Fleet desperately needed the win that their efforts have deserved up until now – and they got it in a dramatic and tense finale at Cressing Road this afternoon, coming from behind twice to bag the three points.
Liam Daish returned Ricky Shakes and Craig Stone to the starting line-up, with Giannoulis Fakinos dropping to the bench and Michael West failing a fitness test after he had been taken off early on Saturday.
And it was the referee who provided the first talking points in this tussle of the best of last season’s Blue Square South, booking Iron skipper Kenny Davis for a foul on Ram Marwa after only four minutes and almost immediately cautioning Marwa after he returned the favour and felled Davis – his fourth yellow of the season already.
Braintree were a little quicker out of the blocks, Fleet looking much the same as they had early on in the Forest Green match, but neither side mustered any openings worthy of mention, off-target shots from Jai Reason at one end and the energetic Joe Howe at the other the only highlights.
But the home side went ahead on 16 minutes when the Fleet midfield were slow to close down Ryan Peters and his long ball up to Sean Marks was missed by Clint Easton who then brought Marks down in the process. It was a mere formality as Jai Reason, a sure shot at the best of times, crashed home the penalty to make it 1-0.
Braintree continued to press with the tall Ben Wright twice getting sight of goal, though Fleet were almost back on level terms on 25 minutes when Calum Willock hit a low ball along the six-yard line and the stretching Shakes was just short of making contact. Fleet stepped things up a gear and a speculative Tom Phipp effort sailed wide, while Liam Enver-Marum fired over and Willock turned an effort just inches wide of the post.
At the other end, Marks rose highest to power a header just over the crossbar before Fleet closed out the half with another excellent chance, a dangerous mid-height cross holding up invitingly for Shakes at the far post but his nod fell into the arms of Nathan McDonald.
Fleet certainly looked the more ambitious of the two sides but most of their efforts had been off target and Daish must have impressed on his players to make their pressure tell. His side began to establish themselves in the second-half, with Howe, Phipp and Marwa increasingly getting to grips with midfield, the bustling figure of Enver-Marum stretching the play wide and the Fleet defence giving Marks little room to manoeuvre, though Shakes was struggling to make his presence felt out on the left flank.
And on the hour mark, Fleet got a lifeline? or rather, two lifelines. Willock’s surge into the box was checked unfairly by Adam Bailey-Dennis and the referee awarded a spot-kick which Enver-Marum hit low to the keeper’s right but McDonald was equal to it. However, much to the disgust of the home fans, the referee blew for encroachment and Phipp this time seized the ball for the re-take and struck it sweetly past McDonald.
Fleet enjoyed parity for little more than 10 minutes, however, as Wright surged into space on the right edge of the penalty area and got the better of Easton to hit a sweet shot that struck the post and rebounded into the path of Reason who buried it past Preston Edwards to give his side the lead. At that stage, Braintree looked unlikely to buckle and substitute Chibuzor Chilaka missed a great chance before Edwards was forced to punch Reason’s shot clear from a packed penalty area.
Meanwhile, the referee – who had not appeared to be injured – had swapped roles with the fourth official and was soon involved in a touchline row with Daish after failing to operate the board properly when Shakes was replaced by Scott Ginty. The Fleet boss continued to press home his point until the stand-in referee was alerted and he promptly sent Daish to the dressing room.
But that low point for the manager soon turned into a high as he watched from his vantage point behind the goa. Three minutes from time it was yet another penalty when Matt Paine clipped Enver-Marum. This time, Ginty assumed the responsibility and he blazed a perfect kick down the middle and looked to have given the Fleet a fourth draw in a row.
But, like Fleet’s last August Bank Holiday win in the BSP – at Eastbourne – they saved the best for last. In the final minute of normal time, Willock was upended by Pat O’Connor with his back to goal. Phipp curled in a looping free-kick and Willock climbed high to send a powerful header into the back of the net.
With eight minutes of time added on, Fleet kept the home side at bay, though Marks went down in a goalmouth melee as Braintree appealed for a penalty but it was to no avail and the visitors secured a vital three points in a remarkable game.
TEAM: Edwards, Stone, Herd, Easton, Simpemba, Howe (Azeez 74),