The Mystery of Fleetwood Town’s Toumani Diagouraga

In the 37th minute of the recent game against Scunthorpe United, Toumani Diagouraga – Fleetwood Town’s latest signing – ran into a pack of players near the touchline and both benches.

Had he come out with the ball, dusted off his shirt slightly and exuded an air of Parisian polish, he would have been officially born as a Fleetwood player.

As it was, he returned to the centre of the park with nothing; a fork without a pea; an unsuccessful Navy SEAL job; a rare gamble that failed to enhance his reputation.
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To look at the 6’ 2”, leggy 30-year-old and central midfielder is to see an imposing ebony wall, a blockade of sorts, a stopper and simple distributor of the ball.

He clearly has two good feet, the required calmness in such a role and the physical stature of a Mali god. And yet, teaming up with his boss of four years ago – Uwe Rösler, whilst at Brentford – has so far failed to yield any noticeable dividends.

One browses Toumani’s Twitter feed and can’t help but see a unique, compassionate individual set on improving the world. Beaten up 87-year-old grandmothers, Martin Luther King Jr, Cyrille Regis, Clarke Carlisle, #kickitout, Cerebral Palsy/Great Ormond Street Hospital – you name it and the giant Frenchman is adding his voice to the cause.

And look at any group photograph and you will notice Toumani’s bountiful smile. He quite simply exudes a cheer and generosity we should all learn from.

Has such charity inadvertently seeped into his play though? Has the courteous no.16 forgotten the blessed rule amongst footballers? Thou shall show no mercy once crossing the white line.

Mark Warburton, Rosler’s successor, said of Diagouraga in April 2015:

Toumani is almost the pulse of the team. He can keep the shape and pick up the second ball. I can’t speak highly enough about [him].

When Fleetwood Town, as a club, recently fell ill – losing far too many games in a league season – the doctor’s prescription read: “Needs a nucleus – a core.”

If Toumani Diagouraga (such a poetic, pronounceable name once you get the hang of it) is to be that core, that linchpin, hub and vital component then he needs to find his self-belief once more – something which Warburton referred to in relation to his consistency and dominance.

He needs to remember one of the proudest weekends of his life (2nd-3rd May 2015) when Brentford made the Championship play-offs and he was named Supporters’ Player of the Year.

But he also – quite crucially – needs to replace such memories, such award-filled lustre (glass trophies weighing down his arms and shimmering against his slick, three-piece suit and spotted tie) with thoughts of Fleetwood Town and what he can bring to this precocious club.

So far, he has been five yards away from the action. An observer. A twitcher. The soft-hearted General reluctant to rip into the opposition. One could argue that if you’re the ‘pick up man’, the second ball winner, then that’s exactly where you should be.

But that would be disingenuous. That would insult the man that Diagouraga was at previous clubs: Hereford United; Peterborough United; Brentford; Leeds United; Plymouth Argyle.

Toumani needs to be involved. He needs to show the Highbury faithful that he is the action, a script writer instead of the passive, unassertive gentle giant we have seen thus far.

He needs to settle, get Plymouth out of his head – a clearly enjoyable chapter in his footballing career and a club three times bigger than Fleetwood in terms of fans.

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It is perhaps no coincidence that six out of the eight bottom sides in League One currently have the worst attendances in the division (Oldham, AFC Wimbledon, Blackpool, Bury, Rochdale and Fleetwood).

This says much about entitlement, belief and divine right. It also, inevitably, feeds into the minds of the players, makes them question their underlying stature and the level of achievement that is realistic.

Good players live beyond simple reciprocation with a vociferous crowd though. They harness conviction, the dreams of a club irrespective of size, and a deep tenet that insists this is their field of play, their territory and no sucker from elsewhere is going to drive things.

Fleetwood currently have the fifth worst defence in the division (48 goals conceded). They have an unusually poor home record (Won 4, Drawn 4, Lost 7). Some of the sparkle and pizzazz has gone AWOL.

Head coach Rosler has tinkered with the formation (from 5-3-2 to 4-3-3) yet still been left with a vulnerable side.

New recruits Kevin O’Connor at left back, Paddy Madden up front and Gethin Jones as defensive cover, following the departure of want-a-ways Devante Cole (to Wigan) and Amari’i Bell (to Blackburn), have revitalised the side yet it is two players, two different recruits, that Fleetwood’s short-term future rests in the hands of: 20-year-old centre half, Charles Oliver, on-loan from Manchester City, and the central protagonist of this article, Toumani Diagouraga (who moved up north to be with his family).

If this spine gets it right (with Chris Neal behind it and Conor McAleny ahead of it) then there is hope. Oliver, during his brief tenure / few minutes on the pitch so far – serendipitously thrust into the limelight due to a red card – has demonstrated strength, positioning, awareness and skill.

He has instantly looked like one of those centre-halves you dream of in terms of being commanding and confident. If he can keep his head and somehow, through his youthful swagger, inspire the man-mountain ahead of him then Fleetwood might thrive once more.

In the aftermath of the postponed game at Rochdale on Saturday, 10th February, The Cod Army finds itself just three precarious points off relegation. Times are becoming desperate indeed.

But Rösler must know something of Toumani’s character. He must know that his steel will eventually come through. That the pulse which Highbury has long sought is just minutes away from registering on the oximeter.

Diagouraga has sacrificed a lot by moving up north. He has jettisoned Home Park (capacity 17,800) for Highbury (5,327). He has admirably put family first in what is a challenging and lonely profession at times. In slowly coming to terms with such magnanimity and largesse, however, he must now start to produce.

For this beautiful club in the north west of England. For this tiny, yet impressive outlier on the footballing map.

He must close that gaping hole in the middle of the park and home in on the opposition. For five yards in football is the equivalent of John o’Groats to Land’s End.

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