The football world’s eyes are at last wide open to what the boss knew all along – Darren Fletcher is pure gold. The 25-year-old’s emergence as one of English football’s finest engine-room controllers has surprised a few, but his displays have vindicated Sir Alex’s faith in him. We spoke to Fletch – proud father whose twin toddlers make his on-field challenges seem a doddle – about his hard-earned authority as a top-class midfielder...
A year ago you said you were playing your best football, but you’ve stepped it up yet another level since then…
I’m enjoying everything at the moment because the team is successful. Last season was great, despite the disappointment of the Champions League final. That low was partly because it was the last game as well, but if you look back on what we achieved right throughout the season it was fantastic. I played in a lot of big games and was given a consistent run in the side. The most important thing for me this season has been to kick on and not sit back and take my place for granted. At United you’re proving your worth in every game, there’s always someone who wants to take your shirt. That drives you on. I want to keep improving as a player, as I feel I have done in every season I’ve been here. You look at Giggsy, Scholesy and Gary Neville – as they’ve got older they’ve improved through their experience, knowledge, maturity and application of what they do off the pitch as much as on it.
The coaches have spoken of your determination to improve. Does the hard work you’ve shown to get where you are now bring added satisfaction?
This is a level that I’ve been striving to reach. The way I’m playing now, I’m the player I’ve always wanted to show people I could be. I’m not saying I’ve worked harder than anyone else, I’ve just tried to make sure I improve my game – and things have really paid off. Doing weights is a big thing for me now, whereas before it didn’t seem to have much effect. But just because you’re in the gym, that doesn’t make you a great player. It’s small percentages of improvement that help you become a better athlete and player. Becoming a father has really helped, too. Having two lads [twins Jack and Tyler] has matured me as a person, and that helps on the pitch as well.
What difference has having the boys made to you off the pitch and on it?
Having the boys has helped take my mind away from football, which is no bad thing. When I was younger I was intense and uptight about how well I was playing. I was constantly thinking about situations in games, what I could do better, or a bad performance would play on my mind. If you’re sitting at home with nothing else to do it’s easier to think about those things. Whereas now I go home to my children, who take up lots of my time, and it puts everything else into perspective. It gives you a great outlook on life. Now I know there’s a time to work and be focused on that. But I’ve also got my family, who are the biggest part of my life now. It allows me to relax much more, and because of that my game and outlook on everything is more balanced and more mature.
Mike Clegg [United’s strength and conditioning coach] says you’ve struck the perfect balance between football fitness and gym work. The only other person he’s seen do that is Cristiano Ronaldo. Quite a compliment...
Fitness has never been a problem, but in terms of strength and power my gym work has made a real difference. Striking the right balance is important. There’d be no point in bulking up if that was to the detriment of being able to get around the pitch, which is a big part of my game. I wanted to get to a level where I had strength, but also the stamina to keep going over 90 minutes. I’ve found a good balance, although I reckon I could still do a little more and put on more weight without affecting my fitness. There’s room for improvement but, like I said, I’m always looking to develop the little things. It’s not just the physical side – it’s a mental thing as well. I have more experience now, and simply being at this club improves you as a player; being in this team, around these great professionals. It’s been a gradual progression for me, but I’m really enjoying myself and I want that to continue for many more years to come.
When Ronaldo left in the summer, Sir Alex said it was a chance for other players to step up. Did you see it as your opportunity to stamp your mark on the team?
The players all knew we were losing a massive player, and a big gap in how and where we got our goals. We knew other players would have to rise to the challenge – we needed everyone to raise their game. Maybe there were times when we expected Ronaldo to come up with the goods, whereas now everyone knows we need to produce, individually or collectively. We’re a different team now, with a different style. Ronaldo was brilliant for us as much as we were brilliant for him, but now we have a new style and new players. We try to find the best way to win a match as a team. That’s United’s secret and a lot of the players have learnt that from Giggs, Scholes and Neville. There’s more than one way to win a match. We’ve shown already this season that we can win playing brilliant, attacking football. But sometimes it has to be ugly. They have the know-how to do it and the rest of us are learning. There will be times in games when we might not be on top, but that doesn’t mean we’re going to lose. That’s what makes this a good team, a championship-winning team.
Thanks for reading!