Whatever happens from here, this has been a landmark season for Fleetwood Town under Uwe Rösler.
The German, despite inheriting a squad that secured its League One future only on the final day of last season, and having seven days to prepare for this campaign, is threatening to exit the division via the preferred route.
On Saturday his unfashionable team popped up, alongside the early daffodils, in the automatic promotion places, courtesy of an unbeaten 18-match sequence. Spring is in the air and there is a spring in the step of all those associated with a club that competed in the Northern Premier League, the seventh tier of English football, as recently as 2007-08.
Fleetwood’s history is on course to take in another extraordinary chapter. At the start of December they trailed Scunthorpe by 15 points. A 2-0 away victory over them has provided a three-point advantage heading into the final 11 matches.
Intriguingly, Rösler’s personal history might have been very different. Appointed Leeds’ fifth head coach in 13 months in May 2015, he was sacked following a cautious start to the season. In his 11th and final match, against Brighton, Liam Cooper was forced off injured, leaving Leeds with 10 men. Bobby Zamora’s last-minute winner sealed the 48-year-old’s fate.
Rösler lost only four times but claimed only 11 points. There were mitigating circumstances: Burnley, Middlesbrough, Brighton, Sheffield Wednesday and Derby, five of the eventual top six, were among the early opponents. This season, Garry Monk lost four of his first six, survived and prospered.
Equally Rösler has reason to feel sore about his departure from Wigan. There he inherited a team in 14th place in the Championship in December 2013 and took them to the play-offs and FA Cup semi-finals. It bought him no wriggle room, though, and he departed with the club third bottom after three wins in 17 the following season.
Rösler’s management polarises opinion. His supporters would brand it methodical, his critics mechanical. When he agreed to succeed Steven Pressley at Fleetwood on 30 July last year, he went through a process he insists on at every one of his clubs. He sat down with the chairman, Andy Pilley, and agreed targets for the season.
The first was to register 50 points, the accepted mark to beat relegation; the second to reach the third round of the FA Cup, and therefore generate income; the third, to surpass the club’s record tally of 63 League One points. After breaching it at Glanford Park, Rösler is ready to set a fourth.
“Whatever happens now it is the best season this club ever had and that’s already something to be proud of,” he says. “I will sit with the group and the last target we will all agree together. It will be ambitious but also achievable for us. It is important that the players are on board and it’s not me dictating. I said to the players that there are two more months to go and they will require a lot of sacrifices, but they could change your life.”
The bond Rösler has developed with this previously unheralded squad is tangible. Cian Bolger and Ashley Eastham, freebies from Southend and Rochdale last summer, and Ben Davies, borrowed from Preston in January, formed an outstanding three-man central defence. With Amari’i Bell, player of the season so far, unavailable with a foot injury, Joe Maguire, signed from Liverpool two months ago for a nominal fee, made his debut at left wing-back. The hug he received when replaced midway through the second half said “job well done”.
Kicking every ball, Rösler also danced and flung his arms theatrically in appreciation of each of Alex Cairns’ stunning saves. Cairns is the microcosm of Fleetwood’s season. Now 24, the former Leeds trainee made his full League debut only on 19 November and is yet to lose.
Cairns, like the majority of the side, was a player Rösler inherited. But he is clearly having a greater influence of the club’s transfer policy than predecessors Pressley and Graham Alexander, who were both said to be uncomfortable with Gretar Steinsson, the former Iceland international, controlling recruitment as technical director, as is common on the continent. Markus Schwabl, who joined recently from German third-tier team Aalen, is a player Rösler had on his wishlist at Brentford and Leeds. “He was captain in his two previous clubs, is a good age, very athletic and definitely suitable for our wage budget,” Rösler said of Fleetwood’s midfield shield.
Clearly, Rösler has a strong relationship with Steinsson: after the former Bolton defender was refused post-match entry to the away dressing room – as he was not on the list of approved personnel – the pair wandered back down the tunnel, arms locked around each others’ shoulders, to toast second place.
Emotionally this is a similar journey to the one Rösler experienced in cutting his teeth in English management at Brentford: “I found what happened at Leeds to me very hard to take and I needed a club to give me my happiness back, allow me to work with players, in a stable environment, and I found that with Fleetwood from day one. For me, it was irrelevant which division, it was not a matter of money, it was just a matter of me working and enjoying myself again. I am doing that.”
Fleetwood rode their luck to defeat their former manager Alexander. Cheered on by 500 visiting supporters – seven times their usual following – Devante Cole rounded off a fine team move for the first-half opener. At the other end Cairns kept Scunthorpe blank until Steven Dawson volleyed in spectacularly just after the hour. Wrongly, the equaliser was scrubbed off for offside.
The points were sealed in injury time via a finish of which Jamie Vardy – a player whose £1m sale has part-funded this extraordinary underdog story –would have been proud. The precision of David Ball’s pass meant Bobby Grant did not have to break stride before stroking it left-footed beyond Luke Daniels.
Grant was bought by then Championship club Scunthorpe for £260,000 back in the summer of 2010. He celebrated like a player returning to an old ground but also like one preparing to dream bigger once again.
“Uwe has set a standard and a work ethic that I have never seen before in a manager,” Grant said. “He sets us up, we carry out his instructions on the pitch and, as long as we listen to what he says, we are in great hands,” Grant said.
• The lead in the Championship changed hands for the 16th time last week and Brighton’s players were left to rue the rule that prevents referees watching replays during games for the crucial first goal in their defeat at Nottingham Forest that saw them lose further ground on Newcastle. A visiting ensemble urged official Oliver Langford to look up at the City Ground’s big screen as Britt Assombalonga wheeled away in celebration after stretching neck muscles to get a flick on Zach Clough’s shot on the hour. Assombalonga was standing in an offside position and even the minimalist of touches would have ruled the goal out.
• Norwich manager Alex Neil ripped into his team after their quest to secure an immediate return to the Premier League hit the skids at Sheffield Wednesday. A 5-1 defeat means they have now conceded 53 goals, more than all Championship rivals other than Forest and bottom club Rotherham, and also have nine points to make up to the final play-off place. “We didn’t handle the magnitude of the game. It was a big game and you are hoping your big players are going to stand up to that,” Neil said. Meanwhile, Aston Villa, another of the relegated clubs, recorded three consecutive wins for the first time in seven years with a 2-0 victory at the New York Stadium.
• Leyton Orient’s precarious position – they have been served with a winding-up petition by HMRC over an unpaid tax bill of around £250,000, and face dropping out of the Football League – received a boost through the innocence of youth. All four Orient goals in the comprehensive dispatch of League Two relegation rivals Newport County were scored by 18-year-olds. Josh Koroma, who struck a hat-trick, and Steven Alzate, who chipped in with the other, both registered for the first time in senior football. Three years after losing the League One play-off final, Orient fielded seven players aged 20 or under.”
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