Sheffield United v Leeds United: Derby key to play-off ambitions

Rare striker: John Fleck celebrating his goal against the Owls.
Rare striker: John Fleck celebrating his goal against the Owls.
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“It’s been a pretty frustrating couple of months for us.”

That was the evaluation of midfielder John Fleck on Sheffield United’s season, but it so easly could describe the goings-on up the M1 at Leeds United.

When Kemar Roofe netted Leeds’ Boxing Day winner at Burton Albion, Yorkshire’s two heavyweight Uniteds were sitting comfortably in the top six of the Championship, and had serious designs on a top-two finish.

But fast-forward six weeks and the promotion landscape has changed rapidly for these two historic clubs.

Chris Wilder’s Blades have won just twice in 13 Championship games to slide five points adrift of the top six.

Leeds have fared even worse, having failed to win since that Boxing Day success at bottom-of-the-table Burton.

Their two points have come in 0-0 draws against Nottingham Forest and Hull City, and the Whites have conceded four goals in their last two Elland Road outings.

That sorry run eventually cost Thomas Christiansen his job, Barnsley’s Paul Heckingbottom replacing him, with Leeds two points worse off than their South Yorkshire neighbours, sitting 10th in the table.

That is why today’s lunchtime meeting at Bramall Lane is so important to both clubs, and their play-off ambitions.

“We have not been getting consistent results, but performances have been pretty good at times,” Scottish midfielder Fleck told The Yorkshire Post.

“But, as the manager says, it’s a results game and that has seen us slip out of the play-offs – which we haven’t done much since the start of the season – I think that’s been the biggest disappointment.

“It’s been frustrating at times, but now we have got a big game at the weekend and are looking forward to it.

“There are still 16 games remaining, we just need to get back to winning a few on the bounce and see where it takes us.

“Leeds have been pretty similar to us recently, having been on quite a poor run of form.

“They lost their manager last weekend and brought in the Barnsley manager, I am sure he will have them up for the game.

“It should have an impact, I am sure their players will want to impress him.

“I am not sure what went on with other managers, but they have made a change and this one seems a good fit for them.”

The Blades will be looking for their first league double over Leeds in 13 years today, after David Brooks grabbed a late winner at Elland Road in October.

The Whites have actually only beaten the Blades once in the last 25 years, and Fleck is relishing another derby battle.

“These games are great and why the manager wanted to get promotion (to the Championship) straightaway,” said Fleck. “Games like this are what you want to play for, all the boys are looking forward to it.

“At Leeds, we won with Brooks’s goal, a bit of magic from David, and, hopefully, we can get something like that this weekend.

“Derbies are usually tight, not the best to watch football-wise, it’s all about the result.

“I am not sure about me (creating a magic moment), but, hopefully, someone can step up with a goal out of nothing, and get the three points.”

Wilder’s men looked to have turned a corner, in terms of results, having gone five games unbeaten in January.

But back-to-back defeats to Aston Villa and leaders Wolverhampton have put a greater emphasis on today’s result.

“It’s just about getting a win and trying to kick-on,” said Fleck. “It was disappointing to win a game, then lose two, it’s not the best feeling. We need to find that consistency in results, and performance.

“I think with the Wolves game, sometimes you have to hold your hands up and say they were the better team – which they have been for most of the season.”

So is it a good time to play Leeds?

“You could say that, but we have had our own problems as well,” replied Fleck.

“They have a new manager so I am sure their players will be fired up.”

A goal from Fleck today would be welcome, but the former Rangers youngster admits he must improve his scoring record.

The 26-year-old netted in the Steel City derby at Hillsborough, but that is his only goal of the campaign.

“I probably should score more goals, and the manager is on to me quite a lot about it,” he admitted.

“Every time I seem to shoot it hits a defender, so I just look for the pass. Maybe I need to take more care with the shooting, especially from the edge of the box. We do finishing skills in training. Hopefully, I can get one or two in the next few weeks.”

Fleck, of course, is no stranger to big derby games, having played for Rangers as a youngster in the Old Firm clash with Celtic in Scotland.

“The Glasgow derby is a huge game, similar to the Sheffield derby here,” he said.

“The derby games are always the ones which stand out.

“As a player, you need to prepare the same.

“As a fan, you probably act differently, take things a bit further, but as a player you just need to take it as the next game.

“You know there’s going to be a better atmosphere, and probably more tackles flying around.But, the games themselves are probably not the best to watch.”

An ugly 1-0 win this lunchtime would be a beautiful moment for either Wilder or Heckingbottom.