Wigan v Barnsley: Fletcher hoping stint with Reds can break down Red Devils’ door

Ashley Fletcher, left, in action against Sheffield United, has impressed during his loan spell at Barnsley. (Picture: Sport Image)
Ashley Fletcher, left, in action against Sheffield United, has impressed during his loan spell at Barnsley. (Picture: Sport Image)
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TIMOTHY FOSU-MENSAH, Cameron Borthwick-Jackson, Donald Love, Joe Riley and most spectacularly of all, Marcus Rashford.

All are Manchester United starlets who have cut their teeth, to varying degrees, at first-team level at the Theatre of Dreams this season with Ashley Fletcher hoping to be the next cab off the rank.

The rangy striker, who turned 20 last October, has certainly done his cause no harm at all of late with another side in red on this side of the Pennines in Barnsley – with those in the know at Old Trafford having kept fully abreast of his performances during his loan spell at Oakwell.

They cannot fail to have been impressed and while Fletcher can rightfully reflect on a thoroughly enriching time of it at Barnsley – which has yielded a decent haul of seven goals since heading to Yorkshire on loan in January – he is not finished yet.

Just as the Red Devils finish their campaign at Wembley against Crystal Palace in the FA Cup final on May 21, so Fletcher is eyeing a special date at the home of football to round off a breakthrough campaign.

Namely, participation in the League One play-off final eight days later – although Barnsley’s immediate priority is booking a place in the end-of-season jamboree at Wigan tomorrow lunch-time.

And the Keighley-born forward is intent on doing his bit to seal a top-six berth with Scunthorpe and Gillingham breathing down the Reds’ necks.

On his time at Oakwell, Fletcher said: “It’s been massive and I would like to thank the club for giving me the opportunity to come and play games.

“I feel like I am going back to Manchester United as a better player than when I came.

“It’s helped me with little things like being cuter with defenders and having the confidence to go and score goals has really benefited me and getting a run of games in terms of fitness has really helped me as well, and that’s what I am grateful for.

“League games are a completely different environment to under-21 games and something I have relished.

“My under-21 manager Warren Joyce rings me after every game more or less, which is good and he keeps in touch with Barnsley and has watched a few of my games and given me good feedback and things to work on as well.”

And on this weekend’s pressing business, he added: “We have just got to focus on ourselves and things will take care of themselves.

“If we go to Wigan and win, we’d like to think we will be in the play-offs.

“For any striker, scoring goals is the main objective and I have managed to get seven, although I’d like a couple more at the weekend.

“It would mean a lot to the town to get in the play-offs. It would be remarkable.”

The short-term for Fletcher very much revolves around his Barnsley commitments.

But given the rise of particularly Rashford and the fact that Louis Van Gaal has showed no hesitation in blooding young players in the time-honoured Old Trafford way, Fletcher would be lying if he said that he hadn’t thought about earning his first-team stripes at United in the not-too-distant future.

Rashford’s pace, strength and finishing ability may have quickly marked him out as a real star in the making, but Fletcher’s desire to showcase his own, not dissimilar, credentials when afforded the opportunity at Old Trafford is clear to see.

He said: “A lot of young players have had their chance and taken it and it is testament to them and the club that they have been given that opportunity and hopefully I will get mine.

“The main ethos to give young players a chance has always been there.

“You look at people like Danny Welbeck and players like that and the class of ’92.

“It’s in the DNA and hopefully the board will keep faith with young players and get more in there.”

On the stunning emergence of Rashford, Fletcher said: “I was with him at England under 20s and we got on really well, although he is a bit younger than me.

“He is a great lad who is really down to earth and has done really well.”

While Fletcher’s fervent hope is that his exploits at Barnsley will help nudge the door ajar for him in Manchester, he is not ruling out continuing his footballing education at some point down the line at Oakwell, more especially if the Reds clinch promotion to the Championship.

“I don’t know, to be honest,” he said when asked what the future holds.

“I will go back to Manchester United at the end of the season and try and get my way into the first team. If not, maybe another spell out on loan somewhere (in the Championship).

“Hopefully I can do that with Barnsley next season as they might be there.”

Barnsley’s top-six fate will be resolved at Wigan’s DW Stadium tomorrow, a mere hop, skip and a jump away from where Fletcher was brought up in neighbouring Bolton.

The forward certainly won’t be short on the backing stakes, with a number of his Bolton-supporting mates – after a desperate season following the fortunes of Wanderers – hoping to take some solace in his own exploits.

Fletcher, raised in the Lancashire town and formerly on the books of Bolton, said: “I think I have about 12 people coming and it will be a good day if we win and I am looking forward to it.

“Coming from Bolton, it has not been a memorable season for them.

“A few of my mates are rooting for me to swap places with them in the Championship.

“I grew up watching Bolton and was there from nine to 13. I still support them and have a strong link with them.”