John Fleck dominates during Sheffield United's win over Aston Villa but his boss talks about someone else
John Fleck celebrated, Steve Clarke ruminated and Chris Wilder, well, he felt vindicated.
The Sheffield United manager, who earlier this season insisted his midfield pocket rocket possessed “real magic” in his boots, knew Fleck’s strikes against Aston Villa would dominate the post-match conversation.
But first, before he began discussing the 28-year-old’s performance, Wilder wanted to get something off his chest.
“He knows what we think of him,” Wilder told the audience of journalists which had assembled inside Bramall Lane’s media suite.
“He knows what his team mates think of him and he knows what the fans think of him. He doesn’t need me to tell him that, no matter what anyone might think, because he can hear them chanting his name.”
The ‘He’ in question was David McGoldrick. And it spoke volumes, about both the centre-forward’s contribution and United’s ‘all for one’ approach, that Wilder felt compelled to mention his name following this hard-fought but thoroughly deserved victory over another newly promoted club.
Chris Basham, who also helped craft one of Fleck’s efforts, received a special mention too.
“I know Flecky will probably get the man-of-the-match award,” Wilder predicted correctly. “But I thought other people were brilliant. John Lundstram and Ollie Norwood, who were in the middle with him, they covered so much ground and used the ball really well.
“Bash did what he did, coming up with a lovely little touch, and Didzy showed, with his assist, what he is all about.”
Which is, as the thirty or so thousand people crammed inside Bramall Lane witnessed, producing individual yet utterly selfless moments of footballing brilliance.
He might still be without a goal for United since April, failing to convert a relatively simple chance during the closing stages of the game. But the pass - played first time, blind and over the head of a defender - responsible for creating Fleck’s second reminded why, despite his wasteful finishing, McGoldrick remains indispensable to the United cause.
He is, quite simply, one of the most intelligent and technically gifted players in the division. Acquired, remarkably, on a free transfer after being cut loose by Ipswich Town at the beginning of last term.
One member of United’s squad who can convert chances is Fleck, having found the back of the net for the third and fourth times since August during the second-half of the contest.
Previously better known for his refusal to shoot, once declaring he preferred creating opportunities for others, the midfielder has now hit the target as many times in his last seven league outings as he did in his previous 98.
That record, nor his dominance of Villa’s John McGinn on Saturday afternoon, will not have gone unnoticed north of the border, where the pair are seemingly locked in a personal duel for a place in Clarke’s Scotland team.
McGinn appears to be the former Chelsea defender’s preferred option at present; thanks, in no small part, to his prowess in the opposition box. But if Fleck continues to score on a regular basis, Clarke will be forced to consider a change. Not least because, as they prepare for next year’s Euro 2020 qualifying play-offs, Scotland lack firepower in attack.
United were indebted to Fleck’s prowess after struggling, until he pounced early in the second-half, to break down a Villa side intent on making things difficult.
It seemed a strange ploy by the visitors, given they had players like Jack Grealish, who missed a penalty during the closing stages, McGinn and Anwar El Ghazi at their disposal.
But Dean Smith’s tactics were working before Fleck, who will miss Saturday’s trip to Brighton through suspension, broke the deadlock. Lundstram provided the cross after Basham’s superb back heel sliced open the visitors’ defence.
Grealish headed wide from close range but United, continuing to press and dominate possession, doubled their advantage when Fleck, combining with Norwood and McGoldrick, struck again.
Villa were handed a route back into the contest when John Egan, after a VAR review, was deemed to have handled the ball inside the area but Grealish’s spot-kick hit the woodwork.
The result lifted United, who have been beaten only once since the end of September, to within four points of the Champions League places.
“We’re not looking at anything other than the next game,” Wilder said. “That’s the way we’ve always been and always will be.”