Fleetwood Town 1 Cambridge United 0. IT pays to be on time these days at Fleetwood Town.
Any latecomers would surely have missed Andy Mangan’s opener against Tamworth two weeks ago, and would have been in danger of repeating their mistake on Saturday, as Town took on Cambridge United.
There were barely two minutes on the clock when Mangan again pounced to score what could yet prove a decisive goal in the Cod Army’s promotion push.
Frustrated by missed chances a fortnight ago, Micky Mellon was taking no chances against a U’s side which has lost just seven games this season, shipping an average of fewer than one goal per game.
The current form of that other team obviously hasn’t gone un-noticed around Highbury, and the Fleetwood boss took a leaf out of Ian Holloway’s tactics book, naming four strikers in his starting line-up – with a total of 52 goals between them this season.
The reshuffle meant Danny Rose was forced to settle for a seat on the bench, Richard Brodie joining a formidable attacking line-up of Mangan, Magno Viera and Jamie Vardy.
And the manager’s gamble appeared to have paid off, when Mangan latched on to Vardy’s clever pass, moving unchallenged into the area, his shot low and slow, but somehow finding a way past Danny Naisbitt for a 14th goal of the season.
But, as has so often been the case this season, Fleetwood failed to capitalise on their early advantage.
Instead, it was United who went on the offensive, winning a series of attacking throws, as Fleetwood’s back four came under intense pressure.
Nathan Pond came to the rescue of Scott Davies, after the Fleetwood keeper spilled a Kevin Roberts shot, while Luke Berry’s poor touch after Tom Shaw’s through-ball provided Town with a get-out-of-jail-free moment.
Fleetwood did create opportunities, as Vardy, subjected to close attention from as many as three Cambridge defenders, proved a thorn in the U’s side. But the visitors had done their homework – defending deep, allowing Town space down the flanks and content to concede corners – from which Fleetwood struggled to create any genuine openings.
At the other end, United clearly knew to pile pressure on a defence which, for much of the season, has struggled to handle set-pieces and the second ball.
Only the woodwork prevented them grabbing a leveller midway through the first half, Luke Berry’s long-range blast coming back off the angle, to the relief of a stranded Davies, who managed to scramble the ball behind.
The resulting corner gave way to an all-too-familiar bout of penalty area pinball, Blaine Hudson squandering the opportunity with a wayward finish.
Town looked in defensive disarray, with cracks beginning to appear elsewhere.
Brodie, a victim of taunting from the Cambridge fans since kick-off, seemed increasingly frustrated by the attentions of U’s skipper James Jennings, but reserved his anger for team-mate Mangan – the pair exchanging words over responsibility for the breakdown of a Fleetwood attack.
Ryan Jackson, on loan at Highbury from AFC Wimbledon earlier in the season, was proving a handful for Fleetwood, his pace on the right almost too hot to handle. But it was Harrison Dunk who claimed the visitors’ best chance of the half, with five minutes to play – a reflex save from Davies denying the midfielder a certain equaliser.
With the half almost at a close, Fleetwood came up with a late rally – Vardy almost doubling Town’s advantage, but unable to direct his header on target from Peter Cavanagh’s cross.
The restart brought more changes for Cambridge, and it soon became clear Town were in desperate need of a shake-up. When the change came, it was Brodie, ineffective for much of the first half, who made way for Jamie McGuire, who added a touch of grit and determination to the Fleetwood midfield.
The change proved an inspiration for flagging Fleetwood, who launched a fresh wave of attacks – Vardy and Mangan both going close, but unable to find the target.
Conditions took a turn for the worse, when the swirling wind strengthened, and a storm of hailstones swept across, adding surface water to an already sticky surface, but Town dug deep in the search for a second.
Viera’s low drive from the edge of the box was saved, while Vardy could only shoot at the keeper, after being superbly teed up by Cavanagh.
When Town did finally find the net, it only seemed fitting the architect of their revivial, McGuire, should be the man responsible, the midfielder unlucky to have his late effort ruled offside by assistant referee Sarah Garratt.
Town were forced to deal with a late scare, when Lee Fowler bundled into Rossi Jarvis, Nathan Pond with a crucial block to clear the Fleetwood line.
Pretty it most certainly wasn’t, and the 2,068 fans packed into Highbury will almost certainly see better games this season. But three points is three points, whether they are won in the first three minutes or the last.
Thanks to Mangan’s early strike, Town remain two points clear of Wrexham at the top of the Conference table – precisely where they want to be at the sharp end of the season. And grinding out results against tough opposition is just what’s needed to keep them there.
Fleetwood: Davies, Beeley, McNulty, Pond, Goodall, Brodie (McGuire 56 ), Mangan, Cavanagh, Fowler, Vieira (Seddon -88), Vardy; not used: Stephenson, Brown, Rose
Cambridge: Naisbitt, Roberts, Jennings, Johnson, Hudson, Shaw (Hughes 90), Dunk, Jarvis, Jackson (Thorpe 74), Gash, Berry (Pugh 67); not used: McAuley, Marriott
Referee: S Bratt; Att: 2,068 .