Why Sheffield United’s players deserve credit for show of character after shocking John Fleck scenes
Throughout this season, and the previous campaign as well, Sheffield United’s players have routinely been accused of lacking character and mental strength by sections of their fed-up fanbase.
Every Blade will have their own opinions on whether that is a valid charge to level. But even this squad’s harshest critics could not make that accusation about the Blades on Tuesday night, when they played for well over half an hour after watching their teammate and friend John Fleck collapse midway through the second half at Reading.
United were already leading 1-0 at that point through Jayden Bogle’s goal, and had something to cling onto.
But after what was surely such a traumatic experience, it is to their immense credit that they somehow put it to the back of their minds and got the job done for their mate.
United’s players were clearly stricken by what they had seen, after Fleck went down with no-one anywhere near him.
Enda Stevens rushed over and the linesman on that side alerted the referee that something was wrong. But it was the reaction of Fleck’s other teammates that suggested something more serious may have happened - David McGoldrick and Morgan Gibbs-White particularly animated as they jumped up and down and waved for more urgent medical attention to arrive.
After that, all everyone in the stadium could do was wait. A strange sort of hush developed, with spontaneous rounds of applause bursting out now and then in support of Fleck. Fans felt helpless and did all they thought they could do.
Minds will have inevitably raced back to the summer’s Euros and Christian Eriksen collapsing during a Denmark game. But Fleck was eventually back on his feet, albeit wearing an oxygen mask, and carried to hospital. In a sign of how much Fleck means to this group of players, skipper Billy Sharp was one of those helping carry the stretcher.
From there, play resumed and it would not have been surprising at all if United switched off once and Reading equalised.
Understandable, even. The game, a big one in the context of United’s flailing season, didn’t particularly seem that important anymore.
Yet United clung to it admirably, goalscorer Jayden Bogle dedicating the win to Fleck afterwards after United’s players were gathered together in the centre-circle by Sharp at the final whistle. A sign perhaps that, no matter what, this group is still together.
Come Wednesday afternoon the news arrived that everyone had been hoping for - Fleck had been discharged from hospital and was making his way back north, after undergoing extensive medical tests.
He will be observed closely by United's medical department and it remains to be seen how much football he may miss, if any at all.It seemed trivial discussing such matters as the result on Tuesday night, after such a concerning incident.
But in the cold light of day it feels significant that United saw things through. For their teammate. For their friend.
Bogle described the victory as a turning point for United’s season and for a squad that has always thrived in adversity, it may prove to be in more ways than one.