As United fans continue to wonder if Darren Fletcher will return to regular first-team action, have they seen the best of him?
In an alternate world, Owen Hargreaves could well be embarking on yet another season of sustained success at Manchester United. After all, following his arrival from Bayern Munich he proved to be exactly the kind of midfielder United were crying out for – a man who played a huge role in the club’s league and European success of 2008.
The reality, of course, is quite different.
At just 32 – some eight years Ryan Giggs’ junior – the former England international has not played competitive football for quite some time. And any dwindling hopes that he could regain the fitness and form that saw him hailed as one of the country’s finest midfielders have long been filed in the draw marked ‘If only’.
In just his second season at Old Trafford, Hargreaves was struck down with the injury curse that would blight him for the rest of his career. And yet with every reported comeback, United fans hoped they would again see the man who played every one of the 120 minutes in the Champions League final triumph over Chelsea – a man for all seasons rather than a story in the book of regrets.
Perhaps his most telling ‘comeback’ was the one he made against Wolverhampton Wanderers in November 2010, the pleasure at his return swiftly quelled as he pulled up with a hamstring injury after just six minutes.
Hargreaves has since gone on record to say he should never have started that match. But he did, and it would prove to be the beginning of the end.
Hargreaves is long gone from Old Trafford, but the hopes of a once-great player making a dramatic return to the team remain at the English champions. For Owen Hargreaves, read Darren Fletcher.
Of course the two men’s situations are extremely different, and the Scottish midfielder’s battle with ulcerative colitis is a long and arduous one. But surely United fans will be hoping the Fletcher of old can one day return, just as they pinned their hopes on Hargreaves tearing around the centre of the pitch as he had so effectively in his debut season.
David Moyes recently told Sky Sports that Fletcher still had some way to go before a return to the first-team was viable.
“It’s great to see him training regularly, that’s a big thing,” Moyes said. “He’s beginning to look like a footballer again, and that in itself is a real plus for him.”
But the manager refused to put a date on Fletcher’s return, and rightly so. Perhaps United have learnt from the Hargreaves situation – that to rush a player back may end rather than reignite their career. Or perhaps it is simply – and wisely – a case of knowing how serious Fletcher’s condition was and continues to be.
The hope will always remain at Old Trafford that Fletcher can swap reserve team outings for glorious European nights and Premier League encounters. I just hope they are not left hoping…and that one day those hopes come true.
If for no other reason, it is the least a man of Fletcher’s calibre and professionalism deserves.
image: © apasciuto