Sheffield United: 'This is the player I always feared at Fulham' - Slavisa Jokanovic pays tribute to Blades midfielder John Fleck

Slavisa Jokanovic has welcomed John Fleck’s return to form, saying the midfielder now resembles the player he always feared facing before taking charge of Sheffield United earlier this summer.

Monday, 20th September 2021, 5:00 am

Fleck’s performances at the beginning of the season, when United appeared devoid of self-belief and confidence after being relegated from the Premier League, fell way below the standards he set during his first five years at the club.

But the arrival of several new players on loan, including Morgan Gibbs-White and Conor Hourihane, have coincided with a dramatic improvement in Fleck’s fortunes.

Speaking after United’s 3-1 victory over Hull City, Jokanovic admitted the Scotland international’s recent displays remind him of those he produced when United faced Fulham during their previous spell in the Championship.

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“John is really growing in confidence and in form,” the Serb, who spent three years in charge at Craven Cottage, said. “Over the last week, he has really come forward many steps.

“This now, this is the John Fleck I know when I used to play against him. I always considered him a really important player when he was with my opponents. He was one of my rivals back then, yes, but he was always a rival I was very impressed with.”

United’s win at the MKM Stadium continued their impressive sequence of results since the international break. After beating Peterborough 6-2, United were also on the verge of dispatching Preston North End until the visitors snatched a draw deep into added time. Despite the disappointment of conceding a late equaliser, the football United produced was still a marked improvement on the lacklustre, disjointed work they produced during Jokanivic’s first month at the helm.

The timing of Fleck’s resurgence confirms the Serb was right when, after expressing frustration with the speed of his employer’s progress towards the end of the transfer window, he argued “clean minds” were required to help existing members United’s squad recover from the mental trauma of surrendering their top-flight status.

John Fleck looks back to his best: Simon Bellis / Sportimage

“He, John, has come back and has taken three really big steps forward after the international break,” Jokanovic said. “He has put himself back to a really high level, the type of level I always remember him for and that tells you about his approach and work ethic.

“Because of that, he is a really big miss if he is not in (the team) now. He is the player that I always remember and had so much respect for.”

Jokanovic elected to name Oliver Norwood and Iliman Ndiaye on the bench in East Yorkshire, with the latter suffering from cramp during his first two senior starts. Both could return to action when Southampton visit Bramall Lane tomorrow for a Carabao Cup third round tie, although Jokanovic and his coaching staff have used the competition to give experience to members of United’s development squad.

“We have choices,” Jokanovic said. “With John, there is also Iliman who wants to come through. There is Oliver Norwood too, who is also a really important player for my team. There is competition from them and there must be at every level possible, because that means we can choose the best options for different situations.”

John Fleck during the win over Hull City: Simon Bellis / Sportimage