He is among the most technically gifted members of Sheffield United’s first team squad but, as John Fleck admits, his team mate Paul Coutts possesses another less desirable talent.
“He doesn’t shout much when we’re out on the pitch but he’s very, very moany. Especially if you don’t pass him the ball. If he needs to raise his voice then he will. In general, he’s pretty quiet but he really does like a moan.”
Fleck’s partnership with Coutts is a major reason why Chris Wilder’s side, six points clear at the top of the League One table, enter tomorrow’s game against Northampton Town knowing victory would guarantee promotion regardless of results elsewhere. Although it does not take a genius to identify them as a factor behind United’s surge up the rankings following a slow start to the season, deciphering exactly why their double act works has beaten some of the brightest minds at Bramall Lane.
“I don’t know why the partnership works,” Fleck continues. “Honestly, it’s hard to say. Sometimes things work and sometimes they don’t. I enjoy playing alongside him. We’re both probably quite similar players. We like getting on the ball and he likes to start it off and dictate things from the back. That probably suits me too.”
Despite making a quiet start to his United career after leaving Coventry City last summer, Fleck has spent the past seven months demonstrating why a national newspaper once included him on their list of Europe’s ‘Top 50 Rising Stars’. Having progressed through the ranks at Rangers, where Steven Whittaker compared him to Wayne Rooney and Northern Ireland captain Steven Davis claimed he had “all the attributes to be a top, top player”, Fleck actually came within a whisker of joining United in 2011 before heading to Blackpool on loan later that term. With a financial crisis rendering his contract with the Glaswegian giants null-and-void, he moved to the Ricoh Arena at the start of the 2012/13 season before, over 150 appearances later, eventually arriving in South Yorkshire following Wilder’s appointment in May.
“I’ve had it all before, I’m used to it,” Fleck, asked if the pressure of living-up to expectations has ever been a burden, smiles. But I’ve said from day one that it doesn’t matter to me what people think. All that matters to me is working hard and helping the team. If the manager and then team think good of me, that’s what counts.
“You just want to be the best you can be and obviously this is a great club to be at. In terms of all the other stuff, from the past, people make their own minds up. I’ve never had that expectation, to try and match what other people think or think I can do.”
Fleck wrote himself into the Ibrox history books when, in 2008, he became the youngest ever player to win a senior British final after helping Walter Smith’s squad lift the SFA Cup. Despite leaving Rangers at a relatively young age, albeit after collecting a pair of SPL championship medals too, experiencing the Old Firm goldfish bowl and the friends he made whilst representing one of football’s most prestigious clubs continues to serve him well. Davis, now of Southampton, remains a source of encouragement as does former United manager David Weir.
“I know Davo well and I still speak to him every now and then. I still speak to a lot of the boys, including Big Davie Weir. We talk when we can. He’s a fantastic bloke. I was so disappointed for him that it didn’t work out here but he’s got a chance to be an assistant (to Mark Warburton) and he’s doing really well again.”
“In his early days, I think he went to America,” Fleck continues. “He’s come back, worked hard and made a great career. When I was younger, he helped me through the bad times when I was a bit down. It’s not really advice I get from him now, just general chats and stuff like that.”
Wilder, a manager usually reluctant to praise individuals, speaks in glowing terms about Fleck’s influence and the respect is mutual.
“That’s the way the manager is, every day he’s the same in training and he wants it to the highest standard he can,” Fleck reveals. “He’s an honest man and he gives you a clear view, all the time, of what he wants and expects. Every manager has got their own way of doing things and the manager here is just very honest and open. If you want to go and speak to him, then you can. The way he speaks to us, it’s the same way he speaks to the fans about what’s happening as well. There’s a clear view about the club as well. That’s not always the case.”
“Different managers have different personalities and different ways of showing things,” he adds. “Getting told how it is, is all you can ask for as a player.”
Although Fleck insists he has “improved a lot” since joining United, he acknowledges there is “still a lot more to come from myself.” Curiously, given the fact his uncle is former Norwich City, Chelsea and Scotland centre-forward Robert, goals is probably the most obvious weakness in his game. Tuesday’s splendid solo effort against City was only his third of the season.
“I wish the goals would come more with the family name and all. I’ve not spoken to him for a while but so long as I’m helping the team and helping others score goals then that’s okay by me. I maybe need to book an appointment with him. Or maybe I should book one with Sharpy (Billy Sharp) first.”