JOHN FLECK’S importance to Sheffield United’s imminent Championship return has never been in doubt. He alongside Paul Coutts, one of last season’s surprise packages after beginning the campaign on the transfer list, commanded a midfield engine room which powered the Blades to the League One title.
But if anyone needed reminding of how important the Scot will be as United step into a brave new world after six years in the doldrums, the match-winner’s sterling performance in the pre-season 1-0 win against Malaga was a perfect way to jog the memory.
Fleck, 26 next month, admitted before the friendly in Andalucia, that he struggled in the heat of last season’s La Manga training camp after joining the club on a free transfer from Coventry. What a bargain that was. He showed little sign of it this time and even looked miffed at being replaced in the 73rd minute.
Fleck ran the show against a Spanish club that finished 11th in La Liga last season and is preparing for its 10th consecutive year as a member of Spain’s top flight backed by 23,000 season ticket sales so far. Their last match, in May, was a 2-0 home defeat to Real Madrid which clinched the Galacticos’ record 33rd La Liga title.
United's squad relax on a yacht off Marbella but who's that princely-looking guy gatecrashing on the right clutching his money bag?
Admittedly Malaga boss and former Real Madrid star Michel used his side’s first warm-up as a purely experimental exercise, replacing his entire starting line-up for another Xl after the break. He is rebuilding his squad and is looking to replace 22-year-old striker Sandro Ramirez, sold for £5.2m to Everton earlier this month.
But nonetheless the intensity of the contest was surprising and the Spaniards, so good in possession as expected, could not break down United’s defence. Chris Wilder’s men demonstrated they are no slouches going forward themselves in the most competitive of friendlies you are ever likely to see.
Fleck’s timing, vision and mastery of the simple pass – gifts few players at any level manage to replicate – was a joy to watch. He topped it all off with a trademark blast from 20-odd yards which left Malaga’s new goalkeeper Roberto Rosales clutching at fresh air after smart work by Samir Caruthers found the opening.
Surprisingly for such a match tackles from both sides were unrestrained but United came off worst as far as the referee was concerned, unused to the British approach to winning the ball as he issued yellow cards to Chris Basham, Leon Clarke, Fleck and James Hanson. Wilder said: “It's amazing, there were tackles going in there that were sneaky and a little but naughty that the referee didn't pick-up on and anytime that we made contact we end up in [receiving] a yellow card. We said before [kick-off] some of the decisions you're going to shake your head at.”
But Wilder was pleased by his team’s performance. “They [Malaga] were always going to have a lot of the ball but I thought we acquitted ourselves well. We're in good shape and maybe after the first 10 minutes just grew in confidence. I'm delighted in every aspect of our play tonight.”
Malaga boast a shiny 30,000 capacity stadium, the Estadio La Rosaleda. It hosted three World Cup group matches in 1982, including Scotland’s 5-2 win against New Zealand.
No such experience for 750 travelling Blades fans perched on what to all intent and purpose was temporary seating in the the grandly-named Burgos Quintana Stadium located a couple of miles outside the small town of Coin in the Andalucian countryside. Part of the Marbella Football Centre where United were based 20 miles away, it offered a surreal experience akin to Brighton’s old Withdean Stadium, complete with surrounding running track but without the heavily wooded setting and a mountain backdrop.
Coin’s modern claim to fame is that it is where the BBC filmed a disastrously short-lived soap opera about Brits living in Spain called Eldorado. But there was nothing flaky about United’s performance. If the 9-0 romp at Stocksbridge Park Steels six days earlier, where United flexed their pre-season muscles for the first time, only served to demonstrate the yawning gulf between the visitors and Northern Premier League Division One South, this fixture revealed much more.
Defensively United looked like a unit. First glimpse of new signing Richard Stearman, who spent last year on loan from Fulham at Championship Wolves, confirmed what an asset his arrival should prove to be.
Basham gave his all, Kieron Freeman picked up where he left off, posing an attacking threat down the right in his customary wing-back role. And yes, Jack O’Connell, who spent four years living in Malaga as a youngster, is still wearing that magic hat.
Up front last season’s 30-goal top scorer Billy Sharp was lively and even struck up a partnership with Clarke, something that was lacking on the few occasions they were paired in League One.
Both moved aside for Caolan Lavery and James Hansen in the second half. Lavery, who scored a hat-trick at Stocksbridge, was kept at bay this time and it has to be said that United’s attacking threat was diminished by the changes.
CHED EVANS IN A SHEFFIELD UNITED SHIRT FOR THE FIRST TIME SINCE 2012.
Cue Ched Evans who replaced Fleck with 17 minutes of normal time remaining. Ironic that after all the nationwide controversy that has acompanied the striker in recent years, he finally pulled on a United shirt for the first time since April 14, 2012, almost unnoticed in a Spanish backwater.
There was, however, to be no fairytale comeback. Unlike his previous appearance at Bramall Lane in 2012 when he scored his 35th goal of the season in a 3-1 win against Leyton Orient, this time there was much huffing and puffing and a tame long-distance effort driven low into the hands of Malaga’s keeper. Nevertheless it was a big few minutes for the former Welsh international who served half of a five-year jail sentence and was later to have a conviction for rape overturned and in a retrial be found innocent.
Having made a start he will be keen to show Wilder, if given the chance against former club Chesterfield who last summer offered the striker a chance to restart his career after four years out of the game, in the upcoming friendly at the Proact Stadium.
There is certainly an opportunity to make the centre-forward role his own if he can recapture anything like the form he demonstrated, albeit in League One, all those years ago. It’s often forgotten that in his two Championship season’s at the Lane, he was widely regarded as a £3million flop, scoring just 13 goals in 74 appearances, a rate of one almost every six matches.
If anyone can get the best out of him, however, Evans is in the right place. The ‘Wilder effect’ was transformational for the likes of Coutts, Freeman and Basham, the latter who is now a much more confident, disciplined and reliable performer. Strangely on the night in Spain, Coutts looked sluggish and offered little hint of the outstanding contribution he made last season.
There was first sight of Enda Stevens, signed from Portsmouth in May, who replaced Daniel Lafferty on the left at half time and made a quiet debut. But David Brooks, who scored in the final for England Under-20s in their recent Toulon Tournament triumph and was voted player of the competition, made his mark in Spain. It was easy to see why the young midfielder’s loan deal to Chesterfield, part of a £500,000 package for Evans, was aborted.
England Under-20 star David Brooks impressed after coming on for second half in Spain.
Expect Warrington-born Brooks, reported to have interested Everton after the Goodison Park Under-23s’ head of recruitment and former Blade Jamie Hoyland, went public on the player’s exciting potential, to be granted his league debut soon.
Neither side created many clear cut chances but goalkeeper Simon Moore, redundant for much of the time, will be pleased with two fine saves when called upon. The first low down to his right in the first half followed by a fingertip push over the bar late in the match.
Malaga midfielder Jony Rodriguez claimed fitness levels were responsible for his team's defeat. “English teams are characterised by that intensity,” he said. “They’ve also had one or two weeks more in training than us, which shows. We’ve been training in triple and double sessions and our legs are feeling heavy, so perhaps in that respect they were a little lighter.”
United skipper Billy Sharp, like his boss, was pleased with his own and his teammates showing against opposition that was so obviously technically superior. “It was a tough test against quality opposition but we're happy, we won 1-0, we've kept the winning habit running and the boys have performed really well,” he said.
“To say that was the second pre-season game I thought the standard from the boys in both halves was pretty high. When Flecky scored the goal that settled us down, we defended very well, kept our shape as a team. We're delighted with the result really. To come and play someone from the Spanish league and get a 1-0 win, it's good for confidence.”
Sharp believes United have benefited greatly from their few days in Spain. “It's been one of the best pre-season trips I've been on,” he added. “We've got a lot out of it so we go back to England now with a good fitness base.”
United: Moore, Freeman, O’Connell, Basham, Stearman Wright 68), Lafferty (Stevens 46), Fleck (Evans 71), Coutts, Carruthers (Brooks 45) Clarke (Hanson 45), Sharp (Lavery 45). Subs unused: Thomas, Bennett, Eastwood.
Malaga: Roberto, Mikel, Luis Hernandez, Pablo, Borja, Juanpi, Chori, Rosales, Keko, Robles, Deco. Subs: Cifu, Recio, Baysse, Jony, Torres, Adrian, Prieto, En Nesyri, Mula, Munoz, Carlos, Harper, Hicham, Arturo.