John Fleck hoping to finally banish the long wait with Scotland
After waiting as long as John Fleck has to make a Scotland debut, the prospect of doing so on an artificial pitch in the middle of a featureless frozen steppe 4000 miles from home is still suitably thrilling.
The former Rangers player puts it well. “I’d play in the car park if I could get that chance,” he said. “It is a great occasion for me and my family to be called up again.”
When he says again, he is referring to the last squad, when he was an unused substitute against Israel after answering a late call to replace the injured John McGinn. It was his first experience of being involved.
Alex McLeish can be reassured about one thing: he has a willing conscript in the Sheffield United midfielder. “I am just very happy and grateful to be here,” said Fleck. “I have been playing well for my club and it has helped me get to this stage and hopefully I can be involved at some stage. If not I will just be happy to be involved in the squad.”
Having been called up relatively late in his career the 27-year-old Fleck has firmly trashed the once common portrayal of him as the football equivalent of a child film star who hit the skids. If anything he is maturing like a fine wine.
It is incumbent to mention his high-profile breakthrough at Rangers when he was just a teenager. He made a non-competitive debut in a friendly against SV Lippstadt 08 when he was just 15-years-old and featured in a Scottish Cup final at 16.
He scored his first goal for Rangers against Dundee United at Ibrox just a year later. When AC Milan played Rangers in a friendly ten years ago last month David Beckham was moved to describe Fleck as a “special talent” while also urging caution when comparing him to Wayne Rooney, as many were wont to do at the time. He was right on that front: Fleck soon lost his way at Rangers amid financial turbulence and reported tension with the coaching staff. He lacks any of the expected bitterness about the expectation heaped on him at Ibrox.
“A lot of people had their own view on it,” he said. “People might say I never did as well as I could or whatever but I always knew myself and I just worked hard. Obviously I moved away and it is starting to help me now.”
When the time came to decide whether he wanted to switch his contract to Rangers newco he declined to do so thereby setting in motion a new career trajectory in England. He joined Coventry City, another club without their financial troubles to seek. But it’s worked out for him in the long run and now at Sheffield United he is in sight of the Premier League. The Blades are currently lying in second place in the Championship with eight games left.
“It was my choice (to leave Rangers),” he said. “Obviously I was in and around the squad. I was not a first-team regular if you like, and I just thought I had to go out and find myself as a player. Even when I went to Coventry it took me some time to get over moving away and that. I just thought of kicked on from there and kept working hard. Thankfully it’s got me here.
“It was a big call,” he added, with reference to moving to England when he was just 19 years-old. “I think now looking back it was the right call as well. I could have stayed there but would I have played? I am not so sure. I had to go out and get regular first-team football and I have played quite a few games since I have done that.”
It was an uncertain period at Rangers but he cannot recall anyone trying especially hard to convince him to stay. He can’t even recall the details – whether Walter Smith or Ally McCoist was in charge. “It was through all that (financial) stuff,” he said. “I am not sure if Coisty might already have taken over.”
The important point is he has made it here, to the brink of a full international cap. The geographical detail is irrelevant though of course there’s easier places to get to than Astana if his family wish to witness such a significant occasion. Nevertheless Fleck is clearly excited by the possibility of making this belated next step after winning four Under-21 caps and nine at Under-17 level. This illustrates why his career is reckoned to have tailed off after such an explosive start. In reality he contends it’s been slowly burning towards a crescendo. With so much still in front of him, he might well be right.
Fleck salutes his father, Alan, for helping him throughout. Fleck senior was an amateur player and even though his brother Robert played for Rangers, Norwich City and Chelsea among others, he’s helped guide Fleck Jnr through the highs and lows of professional football to date. “He was supposed to be better than Robert!” said Fleck, whose knowledge of his uncle’s career is sketchy.
“I have seen some videos and that,” he said. “I never actually watched him. I have not spoken to him for years to be honest. I can’t actually remember the last time I spoke to him.”
It was long thought the nephew would outstrip the uncle’s tally of four caps. While it’s taken longer than expected for Fleck to get going, it might yet happen.