Farewell Fleetwood Town’s giant, Bosun Lawal

Players like noise. They look at their careers and gauge where they are via the heart and numbers of the crowd.

On Saturday, Burton Albion’s fans didn’t disappoint. They came in great swathes, some dressed as Mexicans, and poured the tequila freely courtesy of their singing voices and general merriment.

Fleetwood Town, down already – just like their former chairman – needed something on this final day of the season to suggest that life can be sweet again, full of optimism, better than the misery of three head coaches in one season and the lashing rain which has hit the country for weeks on end.

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Talisman, Carl Johnston, passing the ball with truculent teammate, Shaun Rooney, before this match commenced embodies the best of what remains at Highbury following a truly traumatic season. He is brave, honest, modest, a leader who does not require a captain’s armband, status, or any of that jazz.

It was always a possibility – relegation – following the off-field difficulties at Fleetwood and the club’s remarkable and implausible tenure in the third tier of English football, but League One’s trap door tended to capture unluckier sides, those with less togetherness, less underdog unanimity (the real secret of the Cod Army’s rise, its preponderant swagger and combative nature).

So Saturday was a test of perhaps what is to come, how much sweat Charlie Adam is able to harness from the men in white and red. For without sweat, there is no skill, no battle plan, no intimidation, no asserting one’s self, no testing the limits, no … achievement.

Fleetwood have been many things this season – lost, struggling, disorganised, down and out, disappointing, sporadically good (impressive wins over Exeter, Port Vale, Bristol Rovers and Wigan). But most of all too generous and not clinical enough; relaxed at both ends of the park, rather than fierce and fearsome. It has felt, at times, like the absence of Andy Pilley – a kind of Godfather to the players and chatty chairman – has disrupted more than it should have, unhinged the squad, had the players worry about their futures and families.

Fleetwood could/should have won their last four games and stayed up. That is the insane, Houdini-like, near-happening that would, in all fairness, not have been deserved. Die hard fans know that they’re capable, but application and belief have been lacking in spades this season and only half a dozen players have stuck their head above the parapet on a consistent basis: Johnston, Brendan Wiredu, Bosun Lawal, Gavin Kilkenny, Ronan Coughlan and Promise Omochere; the middle two loanees.

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Callum Dolan, Phoenix Patterson, Shaun Rooney, Ryan Broom and Junior Quitirna we know have bags of ability, but all have been victim to injuries, systems and/or selection. All have been discarded at some point during the reigns of Scott Brown, Lee Johnson and Charlie Adam – left to watch on and wonder.

Saturday offered a little bit of insight as to what could be, come 2024/25. But, as with Northampton Town, on 13th April, Burton didn’t really turn up. They didn’t really test Fleetwood, have them dig deep or compete close to the edges of real warfare, in the trenches, bullets whizzing by.

Ryan Graydon – that work-in-progress, that speed machine who resembles Jamie Vardy in manner, flight, everything but goals – took the first touch of this match and left his imprint with the assist for Johnston’s goal and collector’s item in the 17th minute, and his sniper-like shot moments after which very nearly nestled in the top left hand corner of the goal.

Graydon looks the part. He has the elegance of former great, Antoni Sarcevic. But head coach Adam must know that he needs to find the mean streak in him, the ruthless Graydon, the man who eats, sleeps and dreams football, whose desire – if awakened – could be very useful in League Two alongside Coughlan and/or Omochere.

Likewise, but in a different sphere, because we have seen and witnessed regularly the destructive, pathological, yet wild brilliance of Shaun Rooney, one contemplates whether his good and bad can live together, whether control can temper his outbursts, or whether three red cards a season are worth the other stuff – the rampaging down the right, shots flying in from everywhere. Because since Rooney became muffled, since he became the friendly uncle with the beard, he hasn’t been as effective.

Cue screaming in the face of Burton’s no.21, Mustapha Carayol in the fourth minute, for ‘diving’, for going down in the box, for everything that appals Rooney, except his own mannerisms and flaws. But you’ve gotta love that to a degree. The fire. The wounded Scottish act. The maniac in shorts just earning a living.

Will he be the player he was? If Charlie Adam has faith in him, then perhaps. But if he sees him as too much of a disrupter, too much of a lone wolf, then what we’re trying to build here won’t work.

Phoenix Patterson, that little magic man, on the other hand, did something today that’s been missing from his game. He got stuck in. Worked as a left wing-back with not only flair, but grit. Tackles galore. Strength. A no-nonsense steaming in to balance his set piece wizardry, his two good feet, his stampeding down the wing.

Away to Peterborough, the 85th minute substitutions of Phoenix and Junior (ON) for the tougher, more rugged Johnston and Broom (OFF, with their high ring IQs) were disastrous. 2-1 quickly became 4-1 and that was it – season over. Without steel Fleetwood are nothing, was the lesson learned by Charlie Adam that evening.

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No.44, Phoenix, in the 31st minute of this game, produced the sublime – a curling, free kick into the top right hand corner. It was mesmeric, beautiful and unique. One of the reasons why Phoenix Patterson is adored by the Highbury crowd. And yet even he, in recent weeks, has not been immune to the cold winds of selection while Adam was figuring out who his combatants were, who his last chance saloon heavy drinkers were, kitted out in studded cowboy boots and Rizla spit.

Two-nil up at half-time felt good on Saturday. It felt right, earned, substantial – like this was a team who cared about each other. The on-loan midfield of Lawal (Glasgow Celtic), Kilkenny (AFC Bournemouth) and Xavier Simons (Hull City) is worrying in the sense that none of them are likely to be here next season, so that will test Adam’s transfer prowess in replacing such talent.

One idea if Carl Johnston got his way would be to have him in there alongside Callum Dolan and someone else – perhaps Simons if Hull are feeling benevolent. But maybe Johnston is just too valuable in that wing-back role and Charlie Adam wishes to commence the dogfight of League Two with a seasoned midfielder. Who knows. There will certainly be a number of surprises come the end of May in terms of who leaves and who stays.

Names out of favour – Harrison Holgate, Danny Mayor, Harvey Macadam, Jayden Stockley and Cian Hayes – suggest a much-needed overhaul of the squad, that final touch from Adam who will have no excuses come August 2024. The head coach’s win percentage of 26% is hardly dynamic (W 6, D 7, L 10), but those simple stats do hide the fact that Fleetwood were in a total mess and some of the favouritism and transfer wheeling and dealing has been calamitous, especially before the start of the 2023/24 season (the spine of the team versus Carlisle on 5th August, the opening day, of Toto Nsiala, Scott Robertson and Josh Vela, simply too frail).

As for the second half here, with the referee Simon Mather perhaps having had a bad experience in Burton given his generosity to Fleetwood, the team noticeably weakens in the 64th minute with the withdrawal of Kilkenny, Omochere and Graydon. Sure, Fleetwood score another in the 76th minute – Tommy Lonergan ‘stealing’ Ronan Coughlan’s deflected, but still neat finish, following an incisive pass from Mayor (all three substitutes combining well) – but the centre of gravity and heart of a team are sensitive things.

Fleetwood desperately need like for like replacements off the bench or men of equal standing. Since Kilkenny walked into Highbury three months ago, it has been very evident that we haven’t had a player of his ilk since Stefan Scougall. Pure silk. Flair. A diddy man. The ability to turn and throw off intruders with a shuffle of the shoulder. Kilkenny has been a revelation. But such talent does not belong in League Two.

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Funny moments during this match. Promise’s body check ruled to be ‘too much’ in the 38th minute. Can he help being strong? Max Crocombe, Burton’s goalkeeper, distributing the ball over the head of his left back Steve Seddon just before half-time which typified the Brewers abject performance. And that single white balloon and toy aeroplane in the Burton end at the break – like the start of a horror movie, or just a bunch of fans short on funds.

The two Burton flares thrown onto the pitch – one in the 79th minute and the other in the 95th minute – were probably the highlight of the day for many travelling fans. And by their manager, Martin Paterson’s own admittance “It was a terrible performance…we froze…there were too many fatigued players”.

Fleetwood know all about that. They have frozen several times this season. They have stayed on the coach or couch. They have given their home fans mere titbits at Highbury. But next season promises a lot. Promise promises a lot. What interested me was Lawal being substituted in the 83rd minute. A hero’s farewell. Back to Scotland.

But look how he sits down at the back of the players’ allocated section. He sits sideways. There is nothing formal about Bosun. He wants comfort, yet is eager to savour his final few moments inside Highbury. Like he’s watching a movie. Like he’s at the cinema. Gazing at people who will become lifelong friends. Players who helped build him and set him on his way. Towards a track which will prove fruitful and rewarding.

The Author

Jeff Weston

Author of Wagenknecht (ALL MEN crack up at 40) and Pitchside, Ringside and Down in the Table Tennis Dens.

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