Thirty four seconds into his post-match interview on Saturday, Joey Barton did what head coaches and football managers rarely do.
He switched off his delusional gene; a gene very common during the Alex Ferguson era and passed on to numerous managers since.
Barton decided to admit that his 43rdminute decision to bring on striker Chris Long for the injured central midfielder James Wallace was unsettling:
Then we get the substitution and to be honest, errr, err, you know, we were disrupted a little bit by it. It threw us a little bit. Ermmm, I probably made the wrong call. I probably made the wrong substitution which got us on the back foot. We didn’t start the second half particularly well. I ended up, ermm, making a further change which I felt stabilised us and then gave us that composure.
The only words that represent a disservice to Barton’s candour are “little”, “probably” and “further change”. What was nearly a full half of focused, committed, intense, hard-working football became, in an instant, a negligent, floating formation.
Not only was the excellence of Ash Hunter’s supply line compromised, as well as Paddy Madden’s purposeful graft, but the smooth, well-oiled 4-3-2-1 engine was whacked with a mallet and expected to grace the terrain in the same manner.
Barton’s “further change” was realising his catastrophic, illogical, perhaps maverick-driven error, yet waiting 28 minutes so not to entirely embarrass Chris Long.
Substituting a substitute is indeed a horrible, persecutory act. It is not often that one gets to witness such a voodoo-like deed. And Long’s immediate reaction of storming down the tunnel to the dressing room added drama and a touch of upset to a situation that would never have come about were it not for Barton’s luxuriant posturing.
Interesting to see that Barton’s privileged words were left to hang in the air without being challenged by the interviewer, but such is the state of the tentative, soft-shoe media that automatic immunity from tough questioning is mostly granted these days.
The more natural, incontestable substitution on Saturday would have been to bring on the dexterous Kyle Dempsey. None of the midfielders lying in wait – Jason Holt, Harrison Biggins or Dempsey – have the aerial presence of the departed James Wallace, but each would have offered a steadier hand to complement the movements of the experienced Ryan Taylor and Ross Wallace around them.
Alas, Dempsey is no longer part of Barton’s inner circle. And that is the case for centre half Cian Bolger and winger Bobby Grant also.
Hard decisions have been made during Fleetwood Town’s four-month Barton era thus far and it was clearly felt that the current high-octane football was unsuited to the style of Messrs Bolger, Grant and Dempsey.
This, one can understand, in part. Bolger’s towering residency only really works in a back three. And Grant’s game, if the shots aren’t coming off, tends to impede the team’s fluidity.
As for Dempsey though – maybe Barton sees him as too much of a star; a star likely to outshine the lacquered hair of the boss himself.
You look around this team now – the starting eleven on Saturday – and curiously begin to see a no-nonsense group of players, a collection of individuals gearing up for a bank job.
From Madden, to Taylor, to 21-year-old Nathan Sheron, there is a quiet menace in the air, a team ethic with Ashley Eastham as its centrifuge.
For if one was to mistakenly think that the mould or template from which this team is designed is in the shape of Barton himself, then one need only look across at the 6’ 3”, Preston-born, ultimate stalwart Eastham and realise that the squad simply undergo daily blood transfusions from the ex-Rochdale great.
To get excited about Eastham would be wrong. He does not require any attention or fanfare or praise. He is just there, doing his job, but in such a competent manner that his teammates in the vicinity need never worry.
He is an unexpected rock, a diligent, still-young (27) central defender who only really got his career on track four years ago such is the roulette wheel of being appreciated in football.
“A marvellous bit of individual talent,” Barton commented in relation to Wes Burns’ goal in the 28th minute when Fleetwood were in the ascendancy, two-nil up, against Shrewsbury. So he does recognise flair. He does recognise finesse and elegance. And a ski-mask wearing bunch of semi-hoodlums will always require someone to crack the safe.
Fleetwood cannot lose someone of Dempsey’s calibre. Jon Colman, Cumbria’s News & Star football columnist and SJA Regional Sportswriter of the Year winner multiple times will tell you that Dempsey is precocious, such a skilled operator when he watched him as a 20-year-old at Brunton Park three years ago.
And pre-Barton, following the departure of David Ball, Dempsey was Fleetwood’s standout player by a long, long way – his artistry in the middle of the park missed by no one.
Respect to Barton for fessing up to his gaff on Saturday. When the substitution board was held aloft in the 71st minute with the numbers 14 (Long) and 4 (Holt) on it, there was collective shock around the ground. Contrition from Barton? Surely not. But, yes, that is what we saw, albeit dangerously close to the end of the match.
What should have been another scalp with four goals or more following the August demolition of Scunthorpe and the recent putting to the sword of Doncaster turned into an unnecessary fairground ride, a helter-skelter with Barton messing around with the mats.
There are noticeably no wallflowers in this team that Barton is constructing. He has taken 34-year-old ‘psycho’ Ryan Taylor (whose career started to slide three years ago after departing Newcastle United), 33-year-old Ross Wallace (the Burnley/Sheff Wed ever-present, pushed inside after losing some of his pace) – both free agents – and 33-year-old Craig ‘Morgs’ Morgan (the former Wigan captain), thus adding what he believes to be old heads around the exhilarating ‘23 and under’ youth of Ash Hunter, Nathan Sheron, Wes Burns and Lewie Coyle.
Barton now just has to concede that puffing out his chest and having cult-hero status and undying loyalty amongst a vociferous core of supporters means nothing if his decisions remain capricious and haphazard. And that applies to prompt, instantaneous ‘calls’ at the side of the pitch and also when thinking long and hard about gifted players’ futures.
Overall though, for the first 43 minutes on Saturday, a team was finally born. And that bodes well, in small measure, for the wily Barton and less so for his historically long list of detractors.