If the rumors are true and Darren Fletcher's Manchester United career is up, then it's appropriate that he parts ways with the club he's served so well for so long during a year that began with so much promise for him. After all, no other United player saw his standing rise and fall, and then rise and fall again, so dramatically as Fletcher during his 11-plus years at Old Trafford.
It's always folly to put much stock into preseason results, and Manchester United found that out the hard way this summer when they looked like world-beaters against the likes of Real Madrid and Liverpool, only to be brought back to earth by the likes of Swansea, Sunderland and Leicester City. But Darren Fletcher was an absolute revelation during those summer months in America. He seemed completely reborn, having finally shaken off the effects of his career-threatening illness that had robbed him of much of the previous three seasons. On the strength of those performances, he was named team vice-captain and looked set to play a huge role for Louis van Gaal.
We know how that worked out. Fletcher started the first three league matches under van Gaal, but played poorly. Once the Gaalacticos came to Old Trafford, Fletcher found himself on the outside looking in. He's only started two matches since then (only one in the Premier League) and has usually been relegated to late-match cameos where he's charged with sitting in front of the defense to see out the victory. He recently lost his vice-captaincy and has been the subject of transfer rumors since then. One day, he's a key player undergoing a late-career renaissance after three years of illness. The next day, he's a spare part with no future at United and off to West Ham (or West Brom, or even Valencia). [UPDATE: Fletcher joined West Brom on a free transfer]
It's a sad, but fitting end for Fletch. After all, no United player in recent memory swung more wildly between being overrated or being indispensable than Darren Fletcher. Coming up through the academy, Fletcher was considered a "can't miss" prospect and the long-term successor to David Beckham. "Ferguson is convinced that in teenage prodigy Darren Fletcher, he has a youngster who will make a sensational impact when he breaks into the first-team," ESPN's Ken Lawrence wrote in 2000. "The 16-year-old Scot, already rated Beckham's understudy, is so integral to Ferguson's future plans that the manager took the lad into his own home to convince him to move to Old Trafford."
When he joined the first team, injuries and lack of playing time slowed his development to the point where fans and even players were openly derisive of him. Given their shared nationality (as well as the fact that Sir Alex already has a son named "Darren") supporters referred to Fletcher as "Fergie's son" and questioned why he continued to play in big games when he seemed desperately out of his depth. Roy Keane, in his infamous-yet-never-broadcast 2005 MUTV interview that all but sealed his bitter departure from the club, reportedly said: "I can't understand why people in Scotland rave about Darren Fletcher." Keane later qualified his comments, but the damage was done.
Fletcher, however, persevered and became a key member of the team. By 2009, he was, arguably, one of the most valuable players at United. On a team loaded with offensive talent, Fletcher was often tasked with doing the dirty work in central midfield, providing steady and steely defending, tackling and man-marking. Never a big-time goal scorer, he, nevertheless, bagged some big goals that year, including this brilliant effort against Everton and a brace against Man City. His absence in the Champions League Final (he had picked up a harsh red card in the semi-finals against Arsenal) was even cited by some as one of main the reasons United lost to Barcelona. That year, he even earned, perhaps, the highest compliment a United player can get when Arsene Wenger, more or less, condemned his physical style of play and accused him of being an "anti-footballer." Like Phil Neville before him, Fletcher always seemed to save his best for Arsenal - especially when it came to short-circuiting their vaunted attack.
In 2010, he proved he wasn't a one-season wonder when he submitted another solid campaign and was rewarded with a place in the PFA's Premier League Team of the Year (ahead of both Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard). By the following season, however, he had started missing matches as his ulcerative colitis set in. He didn't make the bench for the Champions League Final rematch against Barcelona, and missed nearly all of the next two seasons.
It's a shame that, after working so hard to regain his health, Fletcher seemed to have reclaimed his standing at the club, only to lose it, seemingly, overnight. Then again, given his history, it's strangely poetic. Darren Fletcher still has some good football left in him and can be a great fit for many clubs. It just seems like United is no longer one of them.