Darren Fletcher right to put health ahead of football
Darren Fletcher's health has finally taken priority over football - but his attempt to conquer illness while at the same time playing his part for Manchester United and Scotland is a measure of the ethics that make him such an admired professional.
Fletcher made only one start for United because of illness after 1 March last season and remained an unused substitute in the Champions League final defeat to Barcelona at Wembley, a game he would surely have started had he been in peak condition.
He last played, and scored, in United's 2-2 draw with Benfica in the Champions League at Old Trafford last month and will now take an extended break from the game in an attempt to recover from ulcerative colitis, a chronic inflammatory bowel condition.
As United have recognised, Fletcher's health is now of prime importance. They also acknowledged that his desire to continue to represent club and country may have compromised his well-being.
The 27-year-old's career now takes second place to his rehabilitation, but his absence is a blow to both United - whose midfield resources are already stretched - and Scotland.
Darren Fletcher scores for Manchester United against Benfica in the Champions League in November. Photo: Getty
Pat Nevin has been a regular observer of Fletcher for United, but particularly with Scotland as a BBC pundit, and he told me: "It is really bad news but the good thing for Darren is that Manchester United will ensure he gets the best possible treatment and his good health is paramount. He will have the finest professionals around him to help him recover."
And he agreed that Fletcher's own personality and pride in playing for United and Scotland may have counted against him as he tried to cope with debilitating illness.
Nevin said: "I watch him regularly for Scotland and they have not just built a team around him as a player, they have built it around his ethics and approach to the game. He will be hugely missed, although everyone will want him to take all the time he needs before coming back.
"He is honest and incredibly hard-working, so when you examine those qualities it is no surprise he has tried to play through his illness time and time again until he was no longer able to do so. This is why he is so highly rated by Sir Alex Ferguson and Craig Levein.
"All we can hope now - and what both United and Scotland will be hoping - is that they can find a solution and treat his illness so can come back and start playing again. The type of personality he is can be seen in his game. He turns up for every Scotland game, whether it is friendly or competitive, and gives the same amount of effort every time.
"The other players will be able to see that if a Manchester United player turns up with that attitude then they should have it as well. He has never taken Scotland lightly - he mirrors how a footballer should feel about playing for his country and a club like United.
"There was a time at the start of his career when the Manchester United fans never took to him, which I could never get, but they appreciate him now and it was no coincidence that Sir Alex would trust him implicitly to perform in the big games for United.
"I also think United should be given credit for taking the step of making sure Darren puts his health before anything else."
Fletcher's absence may leave Man Utd's midfield lacking in a degree of experience. Photo: Getty
The temporary removal of Fletcher from United's ranks presents Ferguson with a problem in an area of the pitch where it is widely accepted he needs quality reinforcements.
Fletcher was an influential and energetic figure in central midfield, where Ferguson is now left with Michael Carrick, Ji-Sung Park and Darron Gibson. Tom Cleverley is emerging as fine young player but is currently sidelined.
And while Phil Jones has been used in that area, Ferguson may need to call on him to fill the vacancy left in central defence after Nemanja Vidic was ruled out for the rest of the season with a knee injury. Ryan Giggs and Wayne Rooney can also fill in, while Paul Pogba is a gifted but unproven option.
The United boss said only last week he did not intend to sign anyone in the January transfer window. But with Fletcher and Vidic now out for some time, he may need to think again.
Examining the options open to Ferguson, there is no doubt Fletcher would have been central to United's plans this season had he been healthy enough to continue.
He is now starting his journey to recovery - with Nevin suggesting he may need to show patience not traditionally associated with British footballers deprived of the opportunity to play by injury or illness.
Nevin said: "Footballers as a group, and I was exactly the same, kind of half-listen to doctors and the medical advice we are given. If we are told we are going to be out for eight weeks we instantly accept that it will be four weeks - that is just the way the vast majority of British footballers are.
"We tend to think doctors err on the side of caution and think we can come back sooner. Maybe that is what Darren has done in the past, which is not a negative but a sign of his desire to play. It's just the way we are as footballers.
"It now looks like it has gone past that stage now. He will sit down with the doctors and do it right, which will hopefully mean he gets well and back playing football, although his good health must come before everything else."