Rob Stocks’ Fleetwood Town review of the year

Steven Pressley
Steven Pressley
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Every review of the year makes reference to highs and lows, though In many cases there’s not enough topological difference to justify such an analogy.

Not at Fleetwood Town, where 2015 brought a spring in the step, with a highest-ever Football League finish, a summer exodus, the sacking of a manager amid autumn agony and a winter of discontent.

It was a year in which Fleetwood Town, with a reputation for both stability and big spending, took a u-turn on both counts.

There were landmarks along the way - a first ever League derby with near neighbours Blackpool, recognition on the international stage and victory at Bramall Lane.

And new faces too, Steven Pressley and Gretar Steinnson the most prominent among them, as things changed in a big way at Highbury.

Here we look back at what could prove a pivotal 12 months in the history of Fleetwood Town.

JANUARY

Town went into January still in with a chance of making the League One play-offs.

But there were already signs that things were going to change.

The January transfer window was a quiet one for Graham Alexander - Josh Morris further extending his loan from Blackburn Rovers the major talking point.

The talk around Highbury was that Fleetwood were close to busting the limits set by Financial Fair Play regulations - hamstrung by ambitious summer signings, including former Seasiders Keith Southern, Steven Crainey and Stephen Dobbie.

A lack of consistency had kept Town out of the true promotion chase and the win-one-lose-one form continued into the New Year.

A rip-roaring home draw with Swindon kicked off the year, Morris putting Town two goals to the good before a painful fightback from the Robins.

Victory at Leyton Orient was well deserved but Town couldn’t back it up at Highbury, putting in a shocking display as they went down 2-0 to Oldham Athletic.

The month did end with a win against Crawley Town, who looked every bit relegation certainties, Fleetwood making far too heavy work of seeing off Dean Saunders’ side.

Perhaps the most significant event came off the pitch, with the appointment of technical director Gretar , who would have a big say in Town’s new transfer and recruitment strategy.

FEBRUARY

February began with a long road trip to Bristol where, under snow-laden skies, Graham Alexander’s men battled bravely but were no match for one of the division’s strongest sides. The manager, not for the first time, chose to criticise match officials, claiming they had been pressured into giving decisions against Town by the Ashton Gate crowd.

It did Alexander no favours, Town clearly second-best on the day despite a delightful first-half show from Nick Haughton - thrown into the starting 11 and proving his worth.

Skipper Mark Roberts rescued a point in the home draw with Peterborough which followed.

But the frustrations continued, a brilliant win at Barnsley, inspired by Conor McLaughlin, followed by perhaps the worst display of the season and defeat at struggling Crewe.

The red mist descended as February came to a close - Crainey sent off in a 2-1 win over Notts County.

That turned out just to be a teaser for the main event - a 3-0 defeat at old foes Chesterfield, in which both Antoni Sarcevic and boss Alexander were given their marching orders. Town’s manager was dispatched to the stands for a round of sarcastic applause directed at referee Pat Miller.

MARCH

Town’s play-off hopes hung by a thread but a run of three without defeat at the start of March kept the dream alive.

The most significant of those results came at Bramall Lane - perhaps Fleetwood Town’s finest hour.

In front of a crowd of more than 18,000, Town put on a dogged display, grabbing the lead through Josh Morris and Nick Haughton (who celebrated by running the length of the pitch) before riding out a red and white storm.

Just when it looked like Fleetwood might have found their tough side, fans were brought back to earth by a late home capitulation against Coventry City.

The month ended with two monumental draws.

The first came at Valley Parade where Fleetwood, two goals down after 89 minutes, somehow grabbed a point, Nathan Pond’s equaliser celebrated like a cup final winner.

The Sky TV cameras headed to Highbury at the end of the month to capture David Ball’s late equaliser in a feisty derby against Preston North End - Town for too long overawed by the occasion.

APRIL

Fleetwood by this point were playing for pride - not that you could tell from their Easter weekend performances.

Gillingham away was nobody’s idea of a Good Friday but David Ball’s goal at least made the long trip worthwhile.

Yeovil visited Highbury on Easter Monday, a brace from Ball along with goals from Jamie Proctor and Ash Hunter sinking the relegation favourites. Back-to-back wins raised spirits around Highbury but the feeling was short-lived.

Tom Bradshaw’s late winner at Walsall punished a lacklustre performance.

Worse was to come with the midweek visit of MK Dons. Dele Alli would make his England debut before the year was out - he destroyed Fleetwood single-handedly as MK proved the gulf between the real haves and have-nots of the division.

Still, at least there was drama, unlike the trip to Doncaster which followed.

Alexander didn’t see the funny side when Rovers released a highlights package from the 0-0 draw which featured the teams running out, the kick-off and the final whistle.

He accused Rovers of disrespect as the national press branded the game the ‘most boring ever’.

Town were, by this point, playing for position - a rather crucial point when struggling Colchester visited Highbury.

With ten minutes to play the Us were relegated, Town 2-1 to the good.

Two goals in three minutes, Nathan Pond conceding a late penalty, ensured an unpleasant end to the home campaign and United’s eventual survival.

MAY

Graham Alexander’s post-game after the 2-1 victory at Port Vale gave a hint of things to come - his admission Town would struggle to afford to bring Josh Morris back and talk of “big decisions”, hinting at a tightening of the pursestrings. The win, slightly tainted as Town conceded with the last kick of the season, should have been celebrated as Fleetwood finished 10th in their first League One campaign. But talk was already turning to the released list, players saying their farewells at Vale Park an indication of the turmoil to follow.

The released list was huge - club skipper Mark Roberts a major casualty.

Also out were David Ball and Stephen Crainey, with Steven Schumacher, Jeff Hughes, Stewart Murdoch, Matty Hughes, Liam Hogan and Tom Davies other high-profile casualties.

New deals were offered - all but Gareth Evans eventually accepting contracts, the wide man landing up with League Two Portsmouth.

The immediate talk was of investment in youth - Town putting their money where their mouth was with the signing of Aberdeen hotshot Declan McManus. A second striker, Frenchman Vamara Sanogo joined before the month was out.

JUNE

The signings continued, albeit amid talk of struggles to agree deals with major targets.

Jimmy Ryan was a significant capture, tempted away from Chesterfield despite having made the play-offs with the Spireites the previous season.

Heading away from Highbury was keeper Scott Davies. Frustrated at playing second fiddle to Chris Maxwell, he departed for Tranmere Rovers.

JULY

Back into pre-season and Fleetwood were still light on numbers.

Two trialists joined them for the opening friendly at AFC Fylde. Both Bobby Grant and Lyle Della-Verde would eventually agree terms, though the latter would eventually disappear without a trace.

Also signing up was Icelandic midfielder Eggert Jonsson, no doubt influenced by the presence of Steinsson in the Highbury boardroom.

Pre-season did not go well, Town losing every game - a sign of things to come and an indication that all was not well within the camp.

AUGUST

Fleetwood, still hammering the line of investment in youth, looked startlingly like a work in progress.

Even with the last-minute signing of David Ball - putting pen to paper on a two-year deal, having spend the summer touring League One rivals - couldn’t mask the deficiencies in the squad.

Fleetwood had only one recognised centre-half, no bona-fide proven goalscorer and a midfield light on experience and muscle.

Even so, they should have beaten Southend in a gimme of a home opener, a late mistake (the first of many) proving costly.From there the wheels fell off - Capital One Cup defeat to Hartlepool was followed by a poor and disjointed defeat at Oldham.

Fleetwood were much improved at Gigg Lane the following Tuesday - Bury losing their head and the game, which turned out to be a 4-3 thriller.

Attempting to utilise wing-backs was either a joy or a disaster for Fleetwood, who proved their only true consistency was their inconsistency - a 4-0 hammering of Colchester further easing the pressure.

Town’s Jekyll and Hyde character was summed up in the dismal 2-0 defeat at Doncaster which followed, a result which would signal the beginning of the end for the managers of boths clubs.

SEPTEMBER

Home draws against Rochdale and Bradford bought Graham Alexander time but it was clear his revamped squad and the new system being employed were not fit for purpose.

Victor Nirennold, signed from DVD footage, was an amusing distraction but also an indication of how desperate Fleetwood were for bodies at the back, having failed in their summer recruitment.

From there the rot set in - Fleetwood leaving it too late to play on their first visit to Wigan’s DW, not for the last time in 2015 demonstrating the gulf between the two former Northern Premier League sparring partners.

When Port Vale turned the tables in 11 second half minutes at Highbury the murmurings of discontent began to grow.

And, on a Tuesday night in Kent, the final blow was struck.

Fleetwood, ravaged by injury, hamstrung by their recruitment and packed with square pegs in round holes, were awful against Gillingham, plain and simple.

Alexander had reached the point where he didn’t know his best 11, his best system or how to fix the problems.

Less than 24 hours later the former Preston defender would be gone, a 5-1 defeat earning him the most dreaded call in football.

OCTOBER

The speed of Alexander’s dismissal had been something of a shock but once the dust settled it because clear a change of tack was needed.

With no shortage of names being linked with the job, including Alexander’s old nemesis Steve Evans and Paul Dickov, whose Doncaster side has begun the process of his demise, Town moved to shore up the squad.

The loan signings of Dionotan Teixeira and Joe Davis - two burly centre-halves - were well overdue and signalled the end of Alexander’s policy to avoid the market if possible.

Chris Lucketti showed a steady hand but fell short on luck, taking charge of Town’s defeat at Scunthorpe.

His selection was bold and was rewarded days later with victory over Shrewsbury in the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy.

By then chairman Andy Pilley had already made his choice, Steven Pressley watching on from the stands as Bobby Grant and Ash Hunter sealed a comeback win.

Pressley’s first game was, naturally, against his former club.

Coventry City came to Highbury and were very nearly denied - Richard Wood, also facing his former employers, causing agony with a late own goal.

But Pressley wouldn’t have to wait long for his first victory - a stunning 4-0 romp against in-form Burton Albion.

Joy was shortlived as Fleetwood continued to bounce around the wrong end of League One - a half-hearted display at Bramall Lane guaranteeing defeat.

A rare away win, at Barnsley, briefly lifted the spirits but home defeat to Chesterfield meant Town ended the month still in deep trouble.

NOVEMBER

Fleetwood’s FA Cup draw at Walsall couldn’t have been tougher and the Saddlers, although tested, ran out deserved winners in an entertaining affair.

But Town’s cup misery was shortlived, a resolute Tuesday night display against Sheffield United expunging the unpleasant memories of Bramall Lane and the Bescot - a penalty shootout win raising crushed spirits.

Town were steadily improving but unable to match results to performances, their 2-1 defeat at Peterborough a case in point - a point the least they deserved.

Of course, the arrival of Tariqe Fosu from Championship Reading and Everton’s David Henen helped, injecting pace which Fleetwood had badly been lacking.

They were now creating, carving out chances but unable to convert.

All the goals, it turned out, came in one go - back-to-back home wins lifting Fleetwood out of the drop zone.

Swindon hardly helped themselves as they suffered a 5-1 pasting but Town were superb against a well-organised Millwall side, their best display of the campaign earning a 2-1 win.

It was all looking so good ahead of a derby date with destiny, or at least with Blackpool.

The Seasiders were on an appalling run, Town looking like climbing away from the bottom dwellers.

Nathan Pond’s own goal was tough to take - Fleetwood carving out chance after chance but unable to take a single one in a defeat in which the winners had zero shots on target.

DECEMBER

A combination of cup exits and heavy rain made December a slow burner, Fleetwood managing to play just once in three weeks.

JPT victory over Morecambe kept Wembley dreams alive but League One survival remained very much the focus.

A waterlogged Highbury pitch, the first in nearly eight years, meant Town had to wait to wash away memories of that derby defeat.

A point on the road at Crewe was something, but not enough - Fleetwood again wasteful in front of goal, squandering the chances which could take them into the comfortable reaches of mid-table.

It was the same story on Boxing Day at Shrewsbury - an early error, a catalogue of catastrophies inside the opposition box, Ash Hunter coming to the rescue with a late leveller to at least keep the bottom four at bay.

But not for long.

Wigan are the rich playboys of the division, having the luxury of bringing two Championship quality forwards off the bench to punish Town after a second-half fightback.

The scoreline didn’t reflect Fleetwood’s battling performance or the fact that for a brief time after their leveller they looked like going on to win.

It did mean Town go into 2016 on the back of a heavy defeat and inside the drop zone.

It’s clear a crucial few weeks lie ahead. Seven games in January could define the season.

Fleetwood could yet celebrate Wembley victory and survival.

They will do neither if they can’t find a goalscorer - somebody to turn chances into points.

Henen and Fosu, along with Pressley’s pressing and counter-attacking game, have made Fleetwood stronger.

Both, along with Joe Davis, must be convinced to stay on.

But that will not be enough. The strikers within Town’s ranks have shown over half a season their profligacy.

New blood is required and quickly to prevent Fleetwood being sucked into a position from which they cannot escape.

Longer term the club has a big decision to make.

Financial Fair Play rules make it tough for a club the size of Fleetwood to compete in League One.

Fans cannot and should not expect Andy Pilley to continue to finance their dream from his pocket, to enjoy low-cost tickets and high-price players - Champagne football on beer money, as Stan Ternent would have put it.

Youth development is the right way to go but will take a long time to pay off.

In the meantime, it is essential for Pressley and Steinsson to prove themselves as wheeler dealers - the hope of a stronger link with Premier League Everton just one of the avenues they might need to explore.

What is clear is Fleetwood can’t make the number of mistakes they did in 2015 - a rushed transition, a significant spend on the Poolfoot training complex, a haphazard and ill-conceived summer transfer strategy.

Stability, commonsense and realism - from both fans and the club - are needed if 2016 is to be another successful chapter in the incredible Fleetwood Town story.