The Joe Davis column: Fleetwood Town have nothing to lose after freakish Friday

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Ex-Fleetwood defender Joe Davis writes for The Gazette on his former club's play-off quest.

Well, where do I start? Friday evening was far from normal, and when I wrote about the fluctuating emotions of English football last week, I wasn’t setting five goals, two penalties, two red cards and an own goal as the benchmark for a play-off semi-final.

The peculiarity of this fixture began prior to any whistle being blown. The gang of plastic mannequins, inflatables and scarecrows that rocked back and forth on the terraces set the tone.

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The fierce wind that swept in from the coast rippled Gareth Ainsworth’s leather biker jacket and long brown locks. A red flare was hauled on to the field in the second-half, despite there being no supporters in attendance.

Football returned to Highbury on Friday but it wasn't a night to remember for FleetwoodFootball returned to Highbury on Friday but it wasn't a night to remember for Fleetwood
Football returned to Highbury on Friday but it wasn't a night to remember for Fleetwood

Upon reflection, it seems each factor played its part in perfecting an eerie scene for Fleetwood’s 4-1 bodyblow at Highbury Stadium.

In the build-up to the game, Barton’s declaration of “supreme confidence” in his team’s preparation fed optimism to the Cod Army faithful, myself included.

It was an excitement that was deflated within 60 seconds, when The Chairboys burst out of the traps and took the lead through Nnamdi Ofoborh’s volley, a goal that kick-started, irrefutably, the most frenzied start to any Fleetwood Town fixture I have ever seen.

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In the time that it took for the kettle to boil and for me to shout ‘what just happened?’ Fleetwood had equalised through a Ched Evans penalty and conceded once more when Alex Cairns punched a Joe Jacobsen corner into his own net. It was six minutes of windswept chaos and there was no sign of it letting up.

For the remaining 84 minutes I teetered on the brink of my chair waiting for the next moment of madness.

A Lewie Coyle horror tackle was next. I must admit that in real time I was outraged by the referee’s decision to award a penalty, never mind send Coyle trudging off for an early bath. However, a second look via a slowed down replay told a different story. Despite winning the ball cleanly, the follow through was both dangerous and high.

Although I reserve some sympathy for Coyle, there can be no excuse for Madden’s dismissal five minutes from time. There is always a line you must refrain from crossing when challenging a refereeing decision, and clearly Madden violated that by some distance when hurling abuse at the officials for waving away his penalty claims.

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The combination of grit, swagger and discipline that Fleetwood had conjured up during their 12-game unbeaten run seemed to remain in quarantine. So too the impact of Fleetwood’s most creative and influential players – Ched Evans, Barrie Mckay and Wes Burns, who the team rely on for moments of magic.

Wycombe’s sterling defensive work was the main reason for their inefficiency, and although they weren’t tested in the way that many expected, Wanderers’ back four stood firm all night and deserve immense praise for the way they dealt with whatever Fleetwood threw at them.

One man I reserve sympathy for is Alex Cairns, who came under fire from a portion of fans on social media during and after the game.

I felt for Cairnsy more than anyone on Friday night as I know his character and ability better than anyone.

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He will be bitterly disappointed with the goals he conceded but I also know he has the mental resilience to bounce back – as he did for the outstanding first-half penalty save.

The reality is that we all have bad days at the office. From experience, when struggling I could often sneak under the radar if my team-mates were performing around me, but there is no place for a keeper to hide.

During my time at the club, Cairnsy was somebody Uwe Rosler would encourage us to use as much as possible, particularly in possession to utilise his composure on the ball and superb technical ability. He would frequently receive the ball from us at the back – Rosler always referred to him as “our extra defender” – and would be comfortable driving out of his 18-yard box to start attacks.

Since breaking into the team in November 2016, Alex has dislodged a solid goalkeeper in Chris Neal, kept out the vastly experienced Matt Gilks and this season Billy Crellin, an England youth international who has a bright future ahead of him.

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In the process he has kept 55 clean sheets in 149 appearances. Those stats undeniably prove he has played his part in helping Fleetwood establish itself as a force in League One, as well as being a hugely popular figure in the dressing room.

For those reasons, lambasting his goalkeeping ability on social media after four years of service seems incredibly discourteous and fickle.

Ahead of tonight’s second leg, my message as a former player is to stand by the team, support them ceaselessly and keep in mind the progress the club has made in recent times.

Yes, heading to Wycombe with a three-goal deficit and without two key players seems a mammoth task, but let’s remember what Fleetwood Town is all about – soaring from the North West Counties League in 2005, brushing aside the doubters and defying the odds, to dreaming of Championship football 15 years later.

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If anyone can transform the impossible into the achievable it’s ‘Andy Pilley’s Red and White Army’. It may sound a cliché but as Gareth Ainsworth said after the match: “This is a game of two halves”, and although Wycombe’s fat lady is warming up her pipes she isn’t singing yet.

As Jimmy Greaves once famously said, “Football is a funny old game,” and if you took any notice of the recent League Two Play-off semi-finals you would agree. Exeter turned around a 1-0 disadvantage, while Northampton came back from a 2-0 first leg defeat to win 3-2 and book their place in the final, which they went on to win 4-0.

Heading into tonight, there will be plenty of inspirational messages poured onto social media sites in an attempt to motivate the players.

Words that spring to my mind are those of Ted Lowery, an extraordinary man who passed away in March 2018 following a lifetime serving The Cod Army, and who would often say, “We could do with Jamie Vardy for this one,” in the lead-up to any big occasion.

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He is probably right, but Andy Pilley’s rallying call to “stick together” seems more realistic, considering Vardy bagged his 100th Premier League goal on Saturday. After what I’m sure has been a torturous two days analysing what went wrong, tonight Fleetwood can go out and give their all without fear.

A vastly improved performance and a slice of luck will be needed to have any chance of turning it around, but as far as the bookmakers and Wycombe fans are concerned the tickets to Wembley are already in the post – so what is there to lose?