Fleetwood Town – Just about hanging on

Half a chest bump between wing-back Ryan Broom and striker Promise Omochere before the match against Barnsley said much about the camaraderie slowly beginning to build at Fleetwood Town. Shorn of its identity during the Lee Johnson era, Highbury has a bit of bounce back, a bit of shebang and zing.

Charlie Adam – new to the management game and The Cod Army’s seventh appointment in just six years – always had the look of a grizzled ex-player (girth and strained eyes testament to his commitment both off and on the field), but his presence is now seemingly beginning to make a difference to this ragtag band of wayward stars.

Out the door have gone seasoned campaigners Josh Vela, Jack Marriott and Josh Earl – replaced by a chunk of Ireland and a piece of Manchester in the form of Gavin Kilkenny, Ronan Coughlan and Elijah Campbell; two of them loanees (Ronan here to stay).

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A look at Saturday’s starting XI reveals that Fleetwood is now 55% Guinness, 27% River Irwell, 9% armed insurrection courtesy of Newport (Broom) and 9% East End (Tower Hamlets) a la captain Brendan Wiredu. We can drink you under the table, jump on a barge if we need to, or scrap it out given our tough roots.

Against Barnsley in the first half, Fleetwood did just that. They employed their formidable 5-2-3 system – three battering rams Ryan Graydon, Coughlan and Omochere bearing down on the Yorkshire back line of Maël de Gevigney, Jamie McCart and old boy Earl. This was different to Tuesday’s home game versus Reading though in that Adam chose to start Graydon and bench Jayden Stockley giving us extra zip.

What a shame then that 24-year-old Graydon opted not to shoot when presented with an early opportunity – perfect bounce and all – on the edge of the 18-yard box on his weaker side. The absence of such snap, such clinical finishing and opportunistic endeavour is largely responsible for Fleetwood’s plight and lowly position of 23rd. Belief. Greed. Conviction. The young Dubliner will learn.

Profligacy always kicks you in the knackers of course. And the beast that is Barnsley’s no.9, Sam Cosgrove, capitalised soon after (in the 23rd minute), beating Ben Heneghan to the ball with his head after a simple, floated cross from no.30, Adam Phillips.

Leading, but not deserving such a position, the Yorkshire hordes punched the air believing that automatic promotion is still on or certainly a run at the play-offs. Oh, how those days and dreams used to be Fleetwood’s: 2014/15 (10th); 2016/17 (4th); 2019/20 (6th). But now, we’re the poor cousins. Rebuilding. Devising new ways forward. Sacking everything in sight, while ex-chairman Andy Pilley languishes in prison alongside his Ready Brek.

A tough place to enter thus. A tough place to take the reins. Knowing that we’re now not just a house of cards, but pigs’ houses made of straw and sticks. Blow us down. Go on. Do it. But then be met by the new boss … Bosun Lawal, Celtic loanee, resident stomper, used to throwing tiny midfielders out of his way. Lawal, the centre half, the right full-back, wing-back, before we found him a new home: central midfield.

Bosun’s transition has not been entirely smooth, but his 2nd minute goal at Reading in late October, when playing as a full-back, hinted at what was to come. Strength. Speed. Shooting boots. Touch (most of the time). At first he looked ungainly in the centre of the park – the traditional home of cooler residents – but then the sunglasses came out on 3rd February versus Port Vale in what was a titanic performance.

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Adam, to his credit, spotted the potential. And it took him only one game to realise where he wanted him (in the process switching Wiredu to defence). Those first four games at the helm were hell for Adam; defeats to Shrewsbury, Derby, Cambridge and Portsmouth. But then came the volte-face at Wycombe (2-2) and the slaughter of Port Vale (3-0) and Bristol Rovers (2-0).

Since then Fleetwood have lost at Lincoln (2-1) following one of the most calamitous refereeing decisions ever made (Daniel Middleton, spin the wheel and send a Black guy off – any Black guy) and gained a respectable draw at home to Reading (1-1) with Carl Johnston – Mr Adaptable – stepping into midfield following the Lawal scandal.

And so he returned on Saturday, 17th February, ready to lift the anchor and resume his normal duties. Bosun Lawal. After Heneghan’s near-reprieve, following a beautiful header tipped over by the impressive Liam Roberts. Bosun. Ready to spoil things. Ready to give Fleetwood a piece of the prize. 25 yards? No problem. A swing of that deadly right peg and oof! Woof! Whichever you want. Top right hand corner (32nd minute). Past the folded up Roberts, as even heroes become zeros when Lawal is around.

Not his best game to my mind now we have such high standards of Lawal. No. He played much better at Bristol Rovers eleven days earlier. Pulled out to the right of the field too often today, doing the work of Broom and Promise, the chest bump gang. Would I ever criticise these two grafters though? Rarely. I just want Lawal to be that driving force in the centre with the masterful Kilkenny – full of sprays, traps and invention – by his side.

Knee slide together though, Lawal and Promise. Celebrate that goal. Have Graydon toboggan after you in front of the goal-starved Memorial Stand. And especially that little kid in the red top. Loving life. Appreciating the artistry.

But then the utterly bizarre. Second half. The whole team out of position. A long throw on the right. Campbell bungled to the floor. Heneghan too far forward. Wiredu charging in and missing the key tackle. No width. Everyone hugging the Parkside Stand as if stupidly invading Russia like Hitler in 1941. WTF?! Phillips trots down the right, knocks it across the area (his second assist) to not Harry Kane (of Bayern Munich), but Barnsley’s balding no.8, Herbie Kane (59th minute).

Quite the shambles. Not befitting everything this team has become. A moment of madness. High-risk stakes. The normally reliable Captain Brendan betting against the house with two defenders already stranded.

Total lunacy. And such a shame, as Ronan Coughlan was magnificent. Control. Poise. Speed. Graft. The way this lad brings down the ball is a sight to behold, like he has a Velcro chest.

Kilkenny thuds one over the bar near the end. His overall game improving each week though. Sweeping balls wide for fun. First touch scintillating. Campbell – growing into that Earl role convincingly. Jay Lynch – usual brilliance throughout the match. Shot blocker extraordinaire. Promise and Lawal – dishing out their usual one million bruises each game. Long may it continue.

Perhaps this game slipped away because 5-2-3 can be demanding though. There was a noticeable drop off in intensity during the 2nd half. And there’s no obvious route into the team at the moment for Junior Quitirna and Phoenix Patterson, our fine, but diminutive, traditional wingers.

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The best way to handle that second half was probably bringing Danny Mayor in to stiffen and solidify the central midfield. Old scowl-face himself. But, oh, how he loves to slice defences open.

Fleetwood will learn from this. Referees are soft on top six teams. We know that. But those top sides can be undone. Fleetwood still have flashbacks to their heady days of 2014/15, 2016/17 and 2019/20 when ‘No Fear’ was our mantra.

On paper Charlie Adam’s record looks quite meagre: Won 2, Drawn 2, Lost 6. It is those last six matches which count the most though, which are of greater significance. Finding a system which incorporates the three big guys up top. The players that stampede like elephants and frighten any defence.

Time to work on a Plan B though. Maybe revert to 4-1-4-1 when we need rescuing by set-piece wonder kid and speed king, Phoenix Maclaren Patterson, or that other 23-year-old, Guinea-Bissau great, Junior.

What is mostly encouraging about this Fleetwood Town side is the players’ renewed appetite. And that can only happen when a head coach believes in them. 13 games left. Mission impossible. Shall we dangle from the ceiling now?

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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