Fleetwood Town – Where now after surviving on goal difference?

Limp. Lucky. Laughable. One of those. Or maybe all three, judging from the fans’ bouncing around after a 4-2 defeat against a team already on holiday.

Sure – word came through that Rotherham had won 2-0 sending Gillingham to the gallows instead, but if this is happiness, Sambuca-pouring party time, then what have Fleetwood Town become?

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The Cod Army’s survival this season was neatly symbolised by the Prince song playing on Smooth FM at 1452 as many fans drove away from the University of Bolton Stadium:

How can you just leave me standing
Alone in a world that’s so cold? (So cold)
Maybe I’m just too demanding
Maybe I’m just like my father, too bold
Maybe you’re just like my mother
She’s never satisfied (she’s never satisfied)
Why do we scream at each other?
This is what it sounds like
When doves cry

Fleetwood have started to feel the cold. They still have a father in Andy Pilley, but no obvious mother – no one bringing the unit together. The players aren’t screaming at each other. It’s worse – they’re apathetic.

I haven’t seen a Fleetwood team like this in the nine years I’ve been following them. No obvious leaders. No self-belief. A frailty so striking that you just shut your eyes when the opposition attack.

If the Fleetwood Town fans who got hauled out of the crowd by Bolton Wanderers’ orange Hi-Vis bomber crew (a.k.a. 17-pasties-a-day stewards) could focus for a second, they’d probably see a team lacking any semblance of past perfection; players and fighters like Jeff Hughes, Mark Roberts, Matty Blair, Nathan Pond, Ash Hunter, David Ball, Conor McLaughlin, Amari’i Bell, Ashley Eastham, Markus Schwabl (god, I remember that FA Cup match against Leicester on 6th January 2018!), Wes Burns, Lewie Coyle, James Wallace and Stefan Scougall.

Most of these are defenders or rugged midfielders somewhat significantly – Fleetwood players who rarely shirked wearing the badge, who considered running onto the Highbury turf or away grounds like going to war.

While the remaining Fleetwood away support were mulling over the 2021/22 season on Saturday (those held captive probably forced to watch Meet the Khans), it’s worth wondering what chairman Andy Pilley was thinking. Regrets over sacking Joey Barton 16 months ago? (His teams were at least well organised and gritty.) Who to hire next? What do you really do with a club whose average attendance in this division is only higher than Accrington Stanley? (Accrington Stanley – Who Are They?)

Despite the apocalyptic possession stats of Fleetwood’s final two games, averaging just 30%, there are glimmers of hope in the squad. Cian Hayes looks keen, gifted and tenacious. Ged Garner’s left foot is still pure gold (despite his injury problems). Paddy Lane’s shots and crosses are irrepressible and scintillating at times (when not in the treatment room). But while these players – 18, 23 and 21 respectively – offer hope, they do not offer a wider template going forward. They are flair players, not midfield generals ready to douse the opposition in gasoline.

One thinks back to Fleetwood’s finest midfield in recent years – the 2017/18 trio of George Glendon, Aiden O’Neill and Kyle Dempsey – and dreams of such polish, precision, psychic interplay, spraying the ball around and scampering, surging runs re-surfacing again. Can the old guard, Daniel Batty (24), Callum Camps (26) and Jordan Rossiter (25), when fit again, emulate the great heights of G.O.D.? Batty, Camps and Rossiter seem to have been around forever and yet remain in their mid-twenties perhaps set for a pivotal season.

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Football is art, music, poetry and opera when done right. It infiltrates your bloodstream, takes a hold of your sensations, leaves you begging for more. Barry Baggley’s exquisite knock around Bolton’s George Johnston and then curling left-footed finish into the top corner of the net said a lot about this Belfast-born boy, still 20 and thrown into the heady brew of League One football.

Boys to men quickly at Fleetwood – “The younger players at the club, the experience that they’ve gained with the opportunities that we’ve [given] them…it’s gonna stand them in unbelievable stead,” to quote head coach, Stephen Crainey. He’s right, but at this moment in time 90 minutes will slaughter them, have even the best of the kids dip their heads and wonder if they’ve fallen into a Lord of the Rings movie opposite Orcs and Uruks.

Fleetwood’s inspiring 17th-minute start courtesy of Baggley’s sweet left foot rapidly became 2-1 down after inept defending for Dion Charles’s goal (37’) and then the ignominy of five Cod players stood idle watching Declan John slot the ball in the bottom left-hand corner (53’). Such gifts never used to happen, but alas, these are difficult times – graffiti on the rise, swish footballing master classes and community cohesion deteriorating.

Bolton were hardly at their strongest – arguably missing four key players who would have graced this team at the expense of Amadou Bakayoko, Kieran Sadlier, George Thomason and Will Aimson: Jón Daði Bödvarsson, the holding man, strong, good in the air, who came on in the 66th minute, replacing Bakayoko; Marlon Fossey, the “unreal” wingback (knee injury); MJ Williams (simple footballing elegance from the Welshman) or Kyle Dempsey (likes to drive forward); Ricardo Alexandre Almeida Santos (the centre half capable of spraying it around).

The point is that Fleetwood can bemoan their catastrophic injury crisis this season, but so can other teams. And the transformation of former Highbury player Gethin Jones into a very able and consistent Wanderers defender says a lot about harnessing players’ latent skills. Do Fleetwood have the personnel in place to progress after the disruption following November’s sacking of Simon Grayson and his assistant David Dunn?

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Stephen Crainey – lovely man and great left back in his day, but maybe Fleetwood need another screwball like Barton in charge; someone to hoist the eccentric flag or bring new, vibrant words into the dressing room. Players respond to madness if it’s coated in crazy dreams and playing beyond yourself – if it develops a unity that other teams can’t begin to comprehend.

Think back to when Freddie Mercury died in November 1991 (thirty years before Fleetwood ousted their latest ‘saviour’ Grayson). Queen eventually installed a new front man, Paul Rodgers, in 2004. Talented, rangy and gnarled, he brought dirt and intensity to that role, but never quite inhabited Freddie’s orbit (too much leather, not enough leotard). In 2011, Adam Lambert stepped in with a camp, operatic, but ultimately too plain rendition.

Between these dates, George Michael toyed around with 39, These Are The Days of Our Lives and Somebody to Love. The first two sound a little tepid. The third is a beautiful George Michael/Queen fusion which goes some way to echoing the wild magic, playful depth and warbling originality that only Freddie could bring to the stage.

Fleetwood need a bit of that. A frontman to entertain. A head coach steeped in different juices. Someone to stare out over the training pitch and see not a ramshackle collection of players, but the future in all its magnificent folds. Someone to stress that graft and art are almost the same word.

I work hard (he works hard) every day of my life
I work ’til I ache in my bones
At the end (at the end of the day)
I take home my hard earned pay all on my own
I get down (down) on my knees (knees)
And I start to pray
‘Til the tears run down from my eyes
Lord, somebody (somebody), ooh somebody
(Please) can anybody find me somebody to love?

When the 2-1 deficit doubled to 4-2 it almost didn’t matter such was Fleetwood’s vulnerability.

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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