Fleetwood Town 2 Portsmouth 5: Verdict

Cian Bolger enters the fray for Harrison Biggins
Cian Bolger enters the fray for Harrison Biggins
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What a difference a year makes ... or does it?

A 2-0 victory over Bury in the last game of 2017 left Fleetwood 11th in League One on 33 points. A year and a third head coach later, Town’s position is identical after 25 games.

This time last year we were questioning Town’s youth as then boss Uwe Rosler saw his attempts to emulate the play-off push of 2016-17 hindered by a failure to replace experienced trio David Ball, Conor McLaughlin and Jimmy Ryan.

Loanee replacements Bailey Cargill and Aiden O’Neill saw their Town futures coming to an end as they were hauled off at half-time in the Christmas defeat by Gillingham at Highbury.

That day I dished out fours out of 10 in the player ratings. This year I do the same but for two very different players.

With hindsight you could perhaps excuse youthful inexperience 12 months ago but now Town have a different issue to address. Too much experience?

Yes, Fleetwood desperately needed more leadership this summer but two of Joey Barton’s experienced recruits have to take the blame for this defeat: Dean Marney and Ross Wallace, former Premier League and Championship players.

Marney, approaching his 35th birthday, and Wallace, 33, made decisions that saw Town’s hard work of the first half undone.

A piece of individual brilliance from Ben Thompson in the 26th minute put the league leaders in front. Town are yet to gain a point after conceding first, so perhaps Pompey’s five goals were predictable.

But this was hardly the thrashing a 5-2 scoreline paints and again I was not impressed by Portsmouth.

It was a case of stupid decisions by experienced players and some questionable substitutions.

Fleetwood were boosted by the return of wing wizard Wes Burns and were up for the fight.

Burns’ work on the left flank eventually led to Lewie Coyle fizzing the ball in for Madden to do what he does best and equalise on 39 minutes.

His 13th of the term and what an astute signing Madden was last January. He has relished this partnership with Ched Evans and they once again shone at Highbury.

Madden was fouled by Matt Clarke in the box to win the penalty that Evans converted.

That was Evans’ ninth goal in the sort of prolific partnership Town have been missing in recent years.

Devante Cole hit double figures before his January exit and David Ball netted 14 the season before, but it’s a long time since Town had two strikers who can push on for 20 in a campaign.

With a partnership so fruitful as well as wingers Burns and Ash Hunter, who has scored six and created 12, Town have an attacking pack that is the envy of most in League One.

Keeping them together this January is a battle Barton needs to win.

But mistakes elsewhere are the cause of Town’s inconsistency this term.

Yes, Evans could have done better with his free header early on and Madden should have scored when he hit a post at 3-2.

But Fleetwood lost because of Marney’s red card and Wallace giving away an unnecessary penalty.

Marney, on a booking for fouling Ronan Curtis in the first half, should have been old and wise enough to know better than to impede Ben Thompson, who sprinted past him in the 51st minute.

Town had enough men behind the ball to thwart the threat. Marney was just plain stupid and the referee had no option but to brandish a second yellow.

In response, Barton opted to withdraw winger Hunter and send on the steel of James Wallace.

No doubt Wallace is a more physical presence, but taking off a man who has been involved in 18 of Town’s goals was perhaps with hindsight not the right choice.

Withdrawing Hunter sent out a message to Pompey. They smelled blood.

Then up stepped Ross Wallace. A hopeful cross towards Curtis at the back stick was going nowhere.

Town were defending resolutely until Wallace jumped into the man, nowhere near the ball.

Another stupid mistake and from then on the leaders showed their class. They were clinical.

Brett Pitman blasted home the spot-kick and Anton Walkes thundered in that all-important third.

Burns’ free-kick was saved as Town pushed for a leveller.

The impressive Burns’ withdrawal moments later was a shock but midfielder Kyle Dempsey entered to chants of ‘Super Kyle Dempsey’.

Barton said Burns was brought off as the club manages his return from a hamstring injury; understandable as Town need him going forward.

But still there is a feeling he and Hunter, who have both developed under Barton, were withdrawn too soon.

Town nearly levelled as Madden and James Wallace hit the woodwork.

Had either scored we may not have focused on Cian Bolger being sent on for Harrison Biggins, with Craig Morgan seemingly shifting to a forward role. Confusion followed at the back and Pompey stung Town on the counter, Jamal Lowe putting the game to bed with two late strikes.

It’s the turn of the year and we are still talking about silly mistakes from Town players. Fleetwood must learn their lessons and fast.

It’s a big January ahead as Town need to keep their stars ... and improve.