John Joins!

John Joins!

Rovers decided to keep the entire fanbase on tenterhooks as they waited until 45 minutes after the official 11pm deadline, last night, to announce their third and final Deadline Day incoming, as three-time Scottish Premier League winner and two-time promotion winner with Sheffield United, John Fleck, arrived at Ewood Park on a free transfer until the end of the 2023-24 season.

The 32-year-old central midfielder is no stranger to Lancashire, having previously had a loan spell at Blackpool earlier in his career, however he arrives on the East side with a vast array of experience and ready to part his wisdom onto the young, talented and hungry players within Rovers’ ranks.

Fleck started his career in his hometown of Glasgow at the blue side of the Old Firm, emerged from Rangers’ academy. After being named in a Rangers first-team squad aged, just 17, his game evolved as he became a bit-part player during a very successful era for the Teddy Bears, playing his part – despite only being in his late-teens – in winning three consecutive Scottish League titles, between the games of 17 and 19 as he played 36 games across all three league seasons, in a stacked ‘Gers midfield, that included the likes of ex-Rover, Barry Ferguson and Steven Davis, who would go onto play for Southampton for six years.

By the summer of 2011, Fleck was beginning to find game time hard to come by as Rangers appointed former record goalscorer, Ally McCoist – who was previously Walter Smith’s assistant – as manager. With McCoist and Fleck previously at loggerheads, leading to Fleck being dropped from the team, the midfielder found game time hard to come by under the former Scottish striker, thus sought temporary departure from the club, yet despite holding talks with future club, Sheffield United in the summer, it was Blackpool who won the race for his temporary release in January. Despite having played a few times under McCoist, Fleck was allowed to come to Lancashire, but only played eight games during the second-half of the 2011-12 season.

Over the summer of 2012, with Rangers having financial problems which would later see them relegated to the fourth tier of Scottish football, Fleck exercised an option as part of the difficulties to be released from his ‘Gers deal. As a result, League One’s Coventry City moved quickly to snap him up under Andy Thorn. Despite playing only one league game under Thorn, who was sacked in late August, current Coventry boss, Mark Robins was appointed in September 2012 and began to utilise Fleck in a rotational role, as a deep midfielder, playing the full 90 minutes just eight times, between September & Robins’ departure in March. After the arrival of Steven Pressley for the final block of the campaign, Fleck played in all of Pressley’s final ten games, playing 90 minutes in seven of them. Despite not nailing a starting place throughout the whole campaign, the Scot did end the season with three goals and seven assists in his first League One season.

2013-14 – his second season in the Midlands and his first full one under Pressley – saw him play 43 of the 46 games, as City finished 18th in the table, as notched up five assists from a more attacking position, behind the strike duo of Callum Wilson and Leon Clarke. Pressley continued into 2014-15 as the Sky Blues were faced with sales of important assets such as Cyrus Christie to Derby County and Callum Wilson to AFC Bournemouth, but Fleck remained a key cog in the side – playing all but two of the league games that campaign, claiming four assists – even after future Rover, Tony Mowbray took charge of Coventry in March 2015.

Whilst 2015-16 proved to be Fleck’s final year in the Midlands, Tony Mowbray utilised the midfielder’s passing strengths, playing him as part of a pair of holding midfielders alongside the more defensive-minded Romain Vincelot. This allowed Fleck to excel at both sides of the game, as he ended the season with four goals and five assists, from 40 league outings, as he became incredibly successful at assisting another future Rover, in Adam Armstrong. Sadly for Mowbray and co, they were unable to sneak into the playoffs as they agonisingly finished 8th in the table, five points behind 6th placed Barnsley, who won the playoffs, after a poor second-half to the campaign. Despite picking up a double in Coventry’s Fan & Player’s Player of the Year awards, Fleck swapped the Midlands for Yorkshire in the summer of 2016, by finally moving to long-time suitors, Sheffield United.

Chris Wilder snapped up Fleck and former Rover, Jack O’Connell in a double deal in the summer of 2017 as the Blades prepared for their sixth consecutive season in the third division. The move turned out to be worth the wait for both parties as the Blades stormed to the League One title as centurions as Fleck notched up the best season of his career with four goals and a whopping 17 assists in the league, which jointly earnt him the club’s Player of the Year award, alongside Billy Sharp, as the red side of Yorkshire reunited with their rivals in the Championship for 2017-18.

After promotion, Sheffield United survived with consummate ease, finishing in 10th place in 2017-18, as Fleck notched another two goals and eight assists as well as retaining his Player of the Year award, but it wasn’t until 2018-19 – now 27 – where he shone and showed his class at both ends of the field as Chris Wilder guided his boyhood club to a second promotion in three years, finishing 2nd behind Marcelo Bielsa’s Leeds United as the pair returned to the Premier League after over a decade of absence. During that promotion-winning campaign, Fleck formed a fantastic partnership with Oliver Norwood and John Lundstrum as they held the perfect midfield trio as Chris Wilder’s fluid 5-3-2 system took the second tier by storm, as Fleck ended the campaign with two goals and 10 assists, enroute to the Premier League.

A first ever season in the English top-flight for Fleck saw him and his teammates excel to their maximum as despite reaching the heights of Champions League spots, their campaign eventually plateaued as they finished in an incredibly respectable 9th place, despite the interruption of the COVID-19 pandemic, which was their highest finish since 1991-92. Although, as would be expected, Fleck’s influence over games decreased against higher quality players, he did end the season with more league goals than assists – five and two, respectively – for the first-time in his career. After signing a three-year deal in February 2020, 2020-21 proved to be a season of immense struggle for the Blades who failed to recover from the pause brought by the pandemic – and were without their Bramall Lane crowd – as they finished rock bottom of the Premier League, which cost Chris Wilder his job in March, as Paul Heckingbottom took interim charge from March onwards, before being offered the role permanently in the summer, as the Blades prepared for another Championship season.

Their return to the second tier saw them finish 5th and secure a playoff spot as fans returned to stadia across the United Kingdom, but despite being roared on by their support, as well as Fleck contributing with two goals and three assists from 37 games – including the two playoff semi-finals – the Blades fell to eventual winners, Nottingham Forest on penalties after a 3-3 aggregate draw and 120 minutes. Although Fleck did score the equaliser that took the game to extra-time, he was unable to help his side progress to the lucrative final at Wembley.

Last season – 2022-23 – saw Sheffield United get rid of their hoodoo to return to the Premier League as they finished 2nd once again, but this time behind Rovers’ bitter rivals, Burnley. Whilst Fleck’s game time reduced to just 26 games, he did pitch in with a goal and an assist, as his side did the business, both in the league and in the FA Cup as Sheffield United came from behind to beat Rovers at Bramall Lane, 3-2 in the Quarter Finals to get to Wembley where they were dismantled 5-0 by Manchester City. Since their return to the Premier League this season, the Blades have again struggled to re-adapt to the upper echelons of league pyramid, and turned to the familiar face of Chris Wilder to replace Paul Heckingbottom – 33 months after his sacking – with Fleck only playing four games before his departure to Rovers.

On an international level, Fleck has played for the Tartan Army with his debut coming in a 4-0 away defeat to Russia in 2019, but has since made five total appearances for the Scots, with his last coming in 2021. Although Fleck was part of Steve Clarke’s 26-man squad for Euro 2020, he did not play a game as they finished bottom of their group.

Fleck arrives at Ewood Park with a wealth of experience that will no doubt go a long way to please Jon Dahl Tomasson, who has received the know-how that he specifically requested, both in the summer and throughout the campaign. The midfielder will prove a fine asset and more than capable replacement for the departed Adam Wharton, as well as provide cover, before the return to fitness of John Buckley.

Welcome, Flecky!