The Fleet’s flirtations with the Football League have been few and far between. Ambitious talk of becoming part of ‘The 92’ has raised its head during most decades of the club’s existence but it’s largely been fanciful or premature. There have only been four years when it’s actually been on the table and even then, the reality was negligible. In 1947, the Fleet applied to join the League but it never even got as far as a vote, while in 1961 and 1962 the club tried again but the dreaded “nil points” on both occasions consigned us to another spell in the Southern League.
Finally, in 2006/07, the last season under the name Gravesend & Northfleet, the club went into the final week of the season with play-off ambitions but failed to beat champions Dagenham & Redbridge on the last day. The class of 2018 has gone one better and achieved play-off qualification for the first time in our history and, though there are three extremely tough away hurdles to negotiate first, the League is tantalisingly closer than it’s ever been.
Aldershot Town are the first hurdle and Fleet will be hoping to rekindle the spirit of 2008 when the then champions-elect were strongly fancied to breeze past Liam Daish’s side in the FA Trophy semi-finals. The gulf between the Shots and the Fleet was much larger back then. This time around, a single point separates the sides and that’s why Daryl McMahon and his squad go to the EBB Stadium on Wednesday night with no fear.
That gap was nine points the last time the two sides met in a goalless draw at the EBB, the Shots then being just a single point behind leaders Macclesfield Town and the Fleet in the middle of their worst run of the season.
“Everyone’s delighted to get this far,” McMahon said. “Aldershot is a big challenge, they’re a fantastic team. We’ve gone there in January and played particularly well. Gary Waddock’s done an excellent job there. But in play-off games, anything can happen. We’re not frightened of anyone, we’ve finished where we deserved with a good team, great supporters who follow us home and away. We know Aldershot is tough but our aim is to give them some problems as well and then we’ll see.”
McMahon is naturally thrilled by his team’s form, the Fleet having lost only one game in 14. Despite some tough road trips, the Fleet have lost only two games on their travels in more than five months and that’s the spirit the manager will rely on in a match that could take in extra-time and penalties to decide the outcome. Concerns over fatigue after travelling up and down the country with a barebones squad isn’t keeping McMahon up at night and he believes his squad will shake off any lethargy in front of the BT cameras.
“It was a really tough end to the season for us,” he said. “But it’s my third season and third time in play-offs so as a group we’re used to it. We know what they’re about. We’ll enjoy the game and I’m really proud how we finished above everyone in Kent and above the promoted teams. It’s a fantastic first season back at this level and the rest now is a bonus.”
Fleet came through their Torquay test with no further casualties, almost as vital as bagging that much-needed point given the injury list already extends to Darren McQueen, Sam Magri, Jack Payne and Sean Shields. But while available bodies may be lacking, Fleet can more than make up for that in form, enjoying the best points haul over the last six games of all six play-off contenders.
Our record at Aldershot has seen only one win in 11 attempts (in 2001), but with the last two visits ending in draws and extra-time and penalties awaiting, Fleet might not even need to improve on that form!
The Shots go into the game with a fit squad, former Whitehawk wide player Nick Arnold the only long-term casualty. Striker Matt McClure sat out the Sutton game with a groin injury but could return. Fleet will need to keep top scorer Scott Rendell quiet, his 12 goals including one at the Kuflink Stadium earlier this season. There’s plenty of firepower available to the Shots with Shamir Fenelon on 11 goals, former Hampton striker Nicke Kabamba also an option and Jim Kellerman having contributed seven from midfield. Anybody who attended the away fixture in the league will recall Aldershot’s ability to build from the back and in that regard Will Evans, who dictated much of their play in that one, is another threat.
Aldershot were, of course, the first side to defeat the Fleet in a league game in 2017 and ended our record 32-match unbeaten run. They looked good bets for the title then, but their form has been somewhat patchy through 2018, including a 7-1 defeat at AFC Fylde. They have beaten the likes of Boreham Wood, Maidenhead United and Dagenham this year, however, and will be determined to exact revenge on Tranmere – who await Wednesday’s winners – for last season’s play-off semi-final defeat.
The Shots had already sold well over 1,000 advanced tickets by Monday night and the atmosphere at the EBB could well reach the heights of that Trophy semi-final a decade ago when Fleet travelled in numbers to make up part of a 4,000+ crowd. Certainly the home fans can create a real roar at The Rec as it was always known but Fleet fans haven’t been found wanting in that department this season either and it’s sure to make for a frenetic, fiery encounter.
Wednesday night’s referee is Alan Young who took charge of our games v Dover (h), Woking (h and a), Chester (h, where he sent off Bradley Bubb) and Tranmere (h).
Turnstiles at Aldershot open at 5.30pm for cash sales. Kick-off is 7pm and the match is segregated with capacity for 1,300 away fans.