"The next Souness at Rangers," one radio caller opined. "A future captain of Rangers and Scotland," it was more than once asserted. With every passing month it seemed the hype grew and grew.
What happened to John Fleck? How did it come to happen that he made his first Rangers appearances as a precocious 16-year-old - including one in a Scottish Cup final - but was finished at the club by the age of 21, having failed to make much of an impression?
In a country where we have beaten ourselves up over the so-called drought in emerging football talent in recent years, Fleck was said to be one diamond we could rely on. A star of successive Rangers and Scotland youth teams, he looked refined even at 15, with skill, authority and purpose. Rangers, it was reported, had the next "complete midfielder" in their nursery.
Fleck is now 22, a father to a 12-week-old son, and is playing for Coventry City, in what is in effect the old English third division. It hasn't all gone wrong for him - and he might yet come good - but something still isn't right. Last week, when I?¯tracked him down for a chat, I?¯found Fleck thoroughly relaxed and candid about his experience so far as a professional footballer. And in expressing his current contentment, he was merely the latest ex-Old Firm player to find there is more to football life than Glasgow.
"I'm loving it at Coventry, and loving playing my football in England," Fleck told me. "I?¯think it will be good for my game and my career to be playing down here. I don't have any regrets about leaving Rangers, even though I'm a Rangers fan, and I?¯love the club. My move to Coventry was probably the best thing for me. When I?¯look back now to my time at Rangers, there was so much talk about me. But, I?¯don't know, for various reasons it didn't work out."
Fleck's move from Rangers to Coventry in July 2012 was complicated - he was one of a group of Ibrox players who refused to have their contracts transferred to the "newco" following the club's financial troubles. But the bigger intrigue remains: why had Fleck, said to be a player of enviable ability, not blossomed into the dominant force many had expected?
In January 2009, The Times listed him seventh in their list of 50 Rising Stars of British Football. Fleck had already become one of the youngest players, aged just 16 and nine months, to appear in a British senior cup final, when Walter Smith threw him on as an 85th-minute substitute in the 2008 Scottish Cup final between Rangers and Queen of the South. Smith was hardly cavalier in his approach to youth, so you can take it he, like others, rated Fleck highly.
The player himself remains unperturbed by his career pathway, and even hints there was some exaggeration about his talent. "There was a lot of hype around me at Rangers," Fleck said. "I?¯read some of it and I?¯picked it up just by speaking to people. To be honest, I?¯think some people were making big claims about me, without ever having seen me play. I?¯wasn't affected by any of that stuff then, and I'm still not.
"The thing I?¯found was, there were so many good players at Rangers. It was hard for me to break into the first team. Walter's teams were packed with international players. A few people felt I?¯should have played more games for Rangers, but I have no complaints. I?¯played something like 40-odd games and I played in the Champions League, which was pretty amazing. I?¯also got three league championship medals and a Scottish Cup medal, too, so it wasn't all bad.
"It was tough to leave, coming from a Rangers-supporting family. But I?¯did what was best for me. I?¯gave it my best shot at Ibrox and decided I?¯had to leave. I made the right decision in coming to Coventry. I'm playing regularly, I'm playing in central midfield, my best position, and I'm starting to get really fit. So it is really paying off for me. This was what I?¯felt I?¯needed to kick on."
Most people know the Fleck back-story. He is the nephew of Robert Fleck, who, ironically, also had to leave Rangers, in 1987, having failed to make real headway in a team packed with expensive imports under Graeme Souness. Robert Fleck went on to enjoy a good - and highly lucrative - career in England with Norwich City and Chelsea. Two people have remained the biggest influences on Fleck's career: his father, Alan, and the former Rangers defender David Weir. "When I?¯was a kid with Rangers training up at Murray Park, my dad would be there every day for me, rain or shine, straight home from work to take me up to training. He did everything for me.
"In terms of other players, I?¯have to mention Davie Weir. I?¯don't think I've met a more respected footballer. Just having Davie around, for a chat or some advice, was brilliant for me. I?¯still feel grateful for that."
Many still hope this once much-anticipated footballer might force his way back to a higher level and perhaps back into Scotland contention. However, the mere mention of international football - a constant in Fleck's youth - prompts caution from him today. "I'd love to play for my country - of course I?¯would," he said. "But right now all I?¯need to do is play well for Coventry and keep progressing as a player. If I?¯can do that, then maybe I'll get a Scotland chance in the future."
Steven Pressley, Fleck's manager at Coventry, certainly believes the player will make an international return. "Some of my players have rightly had a lot of attention this season but over the first seven games John Fleck has been nothing short of outstanding," Pressley said. "I?¯don't want to push him too soon but I?¯think if he keeps up this form then, without doubt, he could be a player Gordon Strachan could consider."
Fleck says he has only one intention right now: to progress. "Last season, despite picking up an injury, I?¯played 40-odd games for Coventry," he said. "This season I've played in every game so far. I?¯feel I'm in a new phase in my career, and I?¯want to kick on. I have years ahead of me in football, touch wood, and I'm looking forward to it. I'm pretty happy, really. I?¯don't look back."