The Fleet YouTube channel will be showing extended video highlights of our 2001/02 Ryman League Premier title clincher at Bedford Town’s Eyrie ground from 3pm today (June 6th).
You can watch via the link below or click on the logo to be taken to YouTube:
Fleet went into the game on 96 points, one clear of rivals Canvey Island, but the Gulls had a much better goal difference meaning Andy Ford’s side had to at least match Canvey’s result to secure the title and a return to the Conference after 20 years.
Fleet had suffered a huge setback the week before, a shock defeat at home to lowly Boreham Wood appearing to have done irreparable damage to the title bid, only for news to filter through that Canvey had also dropped points.
So it all came down to the 90 minutes in Bedford while Canvey travelled to Essex rivals Braintree Town, hoping the Fleet would come unstuck and hand Jeff King’s side the title instead.
More than 1,000 Fleet fans travelled to Bedford that Saturday to see their side take the lead when Jimmy Jackson’s free-kick fell for Che Stadhart to strike home. The pivotal moment came in the second half just before the hour mark when Bedford striker Justin Griffiths rounded goalkeeper Jamie Turner and with home fans celebrating a simple tap-in from eight yards, he somehow lifted it on to the crossbar.
Fleet had a goal ruled out moments later but as Ford’s side protected their slender lead, news filtered through that 10-man Canvey had scored an equaliser at Braintree to make it 1-1 and the title hung in the balance for the remainder of the game. Braintree scored late on to end Canvey’s hopes and Fleet were able to relax into the last minutes secure in the knowledge that promotion was theirs.
In hindsight, that promotion was hugely important for the club’s development. Unfancied throughout the season, the Fleet had eased clear of the division’s largest club, Aldershot Town, to enter a two-horse race with Canvey Island that saw an estimated 6,000 crowd pack Stonebridge Road for the head-to-head between the two clubs.
To and fro the title race went but most observers backed the bookies’ favourites Canvey to prevail.
For the Fleet, two years into a five-year plan to earn a Conference place, there was the nagging thought we might never get the chance again to return to the top level if this season passed us by.
Arguably, Ford’s side really had no right to be amongst the candidates for promotion on resources alone. But this spirited outfit’s hard-fought league title set the ball rolling for a period of largely sustained good fortune in the 21st century. Without this win, there would have been no platform to go on and battle for the Conference play-offs or earn that day at Wembley.
From the 2002 promotion, it’s easy to draw a line connecting the 2008 Trophy success, the various returns to National League level and the rise in crowds from 400 to four figures that has the club where it is today. We owe that side plenty of gratitude.