A goal at either end of the first half dictated the outcome in Essex this evening as Fleet earned the right to host a third higher-division club in succession at the PHB Stadium when the sides play out their FA Trophy replay next Tuesday.
With the home side’s pitch having passed muster at the second time of asking, Fleet manager Jamie Day went with a 3-5-2 formation, with Anthony Acheampong returning to the side while Matt Johnson and Adam Cunnington were also handed starts.
Braintree began with purpose and Daniel Sparkes down the left flank immediately carved open an opportunity sending a looping cross towards the six-yard box that luckily for the Fleet took an awkward bounce to deny Simeon Akinola the chance to get a shot away.
But Fleet responded and a well-worked move saw the ball swept wide to Joe Howe who burst from the halfway line to win a corner. New skipper Stuart Lewis, seemingly now tasked with set-piece delivery in place of Daryl McMahon, arrowed a low corner into a crowded box and Cunnington met it to force it over the line.
The home side maintained their confidence, however, and Chez Isaac drew a low save from Preston Edwards while Akinola fired in a wicked shot that deflected off Kelvin Langmead with Edwards pleased to see it whip wide of the post for a corner. Braintree were dangerous from the flanks where they launched a series of high balls into the Fleet box but the visitors back line held firm and gradually the Braintree attack lost its edge.
And it was Fleet who played the better football with Stuart and Theo Lewis, together with Matt Johnson, playing the ball along the ground in midfield, while the front two of Cunnington and Danny Kedwell harried and chased all night. Theo Lewis latched onto the end of a Johnson ball over the top and seemed to be held back but the referee waved play on before Stuart Lewis and Johnson combined well in an excellent move that saw Theo Lewis’ volley palmed over by the goalkeeper.
Then, 26 minutes in, Fleet lost Howe to a dislocated shoulder after he was fouled inside his own penalty area by Isaac and had to be replaced by Brendan Kiernan. It didn’t interrupt the Fleet, however, who continued to shine and probably should have been two goals to the good when Cunnington’s determination saw him rob the ball 12 yards out and head towards Johnson who nipped in front of Nick Hamann in the Braintree goal, steered it around him, but saw the ball roll agonisingly out of his reach when all it needed was a touch.
Back came Braintree and Kenny Davis let fly with a shot that curled past the upright before Sparkes’ powerful 42nd-minute cross was almost sliced into his own net by Langmead as he attempted to clear and Fleet were lucky to see it flash inches wide of the far post. The let-off did not last long, however, as from the resulting corner, Kenny Clark was adjudged to have pushed a Braintree player and Davis smacked his penalty down the middle to equalise.
On the stroke of half-time, Cunnington went down at the other end in similar circumstances with no decision given and with the earlier penalty having enraged Jamie Day, the Fleet boss emerged in the stands in the second half with a steward for company after having been issued his marching orders.
Fleet started the second half well, with Kiernan being their chief threat, but the game settled into its first real lull as both sides took time out from the breakneck pace of the game. But Fleet upped the ante again on the hour mark and Theo Lewis’ cross into Kedwell was fired over from 12 yards before the former Gills striker scooped a corner onto the head of Clarke who hit the crossbar from close range.
It was end-to-end stuff and Johnson saved Acheampong’s blushes with an excellent sliding tackle as Jordan Cox bore down on goal. Kiernan was causing all sorts of bother to the Braintree defence down the Fleet left but for all his trickery, there either wasn’t the final killer ball or a white shirt in the box to convert. Cunnington could have nicked it late on when he robbed the increasingly unsteady Alan Massey inside the area but he delayed his shot and Braintree cleared.
The home side still looked to threaten on the break and it seemed that any error from either side would cost them dear, but Acheampong, Langmead and Clarke stood firm and Fleet went home with the very least they deserved from a creditable performance – the opportunity to have another go at the Iron.
TEAM: Edwards, Fish, Howe (Kiernan 26), Langmead, Acheampong, Clark, Johnson, S Lewis, Kedwell, Cunnington, T Lewis. Subs not used: Hall, Pooley, Shields, Day