Luton Town?s hopes went West here at Stonebridge Road tonight ? Michael West. The Fleet?s man of the moment struck two wonderful late goals to snatch the unlikeliest of points and turn around a 2-0 deficit.
Out went Fleet’s recent 3-5-2 setup as Liam Daish left Johnny Herd and Ian Simpemba out, recalling Giannoulis Fakinos and handing a surprise debut to former youth teamer Jamie Darvill following his return from the USA.
Promotion-hunting Luton, with ex-Fleet midfielder Jamie Hand in their side, were a strong, physical-looking side and they set out intent to steamroller the Fleet with power and pace. Three minutes in Amari Morgan-Smith showed his speed when he outpaced and outmuscled Paul Lorraine to send a shot just wide of the goal.
With his forward partner Aaron O’Connor hugging the touchline and also showing a good turn of pace and eye for a cross, Fleet were initially slow to get to grips with the game. O’Connor and Morgan-Smith combined again on 13 minutes to send a shot just high of the crossbar and then Edwards rather fluffed at an attempted punch clear and the ball skipped across the line, eventually to safety.
Fleet tested goalkeeper Mark Tyler on 15 minutes when Calum Willock showed good control to play in Darvill and the debutant hit a great shot with the outside of his boot that was pushed to safety.
The home side lost Fakinos to injury on the half hour, the Greek player having enjoyed a decent spell up to that moment, and were still vulnerable to Luton’s movement when O’Connor hit a goalbound shot that Edwards saved brilliantly.
But Fleet refused to be overawed and played some nice stuff across midfield at times, Ram Marwa and Tom Phipp in particular combining well, while Yado Mambo was the epitome of poise and strength at the back. Gradually, the Luton threat seemed to ebb as the Fleet grew in confidence.
That was until a minute before half-time when a moment of brilliance undid the home side’s good work. Fleet cleared their lines as far as Jan Kovacs on the halfway line and he launched a long ball wide left where Morgan-Smith was lurking. With a clever shimmy, the Luton player got clear of Craig Stone and then curled a long-distance shot with power and precision past the flailing Edwards.
It was a sickener for the Fleet to concede but they were almost level with their next attack as a free-kick caused all sorts of bother inside the Luton box and Lorraine smashed a ball off Tyler and then headed the rebound just over the bar with the visitors all at sea.
The second half was a quieter affair as Luton seemed content to adopt a defensive line that the Fleet launched themselves against time and again but failed to penetrate. Willock’s subtle chest down into West’s path almost paid dividends but it was one of countless offside decisions of the evening. And on 67 minutes Stone advanced into space down the right and launched a good shot but it was always rising and didn’t trouble Tyler.
With the visitors looking increasingly comfortable as the Fleet struggled to get into the final third, they appeared to have put the game beyond doubt on 71 minutes. James Dance collected the ball from a throw-in and as Edwards advanced he tucked it under the goalkeeper to make it 2-0.
Two could so easily have become three against a demoralised Fleet but instead the home side enjoyed their best spell of the game. And on 77 minutes they grabbed a lifeline. West’s corner was met by Mambo’s off-target header which bounced wide to give West a second chance. And take it he did, hitting a diagonal low shot that Tyler got both hands to but nevertheless carried it over the line.
Minutes later substitute Scott Ginty fired Willock’s knock-down at Tyler but it lacked the power to upset the goalkeeper. But, rather than concede last-minute goals this season, the reverse is true of the Fleet this season.
And so it proved again. Three minutes into the four of time added on, Howe – out wide on the left – slipped a low pass into West as Luton camped men in their box. A cross looked like the better option, at least until West produced a magical dragback to take his marker out of the game and then unleashed a stunning drive that seemed to take in the crossbar, post and upright as it eventually disturbed the net – to send Stonebridge Road absolutely wild.
Other results didn’t go Fleet’s way, and a draw may have done little for the home side’s league position. But on such results do seasons turn and in such drama, it will undoubtedly feel like a win for everyone involved with the club.
TEAM: Edwards, Stone, Howe, Mambo, Lorraine, Fakinos (Stavrinou 30), Marwa (Azeez 85), West, Phipp, Darvill (Ginty 74), Willock. Subs not used: Welch, Simpemba
Paul Lorraine sneaked man of the match by one vote from Craig Stone against Gateshead. Vote for tonight’s man of the match using drop-down menu above.