'Everything was geared towards my debut'

Saturday 11 March 2023 11:00

"Thankfully I got that opportunity and didn’t do too bad, which led to some more appearances."

With typical modesty, that's how former Manchester United midfielder Darren Fletcher recalls the kickstart to his senior career with the club, which occurred exactly 20 years ago this Sunday.

And as the Scot surveys the Old Trafford pitch in his current role as the club's technical director, watching the Reds walk out of the tunnel to play on the hallowed turf, he could be forgiven for thinking how it felt to do just that as a 19-year-old on 12 March 2003.
Darren Fletcher on the ball during his debut - United's 1-1 draw with FC Basel on 12 March 2003.

“It was amazing. It was against FC Basel in the Champions League and I was starting on the right wing,” he says, in an interview for this Sunday's edition of United Review.

“I was 19 when I made my debut and a little bit of it was [thinking] 'this was meant to happen sooner.’ I had a lot of injury problems as a youth player, so I pretty much missed about 18 months, close to two years, with injuries.

“But listen, it's still young to make your Manchester United debut [at 19] and it was a special moment. It was what you’d tried to do your whole life. When you're young, everything’s geared towards making your debut and playing in the first team. It was an amazing feeling.”

Fletcher occupied David Beckham's usual role on the right side of midfield for 73 minutes, before he was substituted and the famous no.7 came on in his place.

The Reds had cancelled out Christian Gimenez's shock first-half opener for the Swiss visitors by then, with a rare goal from right-back Gary Neville - another Academy graduate like Fletcher and Beckham.

Thankfully, Darren's presence on the teamsheet would prove to be far from rare. He went on to make 342 senior appearances in total for United, with all bar 30 of these coming under Sir Alex Ferguson before the legendary manager retired in 2013.

Great Scots: Fletcher, Sir Alex and his assistant manager in 2004, the late Walter Smith.
Fletcher first met Sir Alex when he was just 12 years old, having impressed in his first match on Salford soil. Invited to train with United on the recommendation of a talent scout in Scotland, Andy Perry, he certainly made the most of that exciting opportunity.

“If I’m honest with you, I was quite relaxed about it because I was just playing football, I didn’t overthink it,” recalled Darren.

“I’d already had Rangers and Celtic, big clubs in Scotland, asking me to go on trial and a couple of English clubs as well. I knew the Manchester United connection with Sir Alex Ferguson, it’s a massive club. But for me, I just took it in my stride as I was going to play football. It was another opportunity to play a match somewhere.
Darren and Sir Alex celebrate after winning the Community Shield in 2003.

“I arrived on the Friday morning, trained Friday night, and played on the Saturday morning at Littleton Road. Then I went back to The Cliff [training ground] where I was quickly whizzed off to see Sir Alex Ferguson, so I must have played quite well in the game!

“I think there’s a famous picture of me with Sir Alex, I’ve got the blue-and-white away kit from the mid-90s on. Getting taken up to meet Sir Alex became a common thing for me from then. When I played in trial matches at The Cliff and Littleton Road, [the club] made sure I was taken up to see him.

“It just shows the attention to detail he had and the mystique around Manchester United and their young players.”

You can read more from Fletcher in Sunday's United Review and in the April issue of Inside United. The programme and magazine can be purchased together at Old Trafford in a money-saving double deal.