Darren Fletcher & AndersonAdded by Philip Meese on 07 Mar 2015 13:46
By Philip Meese, Editor-in-Chief
At the end of the January 2015 transfer window, Manchester United waved goodbye to two midfielders with almost 20 years’ experience between them. From their backgrounds, their cultures, their respective styles of play, these two men could not have been more different. The only thing they really had in common is that they are both midfielders, who have both lifted more trophies than Steven Gerrard – and both departed Old Trafford at the same time. So let’s take a look at the achievements, and the “what might have been” moments, of Anderson Luís de Abreu Oliveira and Darren Fletcher.
Even the stories of how both players ended up at United were completely different. Fletcher, Edinburgh born and bred, served his apprenticeship at Old Trafford before making his first team debut against Swiss side FC Basel in the 2002 – 03 season, with United having already won their group, and becoming a first team regular the season after. Despite initially receiving criticism from the United fans (“Fergie’s Love Child” being one of the kinder nicknames bestowed upon him), his energetic and tireless performances soon won over the Old Trafford faithful.
Anderson made his way through the youth system of Brazilian side Grêmio, and made his debut in 2004 at the age of 16. His performances soon earned him a reputation as one to keep an eye on, and Portuguese giants FC Porto were quick to swoop midway through the 2005 – 06 season, with the midfielder three months away from his 18th birthday. Despite spending five months of his year and a half at Estádio do Dragão nursing a broken leg, he still increased his reputation to the point where Sir Alex Ferguson saw fit to invest €30 million in the Brazilian youngster, dubbed the “new Ronaldinho” (I hate comparisons such as that) in the summer of 2007.
By the time Anderson swapped Porto for Manchester, Darren Fletcher had just collected his first Premier League winner’s medal. After coming under fire from several sections of the Old Trafford crowd in his first few years, the 2006 – 07 season saw him begin to win over the once-sceptical United fans. His performance in Paul Scholes’ 500th United appearance against Liverpool in October 2006 probably went unnoticed by most, but I remember forgetting that Steven Gerrard was even on the pitch, as Fletcher marked him out of the game. The same could be said of Francesco Totti when the Reds hammered Roma 7 – 1 later that same season – while Rooney, Ronaldo and Carrick (yes, Carrick) ripped the Italian side to shreds with their attacking play, Fletcher quietly went about his business of keeping their star player quiet, to the point of being anonymous.
When Anderson arrived in the 2007 summer transfer window, Fletcher found that he was now likely to be fifth choice central midfielder, behind other new signing Owen Hargreaves, Michael Carrick and Paul Scholes. Anderson immediately caught the fans imagination with his energetic running and fearless midfield play. His performances at Anfield and the Emirates that season suggested this lad would have a long and successful career at Old Trafford. So if you don’t know where the line “…and he shits on Fàbregas” comes from, watch a replay of United’s 2 – 2 draw at Arsenal that season.
While Fletcher endured a frustrating 2007 – 08 season, making more substitute appearances than starts, Anderson flourished alongside Owen Hargreaves, and the two were magnificent when selected together. United retained the Premier League title, and won the 2008 Champions League in that penalty shootout in Moscow (which I’m sure was a trip John Terry remembers fondly, no pun intended), with both Anderson and Hargreaves netting their spot kicks. By contrast, Fletcher was an unused substitute for that game.
Hargreaves had surgery for tendonitis in 2008, which would eventually finish his career at the top level – he only made a further two appearances for United after this, and only four for Manchester City in the one year he spent with them, before retiring in 2012. With the England midfielder on the sidelines, Fletcher grabbed his chance and became an integral part of United’s first team in the 2008 – 09 season. Anderson carried on where he had left off the previous season, displaying the same energetic all-action midfield play, even though his first United goal continued to elude him.
That season was one of United’s best ever in terms of trophies, as they retained the Premier League, and also added the World Club Cup, League Cup & Community Shield to the trophy cabinet. But the season would end on a bum note, for both Fletcher and Anderson, and United fans in general. As United swept aside Arsenal in the Champions’ League Semi Final, Fletcher was wrongly sent off after a brilliant tackle on Fàbregas. Because UEFA don’t have the same rules as the Premier League, it was not possible to have this overturned, meaning that Fletcher missed the Final – a tragedy considering the form he was in at that time.
With Hargreaves injured and Fletcher suspended, Anderson was chosen to start the Final alongside Carrick and Giggs. He lasted just 45 minutes of an ineffectual display, in which you could count the number of passes he made on one hand, and was replaced by Tevez at half time with the Reds a goal down in a match they would lose 2 – 0. It is a common topic of discussion among United fans as to whether the game would have played out any different had Fletcher been available.
United started the following without Cristiano Ronaldo, and the time seemed right for youngsters such as Anderson and Nani to grab the mettle and turn into the next generation of Old Trafford superstars. In fairness, Anderson did grab his first United goal, a cracker against Tottenham but would see his season curtailed by a cruciate ligament injury. Fletcher was having a fine season, scoring twice in the 4 – 3 win against Manchester City, as well as United’s goal of the season with a superb 25 yard volley against Everton. He also had a fine game in the San Siro, setting up two of United’s three goals against AC Milan, and his form saw him included in the PFA Team of the Season.
It’s All Downhill from Here
Although Fletcher began the 2010 – 11 season in the same vein of form, an as yet undiagnosed illness saw him make just two appearances in the final two months of the season, and missing the Champions League Final with Barcelona. When he did make an appearance in the final league game of the season against Blackpool, he had clearly lost a fair bit of weight – very noticeable, because he didn’t have an ounce of fat on him anyway.
By now, Anderson was starting to struggle with issues regarding his fitness, which would dog him for the rest of his United career. Despite recording his best goal-scoring tally in a single season (4 goals in 2010 – 11) and showing occasional glimpses of the form he showed in his first two seasons, he was an unused substitute at Wembley.
The following season is one that most United fans would prefer to forget. Anderson and Fletcher made just 26 appearances in all competitions between them. In December 2011, Fletcher revealed that he had been diagnosed with a bowel condition called ulcerative colitis. This must have been a relief in some ways, as at least now he knew what he was fighting. Anderson, meanwhile was becoming increasingly injury prone, but even more worrying was that every time he came back from an injury, it was noted by many United fans that he always seemed to come back a few pounds heavier than before, limiting both his mobility and stamina – I genuinely cannot remember the last time he completed a full 90 minutes for United.
Both players started the 2012 – 13 season, and Anderson looked like he was starting to hit his best form for a couple of years, netting spectacular strikes against Newcastle and Reading, until a hamstring injury put paid to that. This was also around the time that Fletcher elected to have a surgical procedure, aimed at resolving his condition.
This was Sir Alex Fergusons final season, and it is fair to say that Anderson wasn’t fancied by either of his successors – he made just ten further appearances in all competitions following the Scotsman’s retirement, returning to Brazil on February 3rd 2015. Fletcher, however, did make a further 30 appearances after Ferguson’s departure, but it was clear he had fallen down the pecking order, and left Old Trafford in search of regular first team football. He joined West Bromwich Albion on 2nd February 2015, immediately taking over the captain’s armband.
How Could it have been Different?
There is no doubt that, for totally different reasons, Manchester United never got the absolute best out of either of these midfielders. Although there is no evidence to suggest that this is the case, Darren Fletcher could be forgiven if he felt a little resentment towards Anderson, as he had so many of the chances which fate cruelly denied him.
Although United reached three Champions League Finals in the time that both players were at the club, Fletcher never got to take part in any of them. He was an unused substitute in the 2008 Final in Moscow, he was cruelly (and wrongly) suspended for the 2009 Final and his illness deemed him unfit for the rematch with Barcelona at Wembley in 2011.
Anderson scored a vital penalty against in the 2008 Final, and started the match against Barcelona in Rome a year later, which probably wouldn’t have happened had Fletcher been available – he was in the form of his life at this stage. He also made the bench for the 2011 Final, but was not used.
As mentioned earlier, it remains a big talking point to this day as to whether Fletcher’s presence in either of the matches with Barcelona would have made a difference. In my opinion, it definitely wouldn’t have done in 2011 as Xavi and Iniesta were at the peak of their powers at this point. It may have made a difference in 2009, as Fletcher’s all-action style of play would have disrupted their game slightly, but we will never know for certain if it would have stopped them. But it is worth noting that Barcelona were lucky to get past Chelsea in that famous semi-final – and most United fans were glad, at the time, that they did, as nobody I know fancied a rematch against the Londoners.
Anderson took a lot of heat from some United fans for his performance in Rome, but he was only on the pitch for 45 minutes, and I honestly believe the whole team just didn’t turn up. Ronaldo seemed to be trying to prove a point that he was a better player than Messi, who just went about his business, helping his team win the match.
Another point is that both players suffered periods where they were unfit to play for United. But therein lies the difference; Fletcher had no control over the reason he was unfit, and when you looked on the message boards of articles that reported his condition, even fans of United’s big rivals wished him well. Anderson, although unlucky with injuries, had no excuse for the weight issues that followed him in the latter stages of his Old Trafford career. It’s not as though he works in an office eight hours a day, he spends time at a training ground, with a bunch of athletes, so how did he manage to get himself in that condition?
I watched the season review of 2008 – 09 recently, and I was reminded what all the fuss was about Anderson in the first place. He genuinely had the talent to become a Manchester United great. He turns 27 this year, he should now be at the peak of his powers, running United’s midfield. Instead, he had to come off the pitch after 36 during a recent game for Internacional, and required oxygen. Ok, so it was at the Estadio Hernando Siles, 12,000 feet above sea level, and various players have had issues there in the past. But it just highlighted how much his career has nosedived over the past few years.
When Fletcher was diagnosed with his condition, he WAS at the peak of his powers, one of the first names on the team sheet, and not just for his ability to upset Arsène Wenger. When he came back into the first team squad, available for regular selection, it was clear that something was missing. He’s still a quality player, and the fact that a well-established Premier League club such as West Bromwich Albion had no hesitation in snapping him up shows that – it’s just that he’s no longer at the level that Manchester United need him to be.
There is no doubt that both Fletcher and Anderson made their mark on United’s recent history. They were both regular players in one of the most successful periods the club has ever seen. Yet they should have been so much more. Despite long careers at Old Trafford, their combined appearances for United stands at 520.
Fletcher, now at the age of 31, may have been moved on anyway as we’ll never know how good his career would have turned out if illness hadn’t robbed him of two of the most crucial years of his career. He will, however, most likely continue at Premier League level for the next few years, and continues to represent Scotland at International level.
Anderson, however, still in his mid-twenties, should still be an integral part of the Old Trafford playing staff. Given the way his career has turned out, it would be a major surprise if he added to his eight caps for Brazil. It wouldn’t be a surprise, however, if he retires before the age of 30.
Both players are now consigned to the realms of Manchester United’s history, with neither of them the players they used to be. This is a real shame, because the Fletcher and Anderson of 2008 – 09 season are exactly the sort of players United’s current squad are crying out for.