“They’ve not got an edge, have they…” – a grandma on Row C of the Highbury Stand commented in the 20th minute of Fleetwood Town versus Rochdale. She was referring to Joey Barton’s second home game in charge and the slightly banal and colourless display before us.
On paper watching a Barton team should be like tripping through the Louvre, the Tate Modern or the Museo Nacional del Prado. There should be detail, slick brush strokes, intrigue, captivation and dominance.
This, however, this was a torturous circus for the first half hour – a doleful meandering of flesh; not much different to Barton’s managerial debut on 4th August versus Wimbledon bar the starting eleven which had six different faces.
Joey is still working it out, still tinkering with his formula, still writing his programme notes like his predecessor, Uwe Rösler only without wishing the opposition “a safe trip home”.
Perhaps that’s what the dead hand of chairman, Andy Pilley does. Perhaps it makes you less benevolent, less gracious, less magnanimous. As, despite the great pals act between head coach and chairman, this is now all about results – garnering, accumulating and stockpiling points, and fleecing the opposition where and when possible.
On first inspection today, Fleetwood Town’s side – its splayed Christmas Tree formation (Cairns – Coyle, Eastham, Morgan, Jones – Dempsey, Holt, Marney – Hunter, Madden – Evans) – looked capable. There was no Burns, Biggins or Bolger to offer departmental solace, but what was out there, what wandered onto the field, arguably had nous, experience and talent.
New signings / loanees Craig Morgan, Jason Holt, Dean Marney and Ched Evans were of particular interest given their exploits with Wigan, Rangers, Hull/Burnley and Sheffield United respectively. And in some ways they represent Barton’s early vision, his perception, his discernment, his foothold on League One.
Unfortunately, only half of them – at the moment – appear adept and consummate. Only Holt and Evans have shown glimpses of what can be.
Morgan, at 33, seems permanently fatigued, as if inside an invisible sauna. And Marney, at 34, is plodding, leaden-footed, sedate not in an unruffled way, but simply because there are no other gears.
Barton, it seems, has chosen to go to the recycling centre but has come back with a couple of broken bikes with the chains hanging off; deceived by the shop attendant standing in front of two finer specimens in the corner. He has put his faith in experience, yet Morgan and Marney’s squad numbers – 20 and 25 – currently embody not wisdom but figures seemingly half their physical age.
Maybe we expect too much. Maybe we expect League One to be like a rampant, Napoleonic charge. Barton promised that – explicitly and implicitly. He promised to be a “disrupter…challenge the status quo and shake things up a little”. But then his core values are “honesty, humility and hard work” – the fuel for the rocket, but certainly not the hard-hitting hypothesis required; the concept, idea or belief to set us apart.
Barton has tasted three different dishes so far – defeat, victory and a disappointing draw due to a 95th-minute equaliser à la Rochdale’s old stalwart, Ian Henderson. His only league victory has been away to Oxford who sit shackled to the bottom of the division in the manner of a penniless beggar.
There are positives, but there is no suggestion that these have been mined by Barton or that his shrewd, enlightened brain is about to ransack League One.
The effervescent Ash Hunter remains an absolute, unexpected menace to the opposition each game. But then Fleetwood fans have known about the diminutive wonder for years.
Kyle Dempsey didn’t quite look himself at the beginning of the Rochdale game – his midfield seniority perhaps compromised by the inclusion of Marney and Holt – but once in full flow, the nuanced flicks and angled running made it abundantly clear that Dempsey is still the creative force we know well.
Ashley Eastham, the 6’ 3” vocal tower – once of Rochdale – continues to astonish in terms of his zip, composure and presence. And with Eastham, you get those core values which can be the springboard to any team.
So Barton has the building blocks. He also has a no.1 (Alex Cairns) who proved in the 25th minute of this game that flinging himself to his right can act as a catalyst and example to the rest of the team.
In playmaker, Holt perhaps Fleetwood can grow and echo those poetic days of Stefan Scougall – the much underused and woefully mistreated midfielder during the erratic Steven Pressley era.
Barton at least played Holt as the anchor man versus Rochdale. Somewhat disappointingly though, he didn’t get enough of the ball – a major crime when you choose to include such a ‘diddyman’ but fail to utilise his strengths.
Three games down and it isn’t all gloom. Fleetwood sit 9th in the table and there have been glimpses of the old fire and lustre (Hunter crosses, Cairns saves, Dempsey ballet movements, Burns going for the jugular). And we shouldn’t forget that Rochdale with the giant no.6 Harrison McGahey, cultured left-back Kgosi Ntlhe and the irrepressible midfielder David Perkins were organised and did offer quality resistance.
One’s instinct though says we’re still short. One looks at this team and sees that it is without rhythm, without fluidity and without a consistent ethos. Whatever Barton is trying to imprint on this side, it isn’t there yet – unless that something is a ragged, at times detached collection of hearts.
The final 60 minutes were an improvement on the first 30, but even then there was no deluge or explosion of talent. This is still a team hobbled by the lack of a cutting midfield and half a defence. Remove Marney, Morgan and Jones – even temporarily until they’re singing in tune with the rest of the choir – and give the deft Holt more of a licence and Fleetwood might begin to unnerve and bulldozer teams once more.
This is of course not solely about personnel. It is about tactics, systems, formations and an almost psychic understanding between players. Has Barton the intellect and originality necessary in order to bring to fruition Pilley’s dreams? Will he explode at some point rather than the latent ability in his squad?
Barton is less animated than one would have imagined. You look at him kitted out in his black garb and see only the mouth moving. With his lacquered hair, he is in many ways a cross between Ernie Wise and a bottle of Just for Men (shade H55).
At the moment, his brief Fleetwood managerial career has relied on the gifts of the old boys Hunter, Dempsey, Burns and Madden, with a snifter of new boy, no.9 Ched Evans.
Barton’s major mistake against Rochdale was bringing on a centre-half (Bolger) for a central midfielder (Holt) in the 73rd minute which resulted in Morgan playing at right-back and Jones on the right-wing. It was an act not only of self-delusion in terms of players’ abilities, but of saying to the opposition “The barricades are up. We won’t need a third goal.”
Fleetwood did need a 3rd goal, but in the space of 30 seconds that was never likely to happen. Hanging on is rarely an option and interchangeable personnel, if it cripples or enfeebles a team’s attacking outlets, inevitably induces optimism in the opposition ranks.
Barton will learn, but whether he is savvy enough or has luck on his side is another question. And with Scunthorpe, Charlton, Bradford and Sunderland around the corner – mostly giants in their own right – the tests get harder.
Back to those core values – honesty, humility and hard work. Don’t forget flair though, Joey. Don’t forget finesse.