To paraphrase John Sitton: ‘Forget the technical s**t.’ Sometimes it all boils down to heart.
A notion which might not curry favour with the likes of Arsene Wenger or Pep Guardiola. But one John Fleck, remembering Coventry City’s dramatic collapse last season, certainly understands.
“Right now, I always go back to what happened there,” he said. “We started on fire and were top of the league for a while. Then it got to Christmas, we had some poor games and couldn’t grind results out. That’s what cost us. We just didn’t seem able to do that.”
Tomorrow, against Millwall, Sheffield United will definitely have to dig deep. Neil Harris’ side reached the League One play-off final last season and, despite making a less than spectacular start to the new campaign, are expected to be there or there abouts when the race for Championship football reaches a climax in May. Fleck, who joined United after leaving City earlier this summer, is confident the visitors can also last the pace despite Tuesday’s chaotic performance during Tuesday’s 3-0 home defeat by Southend.
Beating Millwall on their own patch, especially given the circumstances, would confirm Chris Wilder’s United is a much tougher beast than the one which limped to an 11th placed finish under Nigel Adkins last term. In a psychological sense at least. Despite being regarded as one of English football’s most intimidating arenas, The Den is rarely filled to capacity suggesting much of the aura surrounding it is all in the mind. Having progressed through the ranks at Rangers and being a veteran of three Old Firm derbies, Fleck knows the difference between true hate and hype.
“It was a great place to come through, a great grounding,” he said. “I’m asked about it a lot and I always say that. It’s hard to describe what it’s like to play in that or even in the city of Glasgow. There’s pressures but, as far as I’m concerned, that’s good.”
Fleck, aged 24, made 182 appearances for City after leaving Ibrox in 2012. A former Scotland under-21 international, his role under Tony Mowbray became the source of much debate with many regular observers of the Midlands club insisting his skills were better suited to an attack-minded role rather than the more defensive one favoured by the 52-year-old. Wilder, who often seems on a personal mission to cut through the techno-babble which blights the modern game, simply “wants midfielders to be midfielders.” Which, given that he is adept at tackling, passing and shooting, should suit Fleck just fine.
“It is one of those things and just the way we played,” he said. “At the start of last season, I got success from playing in there and getting on the ball. I have no complaints, but obviously you want to get forward and try and score some goals as well. Different managers have got different views. You want to do a bit of everything; tackling and getting forward and making passes. But sometimes, you have to stay and hold as well and it is not about the ball. We just need to get used to it.”
Fleck spent yesterday undergoing an intensive course of treatment at the Steelphalt Academy after sustaining an injury against Phil Brown’s side. Although Wilder was fiercely critical of United’s performance - “We gifted them all three goals” - the midfielder and centre-forward Leon Clarke were among a select band of players to escape his wrath.
“John took a knock,” Wilder said. “That’s why we took him off but he was fighting to get back out there. He wanted to carry on and that showed what he’s all about. We didn’t let him because we’d have risked losing him for a while. But the fact he was fighting to get back out and put things right tells you a lot about his make-up.”
“John has got a chance,” Wilder, assessing Fleck’s odds of facing Millwall, continued. “We’ll take a good look at him and if he’s okay then he’ll be involved.”
Fleck worked alongside Clarke at City and, together with captain Billy Sharp, predicted he will prove invaluable this term.
“I played with Leon for a year at Coventry and it was ridiculous with him and Callum Wilson, to be honest,” Fleck said. “I think he guarantees maybe 18 to 20 goals in this league and Sharpy is the same and has played at a much higher level and been a great player for this club over different times. He also guarantees goals and I am sure a lot more will come from them as well. Of course, it takes time. But we all know in football that you don’t get that much time now. We need to get there as quick as possible regardless of how we get points on the board.”