Interview: John Fleck, Rangers forward

Once the hottest prospect in the Scottish game, John Fleck says he’s finally ready to fulfil his potential

SIX years ago as a 14-year-old, John Fleck was hailed as the brightest prospect at Rangers. Five years ago in July, 2007, he made his first team debut as a 15-year-old in a pre-season friendly match. Four years ago, on 23 January, 2008, the nephew of former Rangers favourite Robert Fleck made his competitive debut in a Scottish Cup match against East Stirlingshire. Later that season on 24 May, 2008, at the age of 16 years and 274 days, John Fleck became the youngest player ever to feature in a senior final in Britain when he came on for the last five minutes of the Scottish Cup final as Rangers beat Queen of the South 3-2.

Three years ago on 31 January, 2009, he scored his first competitive goal for the club against Dundee United. Fleck had long been hailed as a true young prodigy, one of Europe’s ten best teenagers, the “Scottish Wayne Rooney”, and at 17 he looked set for a massive career for Rangers and Scotland.

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Then it all went rather quiet on the Fleck front. Reports of a pre-season bust-up with then assistant manager Ally McCoist, trouble on a night out in Glasgow, and protracted contract negotiations all presaged a 2010-11 season in which Fleck was supposed to blossom. But, after a hamstring injury kept him out for two months, the season never really got going. A substitute on the majority of his appearances, it seemed he had become an SPL under-21 benchwarmer rather than the star so many had expected.

Fleck’s frustration with himself and his situation at Ibrox showed last summer when he was eager to go on a six-month loan to Sheffield United but that fell through at the last minute due to botched paperwork.

Since then he has made just four first team appearances as a substitute, and a loan move to Sheffield United or Blackpool in this transfer window looked on.

Eight minutes into last Monday’s match against Motherwell and Fleck was going nowhere – Kyle Lafferty’s hamstring injury brought him off the bench where he performed usefully in the “hole” role, playing between the midfield and David Healy.

Necessity had become the mother of invention for manager McCoist and Fleck now has a genuine chance to finally establish himself on the Ibrox scene.

Fleck said: “I wouldn’t say I’ve got to make the most of this chance especially, but I do want to. I just need to work hard and hopefully come through.”

His manager thinks that his performance against Motherwell is a good sign of things to come.

“It’s hopefully time for John to come of age,” said McCoist. “Time will tell, but with the injury to Lafferty, we are not nearly strong enough in forward areas. Flecky did very well, but he’ll have to continue doing that because it’s an opportunity for him now.”

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The player is realistic about his failure to become a teenage sensation: “People make up their minds about you anyway, don’t they? But hopefully I’ll get a few games now and show them what I can do.

“I definitely think I can still do it here. I’m still young – I’m only 20.

“People have maybe expected me to do well every week but that doesn’t happen when you’re a young boy. It doesn’t even happen to the senior players a lot of the time.”

In retrospect, was he judged too harshly?

“Definitely,” said Fleck. “A lot of people haven’t even seen me but they’ve made up their minds on me. That’s just expectation. But I didn’t put the burden on myself, that’s other people. It’s not my fault if I’m not living up to it.” McCoist has long ago gotten over the “spat” with Fleck who was at pains to say: “It was exaggerated a good bit, there’s never been a problem there. A lot of people seem to think that’s why I’m not playing, but there’s never been a problem between me and the gaffer.

“Whenever any of us feel we need to speak to him, his door’s open and he’ll talk to you for hours if you want. He’s a great guy that way.”

The manager concurs and indeed has considerable sympathy for the young man who could now be so important for Rangers: “He didn’t label himself the ‘next Wayne Rooney’ and all that kind of stuff which I said at the time was absolute nonsense. I still believe it was nonsense.

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“At that particular time not just Rangers, but the whole country was looking for a young talent they could grab hold of and pull us through. John was that and a lot of the expectation that followed was very unfair on him.

“No matter what anyone says, it’s a big pressure as a 17-year-old kid. Maybe the hype did get to him a little bit and he did find it a bit difficult to deal with because we all know he’s a great talent and hopefully it’s all behind him now.

“He’s not 17 any more, so the time has come for John to step up to the mark and become the fine young footballer that we know he can be.”

The loan spell Fleck and McCoist were planning was all about getting game time. As Fleck explained: “I had spoken to the manager and we both decided I had to try to get out to play some football. Then obviously the next day I’m back in here, and to be honest I’m happy with that.”

For his part, McCoist takes “full responsibility” for not picking Fleck as much as he wanted. The player’s preference to play in the “hole” off the strikers is not something Rangers could have accommodated in recent times of 4-4-2 or 4-5-1 formations.

“The reason I’ve not picked him isn’t because of his attitude,” said McCoist. “He’s a difficult character to gauge in terms of what he’s thinking or what his confidence is. He’s a quiet lad.

“But very seldom do his training levels dip, which would indicate to me he’s a confident enough lad.”

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Having been both hyped and derided while still in his teens, Fleck has had a valuable education about the fickle nature of fame. If he’s learned as much about the playing of football, the predictions once made for him may be spectacularly fulfilled.