It is a measure of Paul Coutts’ progress this season that John Fleck, one of Sheffield United’s marquee summer signings, has been unable to command a regular place in Chris Wilder’s team.
The former Scotland under-21 and Rangers midfielder, ostensibly signed to replace his compatriot, has instead found himself beginning games on the bench in recent weeks as Coutts finally produces the type of form which earned him a move to Bramall Lane.
Although Wilder has reassured Fleck he still has a bright future at the League One club - “John will be a big player for us going forward, just you wait and see” - the 48-year-old insisted no player is guaranteed a first team place when the question was posed last week.
Despite starting his first match since August 30 at Scunthorpe on Saturday, Wilder revealed Fleck has still made his presence felt behind the scenes.
“John’s attitude, I’ve got to say, has been superb,” he said. “The lad comes in every single day, gives everything he’s got and makes sure those around him are able to work properly too. That’s exactly what you want to see because, no matter what anyone might think, how we do this season is going to depend on the group. It also means that, when an opportunity arises, he’s always going to be in the best possible position to take it. He’s been an example to others in that regard.”
Wilder, whose team returns to action against Bristol Rovers tomorrow, placed Coutts on the transfer list after taking charge in May. But, having apparently benefited from United’s new no-holds-barred training regime, he now looks sharper, both mentally and physically, than at any time since arriving in South Yorkshire 20 months ago.
“Obviously, John would rather have been starting,” Wilder said. “I’d be worried if he wasn’t. We’re always honest and open with the lads because, as a player, that’s the least you deserve. My door is always open and I’ll never turn anyone away of they want to knock on it and have a chat.”
“John, like I say, will be an important player for us going forward because we all know the qualities he’s got,” Wilder added. “It’s up to him to make sure someone else stays out of the side. He’s always supported the rest of the lads and made sure the players who were in from the off were properly prepared for the games.”