In hindsight, a goalless draw at home to Coventry City at the backend of January was a decent result for Fleetwood Town, given the Sky Blues’ subsequent surge to the summit of League One.
Yet, at the time it extended Fleetwood’s winless run to eight matches in all competitions (in 90 minutes), and left the club 11th in the League One table, five points adrift of the play-offs.
Few would have predicted what followed.
Joey Barton, who is in his second season as a manager, proceeded to lead Fleetwood on a five game winning streak with his transformed troops now unbeaten in 12 league matches, which is second only to League One leaders Coventry (14 games) in the entire Football League.
The Cod Army are now nestled inside the top-six, 5th, and just two points off the automatic promotion spots as the club starts to dream of a first ever elevation into the second-tier of English football.
We take a look at the reasons behind the club’s transformation...
A Solid Defensive Backbone
During their on-going dozen game undefeated run Fleetwood have conceded just eight goals, and kept six clean sheets. Only Portsmouth and Shrewsbury have breached Barton’s defence twice in a game.
Barton hasn’t been afraid to switch things up by adopting a 3-4-3 formation featuring a trio of on-loan defenders: Callum Connolly (22), Lewis Gibson (19) and Harry Souttar (21). “For me the best form of defence is attack,” he revealed. “I want a very mobile backline that can defend one v one, and I want us pushed on and squeezing teams in their half.”
Praise must also be vocalized in the direction of Glenn Whelan, a short-term addition in January. The 37-year-old has yet to taste defeat in 10 matches in his new surroundings with the midfielder’s experience, organisation, character and leadership skills proving to be invaluable at a club with so much young talent.
Superior Home Form
Fleetwood have lost only one home game this season; October’s 1-0 defeat to a then high-flying, all-conquering Ipswich Town - a result Barton’s troops avenged earlier this month when they came away from Portman Road with all three points.
Fleetwood’s home superiority is nothing new of course. That sole loss to Ipswich is their only league reverse at Highbury Stadium in over a year. That’s a single defeat in 24 matches, a period in which they’ve accumulated 12 wins and 11 draws.
Recent wins over fellow promotion contenders Portsmouth, Peterboorugh and Doncaster highlight the calibre of teams they are dispatching of at the moment.
The No-Fear Mindset
“I was watching a documentary about Bobby Robson last night,” Barton told The Gazette after beating Ipswich. “As someone who’s very early in their managerial career, it’s great to have a team that’s able to go to Sunderland last time out and then Portman Road and be competitive. I was lucky enough to play here two or three times.
“When you have my players’ mindset at the moment there’s just no fear.”
At the moment they step out onto the pitch believing they can beat anyone.
This is a side that has taken four points off Portsmouth in a matter of weeks. To put those results into perspective, a rejuvenated Pompey have beaten eight of the other 10 teams that they have faced over the last few months, with Coventry the only other team to beat Kenny Jackett’s men.
The Strive For Personal Honours
Externally, most managers are keen to praise the club as a whole when they enjoy a purple patch. It’s all about the collective, from the tea-lady to the kitman. But, while gaffers rarely admit it publicly, recognition in the form of individual honours is secretly strived for.
Barton scooped his first ever Manager of the Month award in September, a month in which his side went unbeaten and obtained 10 points from 12. "Everybody feels they have a role to play, from kitchen staff to the people who do the grass to the laundry women, so it's a real unique club at the moment,” Barton said at the time.
The 37-year-old is now up for February’s honour too, deservedly given the club’s cracking form.
‘League One Manager of the Year’ is undoubtedly in the back of Barton’s mind. He’s a confident character and one who will definitely seek to win an acclaimed award that was recently won by a certain Chris Wilder. Mark Robins is leading the way in the third-tier managerial department at the moment but Barton is definitely a big part of the conversation, and rightly so.
"We're a miles better team than them."— Sky Sports Premier League (@SkySportsPL) February 26, 2020
"They're scared of little old Fleetwood town!"
"They celebrated like they'd won the World Cup final..."
Something tells us Joey Barton doesn't like Sunderland! 👀pic.twitter.com/fERFHyXmIv
Back in 2005/06 when Joey Barton was enjoying his fourth consecutive Premier League season with Man City, non-league Fleetwood secured promotion into the Northern Premier League Premier Division.
The club has since negotiated their way up to League One, where they have spent the last five-and-a-half seasons. Under Uwe Rosler they came close to realising an historic promotion up to the Championship in 2016/17 when they finished 4th, only to lose in the play-offs.
With Barton at the helm the club came 11th last season but this time around promotion is on everyone’s mind. “We’re six or seven weeks from potentially winning League One,” the boss told Fleetwood Today this week.
“If I’d said that to you at the start of the season you’d have said I was crazy. I’m not saying we’re going to do it but we’ve got a hell of a chance.”
Even if Fleetwood fall short in their spirited promotion bid, Barton’s name will surely crop up in contention for any future vacancies that crop up in the summer. Many mocked his venture into management but while it’s still early days the young boss has proved that he’s the real deal with an exciting journey ahead of him.