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Old 19th November 2007, 10:23   #1
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Default Distraught Darren Fletcher says ‘blame me’

Distraught Darren Fletcher says ‘blame me’
Phil Gordon The Times
November 19, 2007

Darren Fletcher had to drag himself from the depths of personal despair on Saturday night to try to console another 52,000 — make that five million — people, for whom tears were welling up in their eyes. The Scotland midfield player blames himself for Christian Panucci’s dramatic late winner for Italy and just wanted to be left alone in the dressing-room.

However, when Alex McLeish told his players that the Scotland supporters were refusing to leave Hampden Park until they had gone back out and received the gratitude of the Tartan Army, Fletcher buried his own pain for a few minutes.

The Manchester United player is used to laps of honour with his club, but it will be the memory of one without a piece of silverware that probably will last longest in his mind.

“It was hard walking around the pitch,” Fletcher, whose red-rimmed eyes betrayed how the defeat had impacted upon him, said. “You do that when you win trophies. The fans were throwing flags on and that was hard to take, something which put a lump in your throat.

“We couldn’t believe it when we got back to the dressing-room and were told that most of the fans were still in the stadium. We felt we had to go back out, show our appreciation and thank them for their support. They are a credit to the team because they knew we were in a tough group and I think they have respected what we’ve achieved, although we’ve not actually achieved anything in the group. They respected how hard we’ve fought and the passion we’ve shown by taking it to the last game. To know they’re behind us gives us great confidence for the next campaign.

“Although we’d lost they were right behind us. That’s why we just had to go back out. When we heard almost everyone had stayed behind, all the lads wanted to show that meant something to us. It was a case of us saying ‘thank you’ for being behind us for the whole campaign.

“It’s hard to take because there are a lot of disappointing aspects to the game. We had Italy on the ropes with the way we played and they reverted to playing long balls. We were camped in their half for the second half and put them under a lot of pressure.”

When Panucci headed in Andrea Pirlo’s free kick, Fletcher’s distraught face told its own story. Just a minute earlier, Fletcher had actually crashed into a post after being wrestled by the Italy right back at a previous set-piece. However, Fletcher was in no mood to absolve himself of culpability. “I lost Panucci at the back post and I’m disappointed with myself — I feel as though I’ve let down the lads,” he said.

Panucci could clearly be seen pulling Fletcher in the previous attack, but that was ignored by Manuel Gonzalez, the referee, which made the Spanish official’s decision to award a free kick against Alan Hutton when he was barged to the ground by Giorgio Chiellini even more inexplicable to the Scots. “There were two decisions in a row which went against us,” Fletcher said. “Gary Naysmith knocked the ball around one boy and was bodychecked and no foul was awarded. Italy got the throw-in and from that Alan did ever so well to get back and cover, taking the ball wide and getting his body in the way ready to clear upfield. But the boy [Chiellini] smashed into him, only for the referee to give a free kick to them.

“We were closing down behind them in the whole game and even though we were hardly touching them they were going down and winning free kicks. Hutts did the same thing, got his body between the ball and the man and the lad smashed him. It’s just hard to take. You cannot speak to referees nowadays. They just blank you and push you away.

“Even though Fletcher has been part of two unsuccessful qualifying campaign, the midfield player is just 23 and will be a key influence in the bid to reach the 2010 World Cup finals in South Africa. He just hopes that Alex McLeish remains on board as well. “You can understand the manager being in demand,” Fletcher said. “I’m sure there will be big Premiership teams looking at what he’s done and really be after him now. I just hope he stays with us because this is a young team. There is experience there too, but the majority of the team is young and ready for another couple of campaigns. We gave the world champions a scare and at least the one thing to come out of this campaign is that we will be in a better seeding pot for the World Cup qualification and that’s a positive. We could still end up with a horrible group, I’ve looked at the all the pots and there are some big teams there.

“However, what we’ve done is given ourselves every chance by moving up. We were in pot four in this campaign — the so-called group of death — and took it to the last game.

“Hopefully we might get a little bit of luck in the next group. It’s going to be difficult to qualify no matter which pot we’re in. First we need to let the pain of this settle but once that draw is made I’m sure everyone will look forward.”

Fletcher made the first contribution in the remarkable Euro 2008 adventure by scoring the opening goal in the 6-0 rout of the Faeroe Isles in September 2006. It was a result that gave Scotland belief, a feeling that survived the departure of Walter Smith to Rangers in January.

“We’ve improved a great deal over the group,” Fletcher said. “There’s been a reasonably settled team. The more you play with each other the better you get and the more confident you become. Our ability to keep the ball and enjoy possession against the top sides is better. We’ve played big names and respected them but if you give them too much respect they will walk around you. Although we’re not good enough to keep the ball for 90 minutes and totally control the game, we are getting better and better. There’s been a definite improvement.”
Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter. Martin Luther King
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