Fleetwood Town – Time for unity

The last two seconds of the four minute plus post-match interview perhaps say it all. Fleetwood need a “centre back, central midfielder and centre forward”. Basically, the spine of the team.

The man from Radio Lancashire beats around the bush a little, indulges head coach, Scott Brown – who has his usual ‘stepped out of a sauna’ look – before the intensity and frankness rise.

Brown doesn’t mention the formation. He doesn’t mention taking off number 21 Cian Hayes at half time. He talks about “quality in the final third”, “ruthlessness” and “fine detail”.

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Looking back at the first half horror show against Bolton Wanderers at the Toughsheet Community Stadium is difficult. First, the ball from ex-Cod Gethin Jones in between midfielder, Scott Robertson and central defender, Toto Nsiala to Dion Charles. Then the long diagonal ball from ‘Rico’ Almeida Santos to Josh Cogley. And finally, Cogley’s dribble around Cian Hayes.

All of these resulting in a final ball assist from the right hand side, pretty much inside the 18-yard box.

The problem with three at the back – or rather five – it is said, is that a ‘To me, To you’ mentality often exists when the opposition roam into the space behind. Wing-back or centre half to follow the runner? It can be ruinous.

Josh Earl stranded and too slow. Hayes not tracking back. And then Hayes again at fault – jumping in early, done like a kipper.

But who is Cian Hayes? And why the change in fortune since the middle of last season?

Still only 20 and having made his debut for Fleetwood as a 16-year-old, the Preston lad used to regularly torch the opposition from the wing when coming off the bench for the last 20 minutes or so. Ask any Fleetwood fan, before the arrival of Phoenix Patterson in January, who FTFC’s most exciting talent was and the answer was invariably “Hayes”; some believing that he was rested in 2022/23 ahead of a big summer exit.

The story of his recent ‘decline’ is an interesting one therefore. Played out of position. Sometimes caught in possession in his own half like a rookie drug dealer. But then would you ask Kendrick Lamar to serve drinks at a gig instead of rapping? Would you expect Max Verstappen to step into a Fiat Panda? Would you suggest to Terence Crawford that he toughs it out at the local park instead of inside a ring?

The missing component in all this is that Fleetwood don’t have a fit left back since the departure of Danny Andrew (Adam Montgomery, on loan from Celtic, absent). Blessed with some incredible names in that area over the years – Corrie Ndaba, said Andrew, Amari’i Bell, Adam Chicksen, Stephen Crainey and Charlie Taylor – Scott Brown’s men are bereft apart from makeshift left back, Carl Johnston, who normally plays on the other side.

Fall guys arguably everywhere at the moment though. Johnston, Fleetwood’s best player at home to Cambridge – in his regular right back / wing back role – substituted at half time for Shaun Rooney. Brendan Wiredu taken off in the same game in the 79th minute and conspicuously ‘off duty’ against Bolton.

The six outfield players on the bench versus Cambridge – Jayden Stockley, Ryan Broom, Junior Quitirna, Promise Omochere, Cian Hayes and Shaun Rooney – made up the strongest FTFC bench seen in a while. But paper doesn’t mean a thing. Unity does. Knowing one’s role does.

Bizarre then, that since the jailing of Andy Pilley, Fleetwood’s new chairman Steve Curwood has seemingly been in hiding. No videos. No reassurance. No ‘You look after things on the pitch, lads, and I’ll try to sort out this mess off it’. Such detachment undoubtedly affects the mood of the camp. It has players thinking ‘Should I be here?’

And the real tragedy is that FTFC’s squad is capable. They’re just underperforming. Square pegs in round holes. Wackadoodle habits developing because of it.

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Danny Mayor – long-time servant of Plymouth Argyle – slick, consistent, promising. A good signing. Likewise, Ryan Broom – the feisty Newport man, formerly of Cheltenham Town – tough, uncompromising, versatile. If Fleetwood Town is to create a new, much-needed midfield, then the 32-year-old and 26-year-old respectively have the necessary energy to move us forward.

Ahead of them, we need look no further than 23-year-old Junior Quitirna, signed from sister club, Waterford FC and 20-year-old, six foot forward Maleace Asamoah, signed from the semi-professional Isthmian League. Junior has balance, confidence, great feet and speed. Asamoah has bounce, yellow boots and the keen look of a flair player and terminator. How they develop will be central to Fleetwood’s fortunes.

So Brown does have options in light of his pessimism on the turf at Bolton. But perhaps playing wing backs needs parking up in the interim. Perhaps a flat back four, 4-2-3-1 formation – which has brought the Cods success in the past – needs reinstating, with the hard, compact Northern Irishman and speed machine, Carl Johnston, a willing servant at left back.

We could go fishing for 40-year-old centre halves, but why not consider a classy young defender next to Josh Earl in the middle, with Shaun Rooney at right back; the likes of Connor Teale, in-house already, or Drew Baker, currently on loan at Waterford.

Twenty-year-old Drew has played in the back two before, had a great touch, looked polished, not without self-belief. Connor – strangely enough, born on the same day (8 October 2002) – has that necessary fire, that wiry resoluteness. Either player would slot in next to Earl comfortably. But as with any defence, it’s what you place in front of them that’s crucial.

Grafters Broom and Mayor (BAM!) could offer that protection, with the unpredictable and potentially deadly Phoenix, Promise and Junior ahead of them (like having Promise, Carlos Mendez-Gomez – now at Bolton – and Hayes, in that three, born again).

One thing not mentioned by Brown in the post-match interview at Bolton was the rejuvenated Promise Omochere. Held the ball well. Accurate passing. And looked lively – full of spring. Players notice this. You lump them all together, bemoan your attacking line in generic fashion, and it seems unbalanced, like your efforts aren’t appreciated.

We know he looks out of breath seconds after taking the field. We know he doesn’t always show the menace of a big man. But he’s Promise, still only 22 – humble, willing to learn and usually in amongst it. Let’s not forget his diving header in the Fourth Round of The FA Cup at Hillsborough, Sheffield Wednesday on 28 January 2023; all because of a whipped-in cross from Danny Andrew. And his goal three weeks earlier against QPR in the Third Round at Highbury – a shot on the turn on the edge of the six-yard box.

The big games don’t phase him. He positively needs them – thrives off them. Brown should be conscious of that. Maybe that’s why Bolton’s impressive ground had Promise galloping about. But he’s only one man. And Fleetwood play it too centrally at times for him to benefit. Give him Junior and Phoenix – crosses from the left and right – and the script changes.

Concerns at Fleetwood, players that need some time out, are Nsiala and captain Josh Vela. They are possibly the spine that Brown was referring to, although he quite rightly avoided saying so. The same could be said of Earl and Robertson – neither are having a particularly great time at the moment. Earl, normally such a calm presence, has been exposed in the current system with the ‘Push-Me / Pull-You’ need to monitor the left wing back berth also.

I miss Vela surging forward, taking his recruits with him. But this current Vela shakes his head too much, points and spits; to the average fan a sign of disapproval to the players around him, rather than leadership and encouragement.

If Brown finally stops showing unwavering bias towards certain nailed-on players when it comes to the starting XI then this team can grow and still go places. Experiments are there to be had: Rooney at centre half (who fancies £2 million for him two years from now?); Wiredu as captain and protector (as part of a 4-3-3); Ryan Graydon, Jack Marriott, Stockley or Asamoah tested as the lone man up front or two together as part of a 4-1-3-2 system.

In Broony’s defence, his squad has been plagued by injuries (Stockley, Marriott, Harvey Macadam, Rooney, centre half Harrison Holgate and new left back Montgomery), some of the possession football has looked good in short spells, and the players he has signed since starting his tenure in May 2022 have potential in abundance.

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Away to Carlisle – newly promoted – Fleetwood had 58% possession. Against Cambridge at home, the Cods had 65% possession. And Tuesday night, away at The Toughsheet (quite an omen!), they had a respectable 49%. The problem is we’re like a tennis player making unforced errors. The back line looks extremely susceptible, lacking any kind of harmony.

One weak link (Hayes operating in an unfamiliar role), no outlet up front (the absence of our glitterati in the form of a creative three behind the front man) and we’re bound to be vulnerable.

“Football is a simple game complicated by idiots,” Bill Shankly famously said. Bolton proved that on Tuesday – flowing football, self-belief and a simple formation (the addition of Paris Maghoma, in that three-man midfield, inspired). They’ve even transformed Gethin Jones from the nervous player we once had.

Fleetwood desperately need a talisman – not footballers playing within themselves, scared to take on a man or hamstrung by a rigid system. Rooney once gave us that, but now the fear of a yellow card has pushed him too far the other way. Phoenix has the best feet in this league, but he cuts back too often at present rather than stepping on the gas. Junior – well – he can be something quite clearly.

It’s time for Curwood to show his face and a new togetherness and resilience to take hold. Fleetwood have some exceptional players, despite a measly one point from three games. Trawl the squad. Do it now. See who’s up for a fight with flair by its side. Perhaps the kid with the gloves – midfielder Callum Dolan; roughhouse and ready in equal measure.

Either that or we hope that Cheltenham, Leyton Orient, Burton and Carlisle are worse. But that’s never a good option.

EVERYWHERE WE GO…

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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