If you were a Fleet fan in the Eighties or early Nineties, the FA Cup was pretty lean pickings. Appearances in the First Round proper had ended in 1980 after our capitulation at home to Isthmian League St Albans City and we’d spent the next 12 years failing to make it beyond the qualifying rounds.
Our record was so bad that by the late Eighties, we were shoehorned into the Preliminary Qualifying Round and some of the clubs who knocked us out in those years included Ashford Town, Egham Town, Hertford Town, Harlow Town and Chertsey Town… anyone that ended in ‘Town’, basically!
It was a different story in 1993/94. Spearheaded by the goals of Steve Portway, the guile of Micky Cotter and the wing play of Simon Ullathorne, Fleet had negotiated our way past Epsom & Ewell, Sittingbourne, Erith & Belvedere and Waterlooville. The Sittingbourne victory was sweet revenge over our promotion rivals and neighbours from the season before as they were firm favourites. Waterlooville was another tough trip but Fleet handled that one triumphantly and the draw paired us with Leyton Orient at Brisbane Road – the first meeting with a league side for 14 years.
For a generation of Fleet fans, it was a first-time experience and despite torrential rain, some 1,500 made the trip to East London and braved the elements on an open-air terrace that was a bit like a much bigger Swanscombe End. The body of travelling support that day provided Orient their largest crowd of the season up to that point.
The O’s were 16th in what was then Division Two (third tier) while Fleet were four divisions lower, top of the Beazer Homes League Southern Division. Orient boasted players like former Sunderland and Rangers striker Colin West, one-time Spurs defender and Fleet’s future assistant manager Ian Hendon and a player who would go on to play for us a few years later, Mark Cooper.
With Leyton Orient attacking towards the damp Fleet fans in the first half, they predictably took the initiative, with goalkeeper Lee Turner and their own poor finishing to blame for keeping the scoreline goalless. In the first half hour, Fleet barely had a sniff up front, Ullathorne’s cross on to Portway’s head (a warm-up for what was to follow) our only sight of the O’s goal.
But five minutes before half-time, we did the unthinkable. Turner kept out Steve Okai’s shot and when Barry Lakin gave the ball away in midfield, Ullathorne raced onto it, hared through the gap that opened up before him and lifted a fantastic cross towards Portway running towards the edge of the box. Portway still had plenty to do and the way he flung himself at the ball (pictured, top) and powered a glorious header past Paul Newell is still ingrained in collective Fleet memory.
Cue mayhem at the other end as the Fleet fans bounced around the terrace in the rain and Portway performed a rather under-par Lineker-esque jump in the air to celebrate! The goal earned his banking colleagues a tidy sum after they’d bet on him to score the first goal. Sadly, the O’s weren’t minded to play the role of hapless giants and with their very next attack won a free-kick when Lee Graves clumsily bundled into West. Lakin, making amends for giving the ball away for the Fleet goal, drove a shot low past Turner for the equaliser. Some Fleet fans were still pinging up and down celebrating Portway’s goal.
Rather than an outpouring of cheer, all that could be heard around Brisbane Road was “Eustace Out!” in reference to the growing pressure on home manager Peter Eustace.
Buoyed by their goal, however, Fleet were impressive in the second half in an end-to-end cup tie and Portway had an effort cleared off the line on 66 minutes. But the FA Cup has long been a case of so near, so far for the Fleet and so this one proved. Just 13 minutes from a replay at Stonebridge Road, Fleet conceded two corners. From the second of them, Warren Hackett rose highest to plant a soaring header into the net and break the hearts of the fans at the other end. Still the Orient fans let fly with “Eustace out!” such was their dissatisfaction with their own side.
Fleet applied pressure late on and threw bodies forward but couldn’t force a second goal and the magnificent day out was over for the travelling fans from North Kent… though they’d get to enjoy an even better cup run two years later.
Manager Garry Aldous described his side’s exit as “tragic”, but it was a memorable moment in a memorable season that ended with us winning a league title and promotion.
Orient: Newell, Hendon, Austin, Hackett, Harriott, Okai, Tomlinson, Ryan, Cooper, West, Lakin. Subs: Taylor, Bellamy
Fleet: Turner, Harrop, Lamb, Gubbins, Gibbs, Cant, Schweiso, Hunt, Graves (Coffill 80), Portway, Ullathorne. Sub: Leahy