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Old 23rd October 2015, 11:30   #1
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Default Darren Fletcher - 'I dreamed of playing. I was never going to give up’

West Bromwich Albion midfielder Darren Fletcher: I dreamed of playing. I was never going to give up

Darren Fletcher reveals how he fought back from serious illness to revive career at West Brom

By Jason Burt
9:01PM BST 22 Oct 2015

As Chris Winston speaks there are 22 Premier League footballers crammed onto two benches, forming a V, in front of him. You could have heard a pin drop. Winston is a coach at West Bromwich Albion, working for the Premier League club’s foundation.

A good, enthusiastic player, the 24-year-old was struck down by a condition known as Leber’s hereditary optic neuropathy while watching on television England’s 2-2 draw away to Brazil in a friendly in June 2013. By the time the match ended he had lost 75 per cent of his vision. He has now lost 85 per cent. It will not return.

“I have got work,” Winston says of how life has changed since then when he thought his world – he was a painter and decorator and also worked at a gym – had collapsed. “I have got something to get up for. I have something to aspire to. And hopefully one day I will represent my country – and that was my dream as a boy.”

It is Winston’s dream now to play for the England Blind Football Team.

As Winston talks it is hard not to study the reaction of a 23rd player from the Albion first-team squad – who are all listening intently; a player who is on his haunches on the end of one of the benches because there is no space for him to sit. Not that he minds. It is Darren Fletcher.

“While he was talking I thought back to my own situation,” Fletcher says. “It immediately hit me. Not the same circumstances, of course not the same, but similar in that something happens to you at the moment you feel invincible and all of a sudden you are struck down by an illness you can’t control.

“And it gets worse and worse, like he said. And in a short space of time – mine was months but still a short space of time – you find yourself really debilitated. You can’t leave the house.”

Fletcher suffered from ulcerative colitis, the bowel disease, which first attacked him in 2006-07 but which really hit in September 2010 and threatened not just to end his football career but restrict his quality of life until major bowel surgery, which he underwent three times, helped him slowly make the long journey back to full recovery.

“Listening to Chris, you see where people get the determination from because, for me, it was almost 'I’m not going to let this stop me’,” Fletcher says. “I played ill. And I was determined to come through operations. I was told that I might never play again. But that was never in my mind because I knew I was never going to let that happen and I was going to do everything in my power to get back.

“It had been my dream to play football and I was not going to give up on it lightly. My recollection was that if I had been able to play as ill as I was and then there was a chance that I could keep playing then no problem. So I can definitely relate to [Winston’s story] and the drive and determination and the ability to handle disappointment and 'why me?’ and almost putting that aside and going 'yeah, but there’s no point thinking about it like that because it’s not going to do anyone any good’.

“I treated it like an obstacle; something in my way that I had to hurdle. There was a detour, a big detour, but it was never going to stop me. I look at it now and think I had to take a break.”

The West Brom first-team squad have taken part in an afternoon of events – including an assault course and a shooting competition, in which they were blindfolded, and Power Chair Football – to understand the work of the club’s Albion Foundation, which is celebrating 25 years of involvement in the community.

“It’s inspirational,” Fletcher says. “The players are humbled by it. Maybe people think footballers don’t care, with the money and playing in the Premier League, but in my experience they are humble human beings who appreciate what they have got.” Fletcher certainly does. The 31-year-old ended a 19-year association with Manchester United last January because he was fit, again, and wanted to play and was immediately awarded the captaincy at Albion, such is the regard he is held in by manager Tony Pulis. “It was thrown on me in the first game and it was a real, like, 'wow’,” the midfielder says. “It’s leading by example. But the biggest thing is creating an atmosphere where we have a lot of leaders and I firmly believe in that because it was the biggest thing from my experience at Manchester United – we had four, five, six leaders. Everyone became a leader because that was the norm.”

Fletcher knew that, despite recovering, he had to leave United. “I was ready for it,” he says. “I was prepared and it was time for a new challenge. I’m not the most sentimental guy in the world. I loved everything about my time at Manchester United but I knew my time was up there.

“And, most importantly, the manager [Pulis] had a lot of faith and belief in me. I knew I just needed games, needed, you know, someone to really believe in me.

“Players love that, all players do – someone who desperately wants you to come and play for them and says how much it will mean and what an influence you can have. Someone who says you can get back to the player you were with a bit of time and games, and it’s been even better than I expected since I have been here with the number of games I have played, how great I have felt and how much I have enjoyed my football.”

It is a different kind of football. Fletcher admits it was a “massive risk” to join a team facing a relegation battle. It was a battle they won, of course, and this season it is about “readjusting” the goals he was used to at United “where almost always we were favourites to win”.

“It’s a different mindset and I was prepared for that,” Fletcher explains. “I’m pretty good with getting my hands dirty and getting stuck in … I was aware from my time with Scotland that it’s not just success all the time. There is disappointment. It’s a real hard emotion to deal.

“This has broadened my horizons because Manchester United is not the norm. I was used to success but success is different for every team. You realise that. Success for West Bromwich Albion is finishing higher up the league than last season, getting to cup finals, Wembley, finishing as the top club in the Midlands.

“And this is the right club for me. It ticked all the boxes – even just little things like, when I signed, Jacko the kit man said, 'We’ve only got No 24 available’, and I was like, 'That’s my number. I’ve been No 24 all my career at Manchester United. If you have given me the choice of any number I’d have picked 24 anyway’. So small little things like that make it feel like, well maybe it was meant to be.”

Since he signed, Fletcher has been an ever-present. “The challenge has always been the match on the Saturday,” he says. “It’s what I missed most during my illness – walking down the tunnel, the kick-off and trying to win.”
Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter. Martin Luther King
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