Fleet produced a controlled and confident attacking display to not so much dent as partially demolish Chelmsford’s play-off hopes in tonight’s first-leg semi-final at Melbourne Stadium. A brace each for Michael West and Ricky Shakes saw off a brief second-half revival by the hosts on a wonderful night for Fleet fans.
Liam Daish reverted to his first-choice XI – little surprise there – with the exception of Daren Hawkes still deputising for Preston Edwards and the Fleet looked the brighter of the two sides early on as Calum Willock turned and shot just over the bar in the opening exchanges, while Tom Phipp headed over and Paul Lorraine planted another header wildly off-target after getting into a great position inside the Chelmsford box.
Ricky Shakes then almost capitalised on a mix-up between goalkeeper Carl Pentney and defender Ben Nunn as he nipped in between the hesitant pair but he couldn’t find a shot to go with the interception.
That miss mattered little for the Fleet as they took the lead on 21 minutes, Willock’s trademark hold-up play allowing West to run onto his lay-off and after good control, he stroked the ball past Pentney. And four minutes later it was 2-0 from a similar position. Shakes got the better of Kurt Robinson down the right and sent a cross to the far-post where West ghosted in and struck a second in almost identical fashion to his first.
Chelmsford could barely pass a ball into their forwards as Derek Duncan marshalled Ricky Modeste out of the game and Wayne Gray got little change from Lorraine and Clint Easton. It was all Fleet and Willock went close with a 20-yard effort before being involved in a controversial episode on 40 minutes. Sami El-Abd clearly pulled the Fleet striker back inside the box, so clearly that the linesman flagged it for several seconds, but the referee was uninterested, much to the relief of El-Abd as last man.
And that moment gave Chelmsford a lifeline as they grabbed a goal on the stroke of half-time. Modeste, who spent much of the evening picking himself up off the floor, did so to great effect from a free-kick as he nodded the ball high over the arms of Hawkes and under the bar to give the home fans a timely lift.
And from that spark, the home side came out on fire. Replacing Robinson and El-Abd with skipper Dave Rainford and Rob Swaine, Chelmsford pushed the Fleet back. With Modeste starting to give Duncan a run for his money and Swaine imperious at the back, the Fleet rode their luck several times. Chelmsford had a succession of set plays that caused consternation in the Fleet box, with Nunn denied only by Hawkes outstretched leg and then a shot from Gray that conveniently landed straight in the Fleet goalkeeper’s midriff. Meanwhile, two corners sailed across the face of goal and needed only a touch to level the scores.
But gradually Fleet dug themselves out of the hole as Ashley Carew and Marwa forced themselves back into the game. West and Shakes also picked up again and that gave the Fleet more of an outlet and suddenly the game swung back their way. And it was Shakes who added gloss to the scoreline 13 minutes from time. Duncan, still battling with the slippery Modeste down the left, sent in a teasing cross and there was Shakes to stoop low and head into the bottom corner, out of Pentney’s reach.
That knocked the stuffing out of the home side and Fleet poured forward, looking to add to their tally. First West was sent clear of the defence and his lob over Pentney was palmed away courtesy of a desperate lunge by the goalkeeper. Then with two minutes left, Shakes was similarly sent chasing a fine through ball and he outstripped the defence and struck confidently into the back of the net to send the Fleet fans behind the goal wild.
The home side had a half-hearted shout for a penalty turned down and in truth Fleet could have added a fifth with Carew’s speculative effort and another good chance for West almost completing a rout. Daish sent three substitutes on in the final minute as Fleet ran the clock down in Chelmsford’s half and the final whistle was greeted with jubilation.
The cliches of a job part-done and it only being half-time will of course temper the celebrations… but on this performance, there are few teams who can live with the Fleet.
TEAM: Hawkes, Stone, Duncan, Carew, Easton, Lorraine, West (Erskine 90), Marwa, Willock, Shakes (Howe 90), Phipp (Fakinos 89). Subs not used: Pooley, Ginty
Giannoulis Fakinos won Woking man of the match. Choose your player for tonight’s game here.