he said. "Our generation we grew up in being prepared for a career physically and ability wise, but it wasn't there mentally. It was tough love and you were told to get on with it. Those were the messages we got.

"At Man United we had a great guy called Dave Bushell, the head of education. He was fantastic at spotting when you were down.

"I had a lot of injury problems at United between 16 and 18 and he'd recognise my mood. He'd sometimes pay for my flights to go home for a period. He'd also have a good chat with me, take me to a game.

"In football, you bottle everything up. It's dangerous because to perform at your best you need to be mentally ready. Always speak up, because people do want to help."

The Lockdown Tactics is a brand new podcast, hosted by former Scotland stars Robert Snodgrass and Kris Boyd.

Every week TLT will talk to big names with its core focus being on mental health and wellbeing. It's chosen charity partner is The Kris Boyd Charity.

To watch the full interview with Darren Fletcher go to YouTube and the various Lockdown Tactics social media platforms. It will be available from noon today.