Sheffield United: How the Old Firm goldfish bowl proved to be the making of a Blades and Scotland star

There were times when the pressure was excruciating. Knowing that a draw would provoke the type of post-match inquest usually reserved for absolute shellackings, let alone a defeat.

Friday, 15th November 2019, 8:55 pm
John Fleck started his career with Rangers: Danny Lawson/PA Wire

But as he reflects on his life growing-up in the goldfish bowl that is Old Firm football, John Fleck believes it helped equip him with the skills to become a Premier League footballer. One who, after impressing for Sheffield United, hopes to become indispensable for Scotland as well.

"When I was younger, at Ibrox, there was pressure the whole time," he says, reflecting upon his time with Rangers. "Regardless of whether it was the youth team or the first team, it was all about winning. That was the only thing you were expected to do. Losing wasn't good enough. It just wasn't accepted and that gives you a certain mentality. You have to get used to it otherwise you'll go under. It's really demanding."

After being named in his country's squad for games against Cyprus and Kazakhstan, Fleck hopes to win his second senior cap when Steve Clarke's side visit Nicosia tomorrow afternoon. Having been ignored by many of his predecessors, the former Chelsea defender has placed Fleck at the heart of plans to transform Scotland's fortunes following a miserable Euro 2020 qualifying campaign. But to fully understand what makes him tick, to discover what has enabled the 26-year-old to prove a success at United, one must scroll all the way back to his days in Glasgow where, after making his professional debut as a teenagers, many Rangers fans dubbed Fleck the next Wayne Rooney. Although it proved difficult to live up to those expectations at the time, moving to Bramall Lane following spells with Blackpool and Coventry City has finally seen the midfielder begin to realise some of that potential.

Sign up to our Sheffield United newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

John Fleck of Sheffield United and Scotland: Simon Bellis/Sportimage

“It’s just something you get used to, I don’t think it changes you," Fleck admits. "I’d had that since I was eight or nine-years-old and at that age I don’t suppose you really think about things like that. It’s just a mentality that grows in you and I think it’s stayed with me."

Speaking before Fleck was summoned to Edinburgh ahead of the meeting with Ran Ben Shimon's side, Wilder argued his experiences north of the border are proving beneficial now. After heading to England when Rangers were placed into administration, Fleck was signed by Coventry City before joining United soon after Wilder's appointment in May 2016. The move to South Yorkshire has delivered two promotions and, assuming he is selected against Manchester United next weekend. 151 appearances.

Fleck, who saw a move to United collapse before his loan move to Bloomfield Road seven years ago, agrees with Wilder's theory. Indeed, after helping his club climb to fifth in the table, he insists it can also be applied to many of his team mates as well. Enda Stevens, John Lundstram and John Egan are among those who failed to make the grade at the highest level before helping United reach the top-flight.

"There are obviously difficult times but it’s about having the right mentality, especially when things aren’t going so well," Fleck says. You need to keep working hard, keep improving to get to the level where you want to be and I’ve had to do that, as have a lot of the squad here."

John Fleck in action for Sheffield United: Simon Bellis/Sportimage

"I certainly appreciate it more," he continues. "I’ve worked hard to get here and so have a lot of us.

"I can only speak for myself but it’s a great position to be in and we want to stay here for as long as we can. It’s about sticking together as a group and seeing if we can stay there this season especially."

Clarke will hope that Fleck can inject the same outlook into a Scotland squad whose hopes of reaching next year's finals now depend upon negotiating safe passage through the play-offs.

"The next two games are basically about breeding confidence ahead of those games," Fleck says. "It’s just about going to set up right as a team and getting points on the board, really."

Rangers are one of the most demanding clubs in world football: Andrew Milligan/PA Wire

United centre-forward Oli McBurnie could also feature in the Cypriot capital after being selected by Clarke, whose midfield options also include John McGinn of Aston Villa, Celtic's Callum McGregor and Stuart Armstrong of Southampton.

"I’d like to think I could do a job there but there are five or six other very good midfielders playing at a very good level as well," Fleck acknowledges. "There’s competition, especially in the middle areas of the park, for Scotland.

"In terms of ability, that’s probably the best part of the team as it has been for a number of years. There are just so many players in that position and any one of us could play."