Fight through the rain. Get the bruisers in. Unleash the dogs.
This wasn’t Fleetwood Town a la Argentina or the Fulham, Brighton or Brentford of League One. But it was history – a team cobbled together by Broonie, ready to go to war and in the 4th Round of the FA Cup for the first time.
Maybe we’ve finally found it – our eleven that looks ridiculous, kind of sordid on paper, yet bonds.
Ignore the BBC. This was no 4-3-3 formation. Instead, 4-2-3-1 pure and simple, with a spring-loaded gun as its three: Cian Hayes, Carlos Mendes Gomes, Promise Omochere.
What do you have in those three besides flair, style and ‘Get the f*ck out of my way, I’m coming through’? You have the missing fence panels at the corner of Hatfield Avenue and Nelson Road. You have the uneven paving stones on Highbury Avenue. You have a picnic with gherkins eventually tracked down.
They’re gonna make it uncomfortable for you. They’re gonna trample towards you. They’re not gonna go around you, but rather through. In the near, God-like boots of Gomes, Omochere and Hayes, Fleetwood has its danger, its ‘If this doesn’t work, then this will’.
Variety, unpredictability, the ceaseless rampaging of horses. Too early to know if these boys can put in such polished performances for the remaining 22 games of the league season (where it really matters). Too early to know if they can run for 90 minutes (Mendes Gomes lasted 60 minutes Saturday, Hayes 76 – cramp defeating him, Omochere 82).
Beautiful to see Hayes applauding the Highbury Stand occupants and then low fiving seemingly the entire Memorial Stand as he walked back to the bench. In that love, that gesture, was a 19-year-old more settled – finally at ease with the freedom afforded him on the pitch. And the electric surges, the scampering past players gave Fleetwood shades of Harry Kewell and – dare I say it – Ash Hunter in his prime.
Steve Martin as referee on this rain-skewed, blustery Saturday, this ‘Welcome to the Coast’ FA Cup 3rd round feast. But no jerks. And QPR – let’s not forget – only three points off the Championship play-offs (W 10, D 6, L 10). Unhappy fans – granted. A 500-mile round trip – not pleasant. A team not exactly motoring or cohesive – agreed. A director of football and salmon-leaping, permanent icon, former player Les Ferdinand, getting a bit of flak – shame. Seven managers in seven years – actually fewer than Fleetwood, but still too many; part of the modern-day churn factory.
When QPR took the lead in the 37th minute – simple free kick, knockdown from no.9 Lyndon Dykes and almost comical, left-footed baby-stroke from Sam Field past the Cod’s stand-in keeper, Jazub Stolarczyk, it seemed that Fleetwood’s mediocre season was set to continue with all the luck of a kid wanting raspberry jelly at his birthday party, but discovering that some doofus had turned the fridge off.
Fleetwood, before this, had looked if not scintillating, then certainly ‘in it together’, a band of brothers, mysterious glue forcing them to share the same religion, pray together, work for each other, have each other’s back, not give any easy space to the opposition.
And in Josh Vela and Lewis Warrington – that midfield duo, nay dynamo – was composure, belief, the passing skills of an engine finally at the heart of this Fleetwood side. One that didn’t blink, get fazed by ‘better’ opposition, or let QPR’s Andre Dozzell and Sam Field impose themselves.
Look at this team – its simplicity, its fire, its fluidity, its work rate. Full backs Carl Johnston and Danny Andrew – different beasts. The former lively, Belfast-born, not a regular, but now cementing his place, The Fishermen without him like 1970s and 1980s snooker without Alex Higgins. The latter, built like a Greek god, but knowing that he must maintain his form, get to the 18-yard box, not totter around with back passes, but rather inhabit some of the spirit of his experienced predecessor, Amari’i Bell.
Andrew – beautiful, soft, far-post corner for Toto Nsiala to head home, unmarked for a 40th minute equaliser; QPR playing chess, testing a few bikes out at Halfords, wine tasting, something, but not present, not a footballing side with a sense of urgency or hurt or hunger.
Andrew – involved again in the 67th minute. Another set piece. This time to the accompanying “Ally-ally-oh, We’re Cod FC, We’re Cod Army” of the Memorial madcap members. Short corner. Vela, Captain Distraction near post. On to Toto and then through to Omochere for a swing of his right boot. 2-1. Promise me a win. Oh, promise me a win. Get Manchester United or Leeds United here and make them suffer.
So many players who deserve a mention. Brendan Wiredu, not lacking in self-belief, insouciant, nonchalant, our stand-in centre half, but actually a midfielder. Another player who has struggled to forge his way into this side.
And then Admiral Muskwe – horrible air shot at 1-1 in the second half following Omochere’s thunderous drive from a tight angle on the right, but a real no. 9. One of two Luton loanees that can transform Fleetwood this season (the other, Carlos Mendes Gomes).
Admiral – what a name, Harare-born when Robert Mugabe was president. Capable of spearheading our attack. An outlet we’ve been missing. One of the bruisers I was referring to in the opening line of this piece.
No Josh Earl or Shaun Rooney today. Like Liverpool without Virgil van Dijk and Trent Alexander-Arnold, or Arsenal without William Saliba and Ben White. But something clicked. This was a monumental effort. Maybe we saw for the first time what a team looks like that isn’t good on paper.
Every five years Fleetwood bring out the special sauce. On 6 January 2018 it was the 0-0 versus Leicester (FA Cup 3rd round). On this 7 January 2023 a special eleven took to the field and left it as heroes. A legacy. A legend. Let such a feeling inject itself into the league now.