Match Analysis: John Fleck presses his case for a Scotland call-up with an irresistible display during Sheffield United's emphatic victory over Bolton Wanderers.
With Scotland seemingly forgetting the fact that John Fleck is Scottish, Northern Ireland manager Michael O'Neill, who watched this match unfold from the stands, probably spent his weekend researching John Fleck's ancestry after the midfielder's exemplary display proved the catalyst for Sheffield United's finest performance of the season so far.
Fleck's failure to win a senior international cap is one of the Championship's greatest sporting mysteries and, having used his graft, guile and cunning to plot Bolton Wanderers' downfall, a damning indictment of Hampden Park's selection policy if he is overlooked once again when Alex McLeish's latest squad is unveiled tomorrowÂ morning.
Still, after hearing the 27-year-old reveal what is fuelling United's latest push for promotion, Chris Wilder and his staff could be forgiven for hoping his ambitions are placed on hold until the play-off positions are decided.
"We might not be the most famous footballers out there," Fleck admitted, "But I don't think that's a bad thing because it makes us even more determined. We know we need to be on it every single game and enjoy that aspect of proving people wrong. You don't have to be a household name, the gaffer has proved that since he came in. He always tells us it doesn't matter what is written across the back of your shirt, so long as you give 100 per cent for what is on the front of it."
Fleck and his team mates did exactly that during an embarrassingly one-sided fixture; wrecking Wanderers' unbeaten start to the new campaign and claiming their third straight league win in the process. Indeed, as Phil Parkinson's side struggled to lay a glove on the visitors, there were moments when the contest resembled a training ground exercise in attack versus defence rather than a competitive encounter. Fleck's goal, which came following earlier efforts from Mark Duffy and Kieron Freeman, not only ensured the scoreline reflected United's superiority but also highlighted the qualities which made them so irresistible. Billy Sharp's persistence set the move in motion before, having dragged Wanderers' defence out of position, Enda Stevens' cross was converted in emphatic fashion.
"We probably could have got a couple more to be fair," Fleck said. "For the last quarter-of-an-hour we just say in and let them ping long balls forward. It was a great three points and, from my perspective, totally deserved."
Despite their patience, attention to detail and intelligence, United's fighting spirit was the critical factor here. Wanderers' tactics are not shrouded in secrecy; Parkinson's men attempt to wear opponents down with an unashamedly physical approach before launching a sustained aerial bombardment. But by confronting the challenge head-on, Wilder's men were able to impose their own style on the game instead of being dragged into a war of attrition. With Josh Magennis, Wanderers' greatest threat, eventually subdued following a promising start, United's more technical performers were then able to flourish. Like Fleck, Oliver Norwood dictated proceedings from deep and instigated attack after attack while substitute David McGoldrick, who replaced the injured Leon Clarke, produced a superb second-half cameo.
"I think, for us, attitude is the biggest thing," Fleck continued. "It was very important we got off to a good start and matched their fight. The manager told us in pre-season that we needed to improve as a group. We've done that and he's brought some really good new players in. That's important because, after going so close last time around, we're looking to drive it forward."
Fleck had already hit the underside of the crossbar when Duffy powered a low drive past Ben Alnwick. The Wanderers' goalkeeper, who later produced an excellent save to deny McGoldrick, was beaten again when Clarke, in the mistaken belief Sharp was better positioned behind him, stepped over Freeman's cross which duly sneaked into the bottom corner of the net. It was a moment of good fortune but, after dominating the opening exchanges, no less than United deserved. However, even more so than the intelligence of their passing and movement, game management was arguably United's most impressive quality. Clarke made an excellent clearance to deny David Wheater just before the interval but, for the most part, Wanderers spent the afternoon aimlessly chasing shadows. It suggested United's have learnt the lessons of last season's ultimatelyÂ ill-fated top six push, when too many points were simply thrown away, and a growing maturity.
"For the majority of the game, I was playing behind the ball," Fleck said. "But, when there was the chance to get beyond their centre-halves, I saw the opportunity. You've got to stay defensively strong in this division and we did that. But we chose our moments well."