Five Months after the Fleetwood Cull

Everything points to the 6th May when Fleetwood Town released a staggering 14 players. It may not feel like it given the less than stellar performances of some on the list or the inconsequentialness of others, but a mood, a group of players was broken up.

Footballers should be able to cope with such mourning. They get used to the removal van pitching up outside their house for the next jaunt. But in that savage act very little was spared. Certainly not sentiment. Certainly not foresight. The knife that often rests at the heart of a chairman’s club was wielded without fully comprehending what Fleetwood represents.

Mark Roberts was not the perfect centre half but he was intelligent and undoubtedly loved the club. Stephen Crainey might be an ageing left-back but he is better than what we have now. Steven Schumacher is not Jimmy Ryan, but he did the simple things well. Jeff Hughes could bawl and was often injured, but how he fought. David Ball (who has since boomeranged back) was the club’s talisman; his return suggesting an arbitrary mess up between chairman, manager, director of football and technical director.

And so the Cod Army became a machine. On paper a sublime, yet hazardous experiment with new players Eggert Jónsson (age 27), Jimmy Ryan (27), Bobby Grant (25) and Victor Nirennold (24) complementing young talent, Declan McManus (21), Amari’i Bell (21) and Lyle Della-Verde (20); they in turn showing the way to Ashley Hunter (20), Jack Sowerby (20), Vamara Sanogo (20) and Max Cartwright (19).

The cold winds of League One have started to blow though. Fleetwood have drawn two and lost six of their last eight. Highbury is not so much a fortress as a Meccano set plonked between terraced houses and Memorial Park. Fear, courtesy of the drum-banging terrace, is never going to supplant itself into the legs of the opposition; an average crowd of 3,500 cannot become a Sheffield, a Bradford or a Coventry no matter how suked-up those Fylde voices become.

It is the latter – synonymous with industry and Lady Godiva – that most recently visited these parts and in doing so welcomed in the new guard, Steven Pressley following the denouement of Graham Alexander. How Fleetwood could do with its own naked woman on horseback right now; a brave beauty willing to collar chairman Pilley over his ‘oppressive taxation’, his too-dramatic shift from well-run club to kindergarten.

That is the concern. No matter what the promise of youth, no matter which privileged prospects trample the turf at their state-of-the-art football centre, Poolfoot Farm, Fleetwood must make the transition steadily. Otherwise, the far more important Highbury turf and tough away venues become grazing grounds for an unbalanced team.

That does not excuse or justify the recent calamitous run, but it signals the shock treatment that is now required and why the funds were found to bring in short-term loan players – specifically centre halves – Richard Wood of Rotherham and Dionatan Teixeira of Stoke (the 6’4” Brazilian-born ‘Tex’ looking the part and bearing an uncanny resemblance to Irish legend, Paul McGrath). It is hoped the left-footed guile and steel of the 23-year-old Teixeira alongside the experienced 30-year-old Wood will add much-needed stability to the back line.

Alexander’s downfall – although unfairly starved of funds and senior rhapsodists – was that he did not know his best eleven or formation. Only three players started each of his ten league matches in charge: goalkeeper, Chris Maxwell and midfielders, Jimmy Ryan and Antoni Sarcevic. The defence was tinkered with too often. He arguably employed four full-backs at times (against Bury, Colchester, Doncaster and Bradford – oddly enough gaining a healthy 7/12 points haul). But he did not latterly respect the old-fashioned commodity that is a winger.

Sure, he lost out massively when Josh Morris became unaffordable and found new digs at Bradford. He also did not anticipate Gareth Evans decision to turn down a contract and shoot off down to Portsmouth. But the shifting Sahara sands formation of those first ten games undid him. The football became negative – far from easy on the eye. The team rarely imposed itself. And the manner of some of the defeats was depressing, like a comatose bar brawl.

Uncertainty does not help players. New manager, Pressley seems to understand that. The troops need to know what they’re having for tea. Regularity is often a prerequisite for performance and a good, productive shift. To fashion a team with players that work for each other is a hard business, yet the clues to success are in what has gone before.

The Best Feet in the Team

Three players are currently able to claim this throne at Fleetwood Town: Nick Haughton, Jimmy Ryan and Bobby Grant. Although talked of as ‘light’, it has become apparent that Haughton has that Beckham-like ability to whip in fast, curling balls. Why the Cod Army do not currently take advantage of this from set pieces or the right wing is an absolute mystery.

On the end of such poetry if not a floundering keeper should be striker, Jamille Matt and the centre halves. Strangely referred to as a “poacher” by The Gazette’s Rob Stocks on September 23rd (similar to that Merseyside trio Ian Rush, John Aldridge and Gary Lineker?!!), Matt should be trained and trained in the art of heading. Why have a bomber (a capable detonator of high balls) if you do not use him effectively? (Pour over a few videos of the limited-in-skill but highly effective Lee Chapman if in doubt.)

Grant, as a spark from midfield – preferably on the left – simply has to be in the starting eleven. His range of shooting is phenomenal, his personality infectious. If he can shake off a bit of the timber then excellent.

Ryan, when he first walked through the doors of Highbury, was quite obviously a class act – nimble, fleet of foot and controlled. Although that form has tailed off – dragged down in part by an unsettled side – he must switch roles and become the link-up man with the front two, relinquishing his job in front of the back four. This way, his shooting flourishes and his skill at gliding past the opposition is compounded.

The Holding Man

From Alan Goodall (who often sat in between the centre halves), to Steven Schumacher, to Keith Southern, to Jimmy Ryan, to Victor Nirennold, to Eggert Jónsson, this position in the team simply has to be resolved. Goodall has gone. Schumacher has gone. Southern did not work out although he still stalks the corridors with eight months of his contract left. Ryan is destined for bigger things. That leaves Nirennold (the long-legged, French Carlton Palmer) or Jónsson. It is too early to tell if either man can cope in the engine room but a dearth of talent here means we’ll have to wait and see.

The Strikers

Fleetwood have an array of striking talent. Unfortunately most of them are misfiring at the moment or seemingly being supplied by slow-moving cargo ships.

Jamille Matt, back from injury and a cautious pre-season gets the nod ahead of Jamie Proctor at the moment purely due to his impressive hold-up play, presence, threat and appetite.

And the little man role must go not to McManus, not to David Ball, but to that wiry charge, Ashley Hunter. Something comes alive when Hunter roams around the pitch. As witnessed in the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy versus Shrewsbury for half an hour, his speed, natural ability in targeting the goal and penetrative runs are huge, huge assets. This man can go far – be a Francis Jeffers (without the unfulfilled dreams) or a Robbie Fowler (without becoming a landlord).

Those That Need to be Benched

It is massively disappointing when you know players have it but are ‘out of sorts’, stirring up the crowd for the wrong reasons and thus needing to be rested or given late cameo roles rather than starting berths. Jamie Proctor, Antoni Sarcevic, Vamara Sanogo and Amari’i Bell all fit into this category.

Proctor, the wonder-goal specialist, the no-nonsense ‘push back’ player just doesn’t look the same. He is like a clogged-up hoover. It is as if the bullying, fandango man is being out-bullied or worse, doesn’t want it enough. We know what this man is capable of, but where is it?

Sarcevic is a truly great servant, but recently he has begun to get barracked by the crowd. Not assisted by the over-watered Highbury pitch, he twists and tumbles all too often. A captain he is not, but he does bring something original to the party when on form. Where to play him? Probably behind the front man or wide as we get cut open too much with him in central midfield. Those that have the temerity to call him a “donkey” though – as happened on Saturday versus Coventry – should be aware that we wouldn’t be in the 3rd tier of English football were it not for this man.

Sanogo is an unknown at senior level. He has had a mere nine minutes of action for Fleetwood and just three appearances in three years for Metz B. Still very young, he offers a bruising directness and left-footed attack that we do not have elsewhere. One to watch and bring on the field when 2-0 up.

Bell, a natural left-back, has been made to play on the left-wing since signing this summer given the absence of artisans in that area. This he has done with a reasonable level of aplomb, but what frustrates with Bell is his ‘gentle giant’ manner. For a well-built, 5’11” player, he is awfully kind. Back in his preferred position of late there is still the sense that he is too forgiving to on-rushing opponents when timely, crunching tackles would get the job done.

Concern, Missing Pieces and Solutions

Fleetwood have, so far, in 2015/16 won two, lost seven and drawn a quarter of a dozen. They lie 23rd out of 24 teams. Such numbers are crushing – particularly to a club steeped in divisional success and the mesmeric rise that has accompanied it. The fact that Blackpool are one place above The Cod Army makes such a plight more agonising. There has to be a reality check though. Mid-table would be acceptable. Cementing their position in League One over the next few years would be tolerable, desirable even. No club can just invest in facilities, lower its average playing age and expect the football orgy or odyssey to continue. Even the best kids do not grow overnight whatever the standard of grass under foot. Good facilities can lift expectations and standards like a Rodin, but scruffs will always come and conquer – wreck the finger buffet – knowing that the Cod ego has grown.

One wag on Twitter shortly after Pressley’s first game in charge – referring to the new manager’s checkered shirt and body warmer – asked: “Get dressed in the dark, Elvis?” The hoedown garb was certainly unusual, if practical given the autumn month. What it did signal though was Steven Pressley’s insouciant and unruffled demeanour. It was like being back in the Hearts’ press room nine years ago in notable bob hat and casual apparel; the former Tynecastle captain socking it to Vladimir Romanov who had threatened to sell all Hearts’ players.

There is sometimes the feeling that all managers are disingenuous frauds, that they roll out a few soft words for the camera and despise journalists that dare ask pointed questions. Pressley – one game in – isn’t even on his Fleetwood honeymoon yet, but one thing he quite evidently exhibits is candour. The size of the job, the mini-rebuild and the metaphorical mopping of the players’ brows will require nothing less.

Fleetwood under previous incumbent, Alexander became a club with the reins too tight – the players almost like horses. “Most horses toss their head as a negative reaction to tight reins…Horses are basically claustrophobic animals so they have a lot of trouble with confinement…and tight reins are nothing if not confining. The type of horse most given to head tossing is usually a fairly high-energy, forward-aholic horse.”

This is the daft thing: Fleetwood have the high-energy players, despite the cull – players interested in romping forward and letting the opposition know they are there. Will Pressley fix the stable and the paddock though, the whole squad mentality – change how the players perform on the surrounding recreational ground? Will he reduce the head tossing which became clear to the crowd?

Certain things need addressing for this to happen – from the cosmetic to the fundamental: 1) Have the players run out to some evocative and rousing music, a club anthem other than the limp, banausic affair that currently makes its way through the speakers; 2) Get the team playing with a sense of entitlement. Far too much fear runs through this tentative, backward-passing team; 3) The slow-moving cargo ship (as mentioned) that is Fleetwood Town’s midfield needs to become a speedboat. Speed and supply to the starved strikers must improve; 4) When bits of the opposition start to puff hard, as was the case with Coventry’s right-back, Sam Ricketts on Saturday after 75 minutes, double up, expose them – exploit the gaps; 5) The defence must, in the short term, evolve from its over-reliance on loan players. Right-back Conor McLaughlin should have his mind back on the job following Northern Ireland’s European Championship heroics. Stephen Jordan should be integrated into the team perhaps as a strong, makeshift left-back until Wood and Tex leave.  And the return of club legend Nathan Pond – given his composure and elegant canter – would be surprisingly welcomed right now (the 30-year-old Prestonian just goes on and on, comfortable in the thin air of the upper echelons).

Highbury Stadium hosts its Fans’ Forum tonight. Perhaps the title of a book by Stephan Pastis should be highlighted to Andy Pilley: Timmy Failure: Mistakes Were Made. He has proved himself to be a valuable, ruthless, no-nonsense chairman, but how credible is Fleetwood’s journey from here given the recent paradigm shift? Can they really make the Championship or does the shadow of League Two haunt them daily? Without Mr Pilley’s assurance that Fleetwood’s base camp for the foreseeable future can be the unappreciated glamour of League One, then the club may well find itself susceptible to a landslide (back to the anonymous lower tiers).

On the question of ‘What does Fleetwood Town Football Club represent?’ the answer is graft, humility, togetherness and daring.


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