Dear Mr Pressley
At 1.15pm on 30th July 2015 I received an email from your predecessor, Graham Alexander. ‘Would you like to come and see me at the training ground for a cup of tea and a chat?’ he asked. This was in response to my article Fleetwood Town – Running Out of Coke and Crisps? which I had sent him an hour earlier.
Graham’s seemingly straightforward but still ambiguous reply spooked me a little. ‘Providing there is no plan to stick me in a cage with Jimmy Ryan and Jamie Proctor [two of FTFC’s ‘heavies’] then that would be a much appreciated gesture,’ I wrote back a little guardedly, conscious of the word “chat”.
‘It will be just me and you having a chat. I’d like to put a face to the keyboard. We’re both busy men so please let me know when you would be free and I will make the time to meet. I would like to do this as soon as possible,’ was Graham’s second email which didn’t entirely put me at ease.
“As soon as possible”!? Jesus. What was he planning? I pictured Ryan and Proctor sharpening their knuckle dusters, ready to carry out a bit of extra-curriculum activity for the gaffer. Many a journalist has been separated from his notepad and keyboard, bundled into a skip and never heard from again.
We didn’t meet as it happens. My schedule was too crowded and GA clearly had other matters to attend to like preparing the team pre-season. Two months later, after a tough start to 2015/16, he and Fleetwood Town parted company.
By writing this, I don’t wish to suggest that the 18th May 2016 will be your last day at the club – nor would I want such an outcome – but I do have grave concerns over Fleetwood’s style of play and the formation (4-3-3) you’re keen on.
I am three years older than you, one year older than GA and the same age as chairman, Andy Pilley. That alone does not guarantee wisdom, nous or insight. A man’s life is to be judged on what he has done and how he has acted. In this regard, it is patently obvious that your life has been bigger and better than mine – more interesting, more in the public eye and possibly more fulfilling.
Away from the dreaded spotlight though, my own 45 years have given me one thing: A view; a glorious view from the top of a rarely-trodden hill. From that hill, after watching football live for nigh on 30 years, I have witnessed – week in and week out – two of the finest midfields ever to trample English turf.
1992: The old First Division quartet of Gary Speed, David Batty, Gary McAllister & Gordon Strachan that brought Leeds United the title.
2001: The Champions League 1st leg semi-final line up of Harry Kewell, David Batty, Olivier Dacourt & Lee Bowyer that drew 0-0 at Elland Road against Valencia.
What does this higher echelon history have to do with Fleetwood Town? you might ask. Well, everything – in the sense that good midfielders are instantly recognisable. I don’t imagine that FTFC will be top four Premier League material for a good while (I will generously give AP a generation in which to achieve this) but the same rules apply across the four divisions and beyond regarding a team’s midfield: It must consist of flair, bite, a great sprayer of the ball, speed and goals.
Jon Howe in his fine 2015 article, Leeds David Batty: Our Spit & Sawdust Superhero makes reference to the ferocious midfielder who was largely misunderstood and foolishly underrated by those outside of Elland Road. Batty’s elder peer and fulcrum of the ‘92 title-winning side, Gordon Strachan honestly relayed his thoughts on the matter: “David was absolutely fearless. This was underlined by his willingness to stand in our defensive wall for free kicks – one of my pet hates – and the fact that, when the kick was taken, I never once saw him flinch or turn his body away from the ball. On one occasion, I even saw him block a ferocious kick with his chest and then hold the position of his body to do the same with the follow up shot. One of the other lads looked at me and started shaking his head and laughing ‘That’s Batts – he’s off his head isn’t he?’ he said.”
The follow-up narrative from Howe is priceless: “Batty was certainly a one-off. Leeds born and so staunchly ‘Yorkshire’ in his dispassionate simplicity and lack of pretension he wasn’t so much constructed from granite but from stale Hovis.”
Question: Is Jimmy Ryan Fleetwood Town’s stale Warburtons? The level of football cannot be compared and we are in an era where legal, well-executed crunching tackles are sadly no longer accepted. But in terms of valour and fortitude, Ryan can be exceptional if utilised in the right way.
Not observed by many top-flight fans was the difference in hue between the 1986-93 David Batty and the 1998-2004 David Batty (after spells at Blackburn Rovers and Newcastle United). ‘Batty I’ was tenacious and effective, whereas ‘Batty II’ had a new degree of sophistication. He would spray the ball around in the manner of former teammate, Gary McAllister – something which was previously alien to him.
Ryan has features to his game which Batty never had: Goals, a skipping liveliness and darting run, and a beard. “SHOOT!” the Elland Road masses used to cry when Batty wandered anywhere near the opposition penalty area. Batty duly obliged on occasions and lumped it ten yards wide. Shooting was not his forte but Ryan is different in this respect; the former Chesterfield man tends to score a goal every ten games as opposed to a goal every 50.
No one is David Batty or ever will be again when it comes to sheer bottle, however making proper use of League One’s Merseysider and slight clone is paramount to Project Fleetwood succeeding. Ryan – and this is where I need your ear, Mr Pressley – is the fizz in our champagne, but only when given one role. At the moment, he is being asked to pick up the ball in defence and then somehow distribute it into the wasteland or void in front of him. In other words, pass to himself.
Club propaganda and kindergarten journalism will tell you that that’s OK. ‘Don’t worry. Jimmy can be everywhere.’ But he can’t. And this is where the big thinking comes in. Is 4-3-3 damaging him as a player? Pushing him too far right (like a Nazi brownshirt) out of the real mix? Are his shooting boots being left in the dressing room because of all the mopping up and menial tasks?
The trio of Antoni Sarcevic, Eggert Jónsson and Jimmy Ryan seems to work when in full flow, but it is demanding – too much for a full season. And the great Italian/Serb, Sarcevic is currently on the sidelines which weakens things considerably and messes with the midfield chi.
Mr Pressley – In trying to separate yourself from the legacy of Alexander, I feel that you have stuck too doggedly – with grim persistence – to this system, even when the required manpower is not available.
Is 4-4-2 not in your nature – even if it allows the bombing forward of Amari’i Bell on the left and Ashley Hunter on the right? With a mere ten games left and Fleetwood being just three points off the merciless drop zone, it is surely time to pull PLAN B from the drawer…if there is a drawer.
Please allow me to end with a few vital facts and observations:
THE MIDDLE OF THE PARK
When Leeds’ Gary McAllister used to expertly collect the ball from the centre halves, he immediately had options. Speed generally on the left, Batty in the middle and Strachan on the right. However, all three were prepared to move infield in order to add to the team’s fluidity. Quite shockingly, I see at times a full 35 yards between Ryan and the front line with no midfielders in between. Our formation is like an empty square. This would seem to suggest fear or the inability of others to hold up the ball.
Such players come from a special factory. They lead, inspire and maul the opposition when required. Jimmy Ryan has been crying out for a skilful partner-in-crime for months. Eggert is effective, but only when we are on the back foot. Forward momentum and real thrust have been missing for a long, long time.
NOT THE MAGIC BULLET
Playing striker David Ball too deep not only affects his game and leaves him vulnerable to injury, but also unbalances the team. He should be off the front man – ideally, the slick Wes Burns.
STAND OUT PLAYERS OF THE SEASON
Quite simply, just four players: Chris Maxwell, Amari’i Bell, Jimmy Ryan and Ash Hunter. Maxwell, as with all keepers, comes with an erratic clause: “On occasions, I will kick the ball out of touch for no apparent reason.” But his form and shot stopping have been superlative. Bell – what can you say? Just a class act. Stronger each week, great touch, speed, composure and skill. The perfect left back. Ryan – oozes class, but shouted at by numerous cuckoos in the Highbury Stand when he passes back having no options ahead of him. Hunter – great goal ratio, a real grafter and a natural finisher.
PLAYERS NEEDED FOR THE RUN-IN
Devante Cole: Showed us a glimpse of what he can do with the late header against Walsall which was cruelly clawed out of the top corner. He is now like a horse desperate to be let out of the starting gate despite early worries over his apparent indolence.
Nick Haughton: Needs a team of bouncers around him. Give him that and he will shine.
Victor Nirennold: The Tractor is an able squad player who will be needed in front of the back four.
Hornby-Forbes: Not quite skilful enough for a central midfield berth but strong with a great engine and useful along the sides. He will flourish given time.
GIVE HIM A DAMN TOUCH OF THE BALL
Jack Sowerby: Such a shame that Sowerby picked up a knee injury on 5th March versus Sheff Utd after finally getting his chance. When I say that “good midfielders are instantly recognisable” such a statement definitely applies to this young lad – the Squires Gate poacher-turned-central midfielder. His loss is like Marlon Brando walking out on a film set.
Part of me still struggles with the colour red. I supported Leeds United – famed for their Real Madrid colours – for twenty years (1987-2007) before moving to Thornton-Cleveleys which is fortunately 4.4 miles from Highbury; Bloomfield Road – thank God – being five. More than enough justification for following the Cod Army!
Leeds’ foes across the Pennines were Man Utd. Worse than Chelsea. More despicable than Sheff United. Success, by comparison, was rare but all the more special. Harry Kewell was very much the Ronaldo of his day. David Batty was not the menace portrayed by the media, but actually a man of steel and grace.
Do I see any of that enchantment in the current Fleetwood crop? Yes. Read: Bell, Ryan, Ball, Hunter & Burns. Players that excite and intrigue me. Are you going to channel their obvious talents, Mr Pressley?
I dearly hope so. Because if we fall, we lose them. And if we lose them, the town’s scrotum deflates.
Formerly on here: