Sheffield United: Why John Fleck is delving into his past to try and take care of the future

John Fleck discovered what it takes to be a winner at Rangers: Simon Bellis/Sportimage
John Fleck discovered what it takes to be a winner at Rangers: Simon Bellis/Sportimage
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Kicking a ball around some of the meanest streets in Yoker taught John Fleck how to look after himself. But it was at Rangers, who first spotted the youngster's raw potential, where he learned about pressure, expectation and the importance of winning. No matter what the price or cost.

"When I was there," Fleck remembers, casting his mind back to Ibrox, "That's what you were always expected to do.

Ibrox, where John Fleck started his career: Andrew Milligan/PA Wire.

Ibrox, where John Fleck started his career: Andrew Milligan/PA Wire.

"Not coming out on top was never an option. Especially in the big one, whenever you played Celtic, it wasn't something you could tolerate."

Twelve years after making his debut for the Glaswegians and seven since departing following the 'newco' scandal, the apprenticeship Fleck completed at one of the toughest finishing schools in football remains as meaningful now as it was back then. With Sheffield United challenging for promotion from the Championship and preparing for Saturday’s meeting with Norwich City, the midfielder can be forgiven for reminiscing about his time at Ibrox. After all, as he sips tea in the canteen before a first team training session, Fleck is convinced experiencing the suffocating atmosphere of Old Firm competition can help him help United reach the promised land.

"Okay, at this level it's probably a little different because there's so many big clubs and it's a lot more tougher in the league. Growing-up, Rangers had all the best players and that's why we were always expected to win. 

"There's more competition here, definitely, but it taught me about the winning mentality. Something, in my eyes, that's the most important thing."

John Fleck has signed a long term contract with Sheffield United: Simon Bellis/Sportimage

John Fleck has signed a long term contract with Sheffield United: Simon Bellis/Sportimage

Lots of professionals blather blithely about what it takes to become a winner without ever really grasping of their chosen subject. Others, including those who grew-up inside the Rangers/Celtic goldfish bowl, boast an in-depth understanding after being taught second is nowhere while they were still in short pants. Fleck, who made nearly 60 appearances for the 54 time Scottish champions before spells with Blackpool and Coventry City, was tutored by the likes of Steven Davis, Barry Ferguson and former United manager David Weir; a trio who boast a combined total of 35 major trophies between them.   

"You've got want to do better for yourself, for your team mates and your club," he continues. "You've got to have that desire to try and achieve. To never be satisfied. 

"A lot of players spend their entire careers simply going through the motions, being content to just pick up the money.

"If you want to succeed at a higher level, you have to have a different outlook, one where you always want more and are never satisfied."

John Fleck enjoys living in Sheffield

John Fleck enjoys living in Sheffield

Curiously, although the word rarely enters their vocabulary, Fleck believes true winners know how to cope with defeat.

"You win and lose games, but it’s how you react to that. We all go through difficult periods, but it’s how you bounce back. I was always taught you front up and look what you could have done better. No sulking or anything like that."

Stringing his words together, peppering the conversation with double negatives, Fleck clearly still boasts strong links with his home city. But when he joined United, arriving on a free transfer from the Ricoh Arena, the 27-year-old did not just buy into a football club. He bought into Sheffield too.

"It’s a fantastic club. When you sign a long-term contract you have to uproot everything, your family. It’s all or nothing. I took that step when I first moved here and it’s worked out great so far.

John Fleck hails from Glasgow

John Fleck hails from Glasgow

"It’s pretty similar to Glasgow, some places are nice, some places are rough. I enjoy going out for a coffee with the boys, it’s nice.

"Where I live there’s a mix of Sheffield Wednesday and United fans. The next door neighbours, top people by the way, are one of each. You can get a bit of stick, but I am used to that as a young boy growing up in Glasgow. It’s all fun and games. It’s probably a little bit easier, to be fair, but the banter is good."

Before Fleck takes part in his fourth Steel City derby, there is the small matter of a vitally important showdown at Carrow Road. United, who gained promotion from League One during his first season in South Yorkshire, travel to Norfolk ranked fourth, three points and two places behind their latest opponents.

"The squad has got a lot stronger since I came here, even since last season," Fleck admits. "There has always been a good atmosphere at the club. 

"When you see the good players come in you think if we can keep everyone together something good can happen.

"Up until now, that’s been the case, and we just need to keep that going."

Fleck has been good for United but, as he concedes, United have been good for him too. Midway through last season, which also saw Chris Wilder's side mount a challenge for the play-offs, he signed a new four year contract and 14 months later received a first senior international call-up.

"We all have to keep improving as players," Fleck says. "It's not just about the new lads. If those of us who have been here a while don't have that ethos, it's difficult to achieve. But the character is good, we've got the right attitude among the group and players like Olly (Norwood) and Gary (Madine) coming in, well, that is always going to improve the squad."