Gillingham 5 Fleetwood 1

Graham Alexander
Graham Alexander

If ever a wake up call was needed that Fleetwood Town’s League One status is far from assured this was it.

Town have in recent weeks been rolling over an pushing the snooze button, the results poor, the performances mixed but no need to panic.

All that changed on an appalling night at the Priestfield - one on which Fleetwood’s system, built with square pegs shakily rammed into round holes, completely collapsed in a 20 minute first half abomination.

Fleetwood have, in fairness needed some luck with injuries.

None was forthcoming - the defence once again decimated, three full backs lining up behind a pair of wing backs as Richard Wood, brought in to cover other absences succumbed.

That system was shown to be shaky at Wigan, at Gillingham it proved a liability - a 16 minute first half spell ending the game as a contest.

The truth is Fleetwood’s project - to develop young talent is an admirable one.

But at the moment they are lacking both the quality and experience to make the next eight months anything other than a lengthy battle at the wrong end of the table.

The start at Gillingham, as so many have been was positive.

Town made five changes, some of them enforced, others tactical.

And the introduction of Jack Sowerby looked a positive change, the former Squires Gate man a lively influence as a wing back on the right hand side.

His quality touch and delivery put the Gills on the ropes in the early stages.

And one strong run down the right gave Town just the opening they needed.

Sowerby looked to have gone past Brennan Dickenson, the wide man tripped just outside the box.

Up stepped Bobby Grant, his delivery to the near post not really a cross but it didn’t matter, Dickenson getting a final touch as Stuart Nelson was beaten.

That was as good as it got for Fleetwood - the remainder of the first half watched by Fleetwood fans from behind, programmes, hands and anything else available.

All Town needed was to manage the game, hold on to their lead for a decent time and make the Gills question their confidence.

Instead they handed them the game - defensive howlers the order of the day, Fleetwood massacred on the Medway.

All the goals were easily defended, two from set pieces, all inexcusable.

The first was a long throw from the right, Town in total disarray.

Max Ehmer got the flick on which wrong-footed those few Fleetwood defenders who were switched on to the danger, Rory Donnelly nodding home all too easily at the back.

Fleetwood needed to keep their heads, their composure, their shape.

They did none and paid the price.

The seeds of disaster were sown when Ryan Jackson skipped past the hapless Amari’i Bell, on loan Chelsea midfielder Jordan Houghton unmarked to tap home.

That was just the start of it as Town fell apart.

The third was equally simple, a free kick not properly cleared John Egan all to eager to sweep the ball home from six yards out.

The fourth was a sign of the capitulation - Fleetwood’s defence parting like the Red Sea, Donnelly racing unhindered from inside his own half and neatly lobbing Chris Maxwell to put the Gills out of sight.

Gillingham had the bit between their teeth but somehow Town made it to the break without matters getting worse.

And the interval brought a welcome change, Jordan making way for Eggert Jonsson and the wing-backs making way for a flat back four.

Town certainly appeared more solid , Gillingham at the same time appearing content with their haul.

It made for something of a non-spectacle, Town enjoying long spells of possession and some pressure but not enough to ease the increasingly load on the shoulders of boss Graham Alexander.

The chances for Fleetwood to pull goals back were, in truth, very limited.

Only after the introduction of David Ball and Jamie Proctor did Fleetwood really get in behind the Gills and even then they lacked the confidence to apply the killer blow.

Proctor was the man unleashed, a neat pass from Ball unlocking the Gills down the right.

The Fleetwood man looking to have got in behind the hosts but was hesitant to pull the trigger.

His finish was uncertain, neither a cross nor a full blown attempt to beat Stuart Nelson, Ball unable to pick up the pieces.

Things at least couldn’t get any worse, Gillingham with no real ambition of crossing the half way line, let alone looking for a fifth.

But with ten minutes remaining Fleetwood suffered another hammer blow.

Eggert Jonsson’s challenge on Luke Norris was clumsy - the Icelandic defender should have known better having already gone into the book.

Referee Tim Robinson was well within his rights to administer a second yellow, Fleetwood once again back to three men at the back and Gillingham quick to exploit it.

Sub Cody McDonald it was who wielded the hammer around the Fleetwood coffin.

He’d already forced a last ditch challenge from Danny Andrew, buzzing around the box with the kind of dangerous intent Fleetwood could only dream of,

And when space opened up where Jonsson should have been the Gills showed their ruthless side once more - a 20 yard blast hitting the inside of the near post and rebounding across the line.

It wasn’t over - McDonald nearly compounding Fleetwood misery when he again broke loose of his shackles on the edge of the box, only Chris Maxwell’s outstretched arm denying the substitute a three minute brace and the Gills a sixth.

It was a horror show, in no small way caused by a lack of bodies at the back and a lack of experience in other key areas.

But boss Graham Alexander is far from beyond criticism - his decision to go with three at the back opening Fleetwood up to a first half pounding.

He is also the man who holds ultimate responsibility for the club’s summer recruitment, for bringing in the young players who are yet to show themselves capable in League One.

It’s maybe too early to talk about change but the discontent is building in the Fleetwood fanbase - many of whom have never seen their club in this position.

It’s unknown territory for Fleetwood - time for players and management alike to show character before early season drama turns into a crisis.