Darren Fletcher: Goal against Lithuania in ‘03 helped make me Man United star
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OVER 50,000 Scotland fans jumped to their feet.
But Darren Fletcher remembers his first Scotland goal as the crucial day one man sat up and took notice.
Sir Alex Ferguson knew everything there was to know about the young Manchester United prospect in 2003.
But Fletch at 19 had only made a couple of appearances for his club.
And he firmly believes now that his stunning right-foot volley against Lithuania 13 years ago was MASSIVE in his career as it led to his Old Trafford gaffer realising he had what it took to handle the big occasion.
Fletch — now gearing up for another huge game against the same nation at Hampden on Saturday — recalled: “It was my first ever senior goal.
“I hadn’t scored for Man United until that point, in fact I think I’d only played in three or four games.
“Looking back, it was a huge moment in my career.
“The game was level at the time when I went on as a substitute so to score the winner to take us into the play-offs was amazing.
“It was my second cap, my first appearance at Hampden, so it was really, really special for me.
“There’s no doubt it gave me the confidence to go forward and begin to start games from then on.
“Firsts are very important in football. It’s about chances coming and taking them. I’ve always been brought up to think that whenever you get an opportunity you have to be ready to grasp it.
“Sometimes you need a bit of luck, whether it be a man of the match award, an assist or a goal.
“That’s what gives you the confidence to go forward.
“I took a huge boost from that goal against Lithuania and took that back to Manchester United.
“It could have been different — I might not have got on, I wouldn’t have scored, we wouldn’t have gone on to play Holland in the play-offs and Alex Ferguson wouldn’t have seen I could handle big occasion.
“He wouldn’t have seen me up against Clarence Seedorf and Edgar Davids in midfield and thought ‘yeah, I can trust him in the Premier League’.
“All those things are factors in how your career is shaped.
“So that was a big moment in my career that day against Lithuania. It was just one of those big moments in a career. I wasn’t nervous when I went on, just proper excited.
“I felt I could go on and do something in the game. I’d trained well that week and felt comfortable around the squad. I was just itching for that opportunity to get on.
“I remember playing a good few passes to begin with and switching the play to Faddy on the left wing.
“Eventually the ball was worked down the line for Gary Naysmith who worked it to the edge of the box.
“I just concentrated on keeping the ball down, on hitting the target, and managed to get the goal.”
Fletcher, now 32, looks at the younger players in the Scotland squad now like John McGinn and Oliver Burke and sees the same excitement.
He added: “I’ve been genuinely impressed with all the younger lads who have come into the squad.
“I can’t speak highly enough of them. There’s a youthful enthusiasm they bring which rubs off on the older guys like myself.
“Just sitting around the dinner table listening to them is great.
“They’re all respectful but at the same time they’ve got the right balance with how they’re confident in their own ability.
“On the training pitch there is a determination to do well, to want the ball and run.
“I actually think it’s given the squad a real freshness and a feeling of excitement. It’s been like an energy boost.
“The lads are 100mph, but in a good way.
“It’s made me think back to how that’s what me and Faddy were like when we first got into the squad.
“We were buzzing around the place and excited to be there while being desperate to impress.
“We’ve always had a consistent squad but the injection of youth has been a huge positive.
“The manager is very clever on things like that, he knows what to look for.
“I think when younger players come through it’s a fine line between being respectful of the experienced players and listening, but at the same time not being respectful when you’re out on the training pitch. Good pros appreciate that.
“I always listened and learned — in the beginning only speaking when spoken to — but once training started you need to impress.
“You need to be confident off the pitch to be confident on it so we try and make them as comfortable as possible.
“If that means sitting beside them at the dinner table and getting involved in a little bit of banter — winding them up a little bit — then that’s what we’ll do.
“With John and Oli both of them have real strength. They are obviously still young but they’re powerful.
“John has the strongest legs — they’re like tree trunks — and when you run into him he rolls away from you.
“He’s aggressive but very good on the ball as well with a range of passing and excellent touch.
“Oli is similar with his physique there for all to see. It’s something quite rare for a Scottish player to have, that sort of explosive power when he’s dribbling with the ball.
“The biggest thing is for us to give them a platform to go and play.
“Myself and the other experienced players can take the pressure and I’ve made that known to them before the games.
“We obviously work hard and play as a team but I want them going out onto the pitch with no fear.
“They just need to think about enjoying themselves and expressing themselves.”
But winning on Saturday — beating Lithuania — that’s what’s most important, however it comes about.
Fletcher added: “On the back of the win in Malta it’s important we kick on. These are the games that, hopefully when we qualify, we look back on and think of a good result.
“I think your home form is vitally important in the qualifiers, especially when only one team qualifies automatically and second place makes the play-off.
“It’s not like the European Championships before — there is even less room for error.”