Having fought against what Manchester United initially described as a virus for the past nine months, the club finally confirmed on Tuesday that the 27 year-old has in fact been suffering from a condition which can, according to medical experts, lead to severe complications and potential steroid treatment which could contravene football’s drug-testing policy.
The Scot has been missing from the United first team since scoring in the 2-2 Champions League draw at home to Benfica on Nov 22.
Fletcher’s absence following medical advice, which is expected to see him miss the rest of this season, has added to United’s alarming manpower shortage just days after captain Nemanja Vidic was ruled out for nine months with a ruptured cruciate ligament.
But while manager Sir Alex Ferguson is now likely to recruit in January to help stem the injury crisis which has been exacerbated by Fletcher’s illness, the immediate concern at Old Trafford is for the Scotland midfielder’s wellbeing and it is understood that the club are determined to ensure the player receives the best possible treatment.
Following increasing speculation about Fletcher’s condition, however, the club issued a statement on his behalf in order to clarify the worrying situation. The United statement said: “On behalf of Darren Fletcher, Manchester United wishes to announce that he is taking an extended break from football for health reasons.
“Over the past year, he has had several absence periods which we have attributed to a viral illness in order to respect his right to medical confidentiality. Darren has, in fact, been suffering from ulcerative colitis [a chronic inflammatory bowel condition] for some time preceding this.
“Whilst he was able to maintain remission of symptoms for a considerable period, this has proved more difficult recently and Darren’s continued desire to play, and his loyalty to both his club and country, has probably compromised the chances of optimising his health and fitness.
“He has therefore accepted medical advice to take an extended break from the demands of training and playing in order to afford the best chance possible of achieving full remission once again.
“We request that his privacy is respected and hope that the removal of the additional stress associated with speculation regarding his health will also aid his recovery.”
While no timescale has been placed on Fletcher’s potential recovery by the club, medical experts familiar with the condition have warned that the player’s career, certainly at Premier League level, could be compromised by the illness.
Professor Chris Probert, a consultant gastroenterologist at the Royal Liverpool Hospital, said: “I would be very surprised if he could perform at the same level with this condition. He must have been extremely fit to have been able to play for as long as he has with the symptoms of the condition.
“It seems inconceivable that he would not have had his performance impaired somehow by the condition and it’s no surprise that he’s been forced to take short breaks from time to time.”
Fletcher was forced to miss 12 first-team fixtures between March and May of last season following the initial outbreak of the condition, but he returned to take a place on the substitutes’ bench for the Champions League final defeat against Barcelona at Wembley.
He then missed United’s pre-season tour of the United States after suffering a setback, but was fit enough to return to action for Scotland’s Euro 2012 qualifiers against Czech Republic and Lithuania in September before making 10 first-team appearances for United, culminating in the Benfica outing last month.
Fletcher admitted in September that his health problems were “scary”, but felt that he had sufficiently overcome them to continue his career.
He said at the time: “It was scary and it knocked me back. I am hardly a person who can afford to lose weight, but I did. Now, though, I am fully on the mend.”
The latest setback for United, who have also lost midfielders Tom Cleverley and Anderson to long-term injuries, means Ferguson is likely to reconsider his stance last week that he would buy in January. Everton midfielder Jack Rodwell has rarely strayed from United’s radar, while Newcastle’s Cheick Tioté and Yohan Cabaye are also potential targets.