midfielder Darren Fletcher in action against Aston Villa, December 15. Reuters
There were two things that was heartening to see from Manchester United's point of view in their English Premier League game against Aston Villa on Sunday.
First was, of course, that comfortable 3-0 win they managed at Villa Park, ending their two-game losing streak with Danny Welbeck coming to the fore. The second was the sight of Darren Fletcher taking the field in a United first-team shirt for the first time since Boxing Day last year.
Fletcher has struggled to return to competitive action due to ulcerative colitis, which has threatened to derail his entire career. However, the midfielder, a key cog in title-winning United teams of old, made an appearance as a substitute in the second half, coming on for the evergreen Ryan Giggs after United had basically wrapped up the game through strikes from Welbeck and Cleverley.
"This is it, I'm back for good," Fletcher told MUTV. "This is hopefully the game which means I'm back now. I seem to have come through the setbacks and health issues and I'm thankful for that. It's onwards and upwards now.
"I always believed I would come back, I kept that mind-set. I think other people around me were trying to make me think otherwise, but I stayed strong and believed I would get back. I think that was the best way to approach the situation and I knew I was going to go through a lot, but the belief and determination was to get back.
"Playing a game like that, and getting an ovation like that [from the United fans] makes it all worthwhile.
"Ever since I was a kid, I've wanted to play football. I've been fortunate enough to have the opportunity to play for Manchester United and wasn't going to give that up lightly. I battled through it, and I'm only 29 years old, I think I've got plenty more years of playing left in me. That was reiterated to me by my family, friends and the old manager. I could have a career all over again if I get my health right, and hopefully that's what I'm going to do."
When it became clear that Fletcher would come on for United in nearly a year, applause broke out from both sets of fans, emphasising just how popular the Scot is in the Premier League.
"It was nice for me to come back," he added. "Even at halftime I went to do a few strides and it was great, it means a lot when the fans support me like that, and it spurs me on to do well for them. To have the support of the fans after what I've been through is great," he said.
"There have been so many people I could mention [who have supported me], but first and foremost are the people closest to home. Without them, I probably wouldn't have been able to come back."
The three points against Villa meant United cut the gap to leaders Arsenal to ten points, and Fletcher knows there is still a lot of work to do if the reigning Premier League champions are to make a serious job of defending their title come the business end of the season.
"We have to go on a run, there's no doubt about it," Fletcher said. "Not just an unbeaten run, but we need to be winning games, and put ourselves in a position where we're still in contention by New Year. That's the goal for all the lads, and results like this away from home are a good starting point.
"But, we've got to go and do it again, we need to win several games in a row for people to start believing that we're back to what we are capable of.
"I'm still building up my fitness, but I don't want to take it easy. I've done enough of that, and I want to be involved, to get us back to where I know we should be. I think that's the biggest determination for me. It's difficult watching when the lads are winning, but a lot more difficult when they're not winning.
"I want to help as much as I can, I want to keep picking up minutes, even if it's with the reserves. Ultimately, the goal is to play in the first team, to be a part of the plans, and to bring success back to Manchester United."
United manager David Moyes is hopeful his compatriot Fletcher will prove to be a major factor in the rest of United's season after seeing the midfielder put in a decent shift in the final minutes.
"We were laughing afterwards about the great chance he had to score with a header from a corner," Moyes said. "Isn't it great that a player who has had an illness like Darren has had can come back and get on the pitch. I know this has happened before and we're not going to get carried away with it, but I think it's a great sign.
"He's looking good, he's feeling good and anyone who saw him today would say that he looks much better and much more like his old self. And I thought he made some sense when he came on - he passed the ball well, kept it for us and was in the right position where we needed him. You can see the talent the boy has."
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