PAUL Caddis offered words of warning in the previous morning’s press conference.

The wily campaigner had played directly against Joey Barton before, locking horns in central midfield for Birmingham against QPR.

He expected a team in Barton’s image to be just as uncompromising, just as willing to frustrate and niggle and do whatever it takes to get the result.

Watching Fleetwood on Saturday, slowing the play down, breaking up the flow, stopping City from creating any momentum, the Scot’s comments sprung to mind.

Barton’s character was writ large on a team that their manager still reckons could gate-crash the play-offs. The uglier the game became, the more they liked it.

In a way, this was Wycombe the sequel. Another opponent wallowing in a bitty contest that was awful on the eye.

The difference was that early goal – the insurance policy that ensured Fleetwood could comfortably sit on what they had. The alarming thing was the lack of resistance they encountered.

This was a dispiriting display and a dismal result.

Scores elsewhere may mask over the disappointment to some extent. In terms of the bigger picture, defeat did not hurt as much as feared considering the absence of any winners in League One’s lower reaches.

But Valley Parade had the musty air of relegation. On and off the pitch, the pervading feeling was one of a team living down to the expectations of their current 23rd place.

A soft goal against, little response, no way round Fleetwood’s tactic of flooding midfield, long ball after long ball launched from one defence on to the heads of the other.

It was easy to lose count of the number of times that Richard O’Donnell, Nathaniel Knight-Percival or Anthony O’Connor released hopeful punts deep into away territory because they had no choice.

Food and drink to a Fleetwood backline featuring 6ft 6in Stoke giant Harry Souttar, who along with skipper Ashley Eastham gobbled up pretty much everything that descended on them.

The odds were permanently stacked against George Miller, given the nod over Eoin Doyle to start up front. He never got the chance to run the channels because the ball would not stick.

City were devoid of ideas to try anything different; few willing to stick their heads above the parapet or think on their feet.

It made for an awful spectacle and the boos that broke out at the final whistle were entirely predictable.

David Hopkin was not impressed to hear the frustration pouring from the stands. But he could not have been too surprised after such toothless viewing.

Recent home form had suggested that Valley Parade can be the saviour of this train-wreck season. Such a listless performance flew in the face of the thrills and spills of the games against Shrewsbury or Walsall.

But we know what these players can produce when given the room to exploit. Present Jack Payne with a yard of space in the right situation and he has the game to unlock anyone at this level.

We’re all aware of that, including every other team who have had two-thirds of a season to size up what City have got.

Barton admitted afterwards that he was “baffled” to see the Bantams in such a desperate plight in the league considering the quality at their disposal.

But he had known exactly which buttons to press to disable those threats. The worry for Hopkin is that future opponents will continue to follow suit.

Fleetwood camped behind the ball, making the game too narrow and giving the defenders no alternative target other than the hit-and-hope variety 50 yards upfield.

Payne was forced to hunt out the ball in the “wrong” areas where he posed no danger; the Cod army effectively blocked off any more profitable territory.

Billy Clarke, at least, did take up more effective positions when he took Payne’s place in the closing stages.

Had Knight-Percival got better placement on his header from Clarke’s free-kick, the Irishman would have had an assist on a Valley Parade return that provided the only bright glimmer in the gloom.

Knight-Percival had been one of the culprits for the ninth-minute goal that gave Fleetwood the platform for such a hassle-free away win.

Neither centre half reacted to an early cross which James Wallace whipped in from the right.

A touch facing goal might have risked potentially dangerous consequences – but to do nothing was never an option.

So instead, the pass was allowed to run unaffected towards the far post where Paddy Madden was waiting to convert his 17th of the season. How City must look on with envious eyes at a strike duo that have now reached the 30 mark between them.

The Madden and Ched Evans partnership kept the hosts honest on the break but the general direction of the game from that point was towards the Fleetwood goal.

Not that City really looked like breaching it with such a plodding response.

Eastham came to Fleetwood’s rescue to deny David Ball an equaliser against the club where he spent five years.

Then City’s best chance fell to Miller but his struggles were summed up by a wild finish from just inside the box after latching on to Lewis O’Brien’s pass.

For the most part, City found their path blocked by a wall of yellow. Fleetwood, following Wycombe’s lead, further annoyed an increasingly chippy crowd by milking every moment when they could delay the play.

Hopkin once again pleaded for all to stay positive and keep the belief if City are to last the distance between now and May.

But such unappealing shows as this do little to stir the imagination. Fleetwood may be in the top 10 but these are the games that the manager himself had highlighted as a real opportunity to accumulate points.

The approaching encounter with a Plymouth side now five points and eight places ahead has been ramped up into “must-win” mode. After that, the Bantams face two of the top three in successive weeks.

These are tense times and that will be the case for the next couple of months. City’s nerve, which failed them on Saturday, now faces its toughest test.