Sheffield United: The two team mates going head to head when England and Scotland do battle
They might only be cast in supporting roles rather than being thrust centre stage but Aaron Ramsdale and John Fleck, two of Sheffield United’s three representatives at this summer’s European Championships, are still preparing to take part in one of the most eagerly anticipated episodes of the entire tournament.
England versus Scotland in a pivotal group encounter, at Wembley Stadium.
Ramsdale, summoned into the England squad following an injury to Dean Henderson, is set to watch the action from the bench after receiving an unexpected call-up from Gareth Southgate. Fleck, his team mate at Bramall Lane, is also expected to feature among the substitutes - albeit for Scotland - having recovered from Covid-19.
Their presence ensures that Slavisa Jokanovic, recently appointed as United’s new manager, now has more than a passing interest in this clash between two of football’s fiercest rivals. A veteran of numerous Eternal Derbies back home in Serbia, the former Partizan Belgrade midfielder is unlikely to be too impressed by the atmosphere. But because the match means so much to the countries involved, he will be studying how Fleck and Ramsdale handle themselves both before, during and after. Those who have worked with him previously testify that attention to detail, even when it comes to pre and post game workouts, is vitally important to Jokanovic. Likewise an ability to stay focused under pressure.
“Our first objective is qualification,” Southgate said, following Sunday’s win over Croatia. “We haven’t done that yet. We have a very important game for us and our fans coming up.”
That is something of an understatement given both team’s results so far. Although England know a victory will guarantee them a place in the knockout stage, Scotland require one to retain a decent chance of qualifying after losing to the Czech Republic earlier this week.
Fleck, who missed that fixture after being forced to self isolate throughout the rump of their preparations, is set to return to the squad in London.
Although Steve Clarke, the visitors’ manager, has been careful not to write England’s team talk for them ahead of the contest Gordon Strachan, one of his predecessors in the job, believes Scotland can spring an upset after delivering a withering critique of their display against the Croats.
“I don’t think England were that good, when I tuned in I thought ‘Have I got the wrong game here?’, the only bit of class was Kalvin Phillips,” Strachan, now Dundee’s technical director, was quoted as saying afterwards. “It was just okay. I don’t think there was a wow factor.
“Some players played within themselves and it was a good performance rather than a wow performance.”
Despite the fact Ramsdale is the only player on their books who has been selected by Southgate - the goalkeeper was initially culled from the pre-tournament squad only to be rushed back to St George’s Park when the Henderson succumbed to a hip complaint - there is still a strong United flavour to England. Kyle Walker, who started against Croatia, graduated from their Steelphalt Academy youth system before joining Tottenham Hotspur and then Manchester City. Harry Maguire, who could make a surprise return to action tomorrow following injury, is another alumnus. Together they made a total of 201 appearances for United before moving on, with Maguire being signed by Hull City and Leicester City before heading for Manchester United.
“I feel good, I’ve been training now,” Maguire said, effectively declaring himself fit to face the Scots. “Obviously the injury was a set-back club football wise,” he continued, reflecting upon the ankle sprain suffered during a Premier League fixture against Aston Villa which saw him miss both the end of the domestic season and also England’s group opener. “Internationally, I wanted to come into this with a lot of games under my belt with full fitness, but I feel good.
“I’m back available, been training and I’m looking forward to it.”
Scotland could also welcome back a key name in the capital, with Kieran Tierney hopeful of facing the Auld Enemy. The Arsenal defender has been struggling with a calf issue, and is rated as ‘50/50’ to take part in the latest installment of a rivalry dating back to 1872, when the two sides drew 0-0 at Hamilton Crescent in Glasgow. The ground, situated on the north bank of the Clyde, is now home to the West of Scotland Cricket Club.
Although the chances of Ramsdale getting on the pitch are slim to nothing, Fleck’s prospects are pretty decent with Clarke, whose side will want to turn the tie into a physical rather than technical battle, makes changes during the closing stages. The midfielder’s industry and tenacity, combined with high-profile experience after turning professional with Rangers, could prove valuable weapons if Scotland find themselves trying to preserve or overturn a lead.
The emergence of Chelsea’s Billy Gilmour might have pushed Fleck a little further down the pecking order, particularly with United being relegated from the top-flight last term. But he remains a dependable option.
“Every decision is big,” Clarke said, when asked if he might shake things up for the trip south. “Every decision you make is a big decision.
“It’s fine margins. They make the difference. And our game on Monday, against the Czechs, was a game of fine margins. So that’s what we have to try and make sure we take care of in this one. We know what we have to do.”