UTD Podcast: Fletch's fight with ulcerative colitis

Tuesday 12 November 2019 10:10

In episode four of UTD Podcast, which is out now, club legend Darren Fletcher opens up on the mental and physical challenges that he overcame during his battle with ulcerative colitis.

The Old Trafford hero was diagnosed with the chronic bowel disease in 2011 and it proved to be a disruptive force, in both his life and football career. It was announced in December 2011 that he would take an extended break from the game and he later underwent surgery in January 2013.

Thankfully, Fletcher eventually made a successful comeback at United and went on to enjoy spells with West Bromwich Albion and Stoke City as part of an excellent professional career. 

In our latest episode of UTD Podcast, which you can download from our official music partner Deezer and all of your favourite podcast apps, Fletch is completely honest about his entire experience with colitis, detailing the many obstacles that he overcame…
Being diagnosed with ulcerative colitis was, we imagine, very difficult for lots of reasons. From a football perspective, being out with something that isn’t football-related, it is not something you can control. Were you worried about how it would affect football, or your personal life?
"I was worried about everything, but probably more about how it would affect my football. I was just desperate to get back and I was doing everything I could do to get back. I probably didn't realise how ill and sick I was at times. I was trying to battle through it through sheer stubborn determination. Ultimately, slowly but surely, the illness was defeating me. I was trying alternative medicines and changing my diet. I tried everything. We researched every opportunity, me, the club, the doctors, and nothing worked. Eventually I had to hold my hands up and say the illness is beating me and I need to do something about it, which resulted in surgery. It was terrible because all I was thinking about was getting back playing. I didn't want this illness to stop me from living my dream, especially at a point in my career when I was absolutely flying. Ultimately, I had to hold my hands up and do something about it. It took me a while to get back and it cost me a big part of my career. But, it is what it is. I didn't really look back too much. I always look forward. I was told never to expect to get back playing again in no uncertain terms by a number of people. But I didn't want to hear that. I just wanted to get back to playing football.”
How hard were some of those days mentally, and did you stay away from the training ground?
“Watching the games I didn't find hard, but mentally I was in the zone. I was conscious that I was not letting this beat me and so I can't afford to go mentally, although physically I was going and I was completely gone physically. I knew that if I went mentally then I would never get back. So my mental attitude was a case of 'I'm not letting it happen' and having to wake up every morning and going 'no, you are not feeling sorry for yourself, get up, get on with it, deal with it, find a way around it and do whatever you have to do to get through that day'. It was weird because you wake up every morning and you have that initial period of thinking nice thoughts, about a great life and playing football. Then all of a sudden it hits you that you have to face that day with illness and that's when you start going into a depression, but I just didn't let it happen. I don't think I would have ever recovered if I had let that happen. I was lucky that I had strong support from my wife, my kids, my mum and dad, and Sir Alex Ferguson. I knew that because I was suffering physically, if I had gone mentally then I would have never come back.”
The Darren Fletcher episode of UTD Podcast is essential listening for every Reds supporter.
In terms of your overall health, how severe was it at its worst?
“Oh, it was life-threatening. I was rushed to hospital a number of times and there are three or four days in Edinburgh that I can't even remember. There are consequences of the operations and the illness. It is a terrible, terrible illness and a debilitating illness that thousands of people suffer with in this country every day and often in silence because of the embarrassing factors that come with it, like running to the toilet and losing blood. It is horrible. Mentally, it is terrible. But for me I just tried to fight it with everything I had and ultimately I couldn't. I had to go down the surgical route, which comes with its own challenges and own problems. Success rates of operations are really low, even for life quality - never mind getting back to playing football. But I was at the lowest of the low, I had no other options, no other alternatives, and that probably helped me at that moment because I was willing to accept surgery and deal with the challenges of coming back from it.”
Fletcher: Inside my relationship with Keane Video

Fletcher: Inside my relationship with Keane

In his UTD Podcast, recorded in 2019, Fletch spoke passionately about his relationship with Roy Keane...

It is amazing that you kept it private for so long. I think it was only you, the doctor and Sir Alex who knew, so what does it say about them that you managed to keep it private?
"There was a period of three or four months when you are on medication and, for us, the feeling was that this medication is going to work so let's keep it quiet, then I will be back and it is going to be fine. The problem with what happened was, after three or four months of that medication, it hadn't worked and I had to try the next one. Even the next one, I think the manager, the club and we all thought this one was definitely going to work. Then it didn't work. Then people start asking questions. Then, for me, I was the one who wanted to let it be known what I had because I was the one who was lying to people. I was willing to accept that. I wasn't bothered about the fact that it came with people knowing about the illness. For me it just made my life a lot easier. The manager and the doctor were a little bit more sceptical about that, but ultimately they respected my wishes and then we let everyone know what it was. You have to remember, people are really concerned about you but everyone has their own problems in their life. You get that initial concern but ultimately people have their own battles and they go back to their own lives. Then they forget. They know you are dealing with it and are respectful of it. Then it is just a lot easier to get on with things and deal with what I had coming up in front of me.”

When the news first broke, what was the reaction like from the public and the changing room?
“Football changing rooms are notorious for taking the mick, having no boundaries and everything goes, but not one person took the mick out of me about my illness and that is amazing really. I would not have minded. I don't take myself too seriously and I understand football dressing rooms, so I would not have minded one bit if somebody had come up with a joke just to break the ice. But not one person did. If was a great bunch of lads, really. Looking back, you could physically see how much I was suffering. You could see in my face, you could see my weight, going up and down, the consequences of medication, you could see that I was physically suffering, so the lads obviously knew that I was in pain and the last thing they wanted to do was take the mick out of me because they knew how much I was suffering and how bad the illness is. It was a great dressing room and a great bunch of lads. I love and respect all of them. I could not speak highly enough of all of them. They were the best team-mates and a big part of our success was because of that.”

The new UTD Podcast with Darren Fletcher is available now on Deezer and all of your favourite podcast apps.