An astonishing climax to this replayed Concord Rangers fixture saw Fleet finally over the line and into the play-offs – courtesy of a dramatic, late Preston Edwards penalty save and superb strikes from Anthony Cook and Daryl McMahon.
After a Concord equaliser 17 minutes from time, it seemed confirmation of that play-off place would be further delayed, until Daryl McMahon’s even later goal to give Fleet the edge. But with away fans still celebrating, Concord were awarded a penalty – but reckoned without goalkeeping hero Edwards who, quite literally, saved the day.
Steve Brown made two changes to his line-up, recalling Billy Bricknell at the expense of Michael Thalassitis, and handing Alex Osborn a start with Michael Corcoran, fresh from his red card in the abandoned game last week, dropping to the bench.
Concord made eight changes to the side that won at Basingstoke only 24 hours previously and understandably failed to get off to the barnstorming start some predicted after the war of words between the clubs and sets of supporters. For their part, Fleet were cautious in their approach to begin with, but not as nervous as they’d looked in previous games recently.
And the visitors were the first to land a real chance, when a poor clearance from home goalkeeper James Butler was handed to Cook on a plate but he pulled his shot wide. Cook was in action again three minutes later when a cross was played back to him but he slotted that one wide too.
The action was interrupted 14 minutes in after the assistant referee pulled up with what turned out to be a serious injury – delaying the game for 20 minutes, Fleet’s third such delay this season after Boreham Wood and last week’s floodlight failure, while it was Concord’s second holdup in 24 hours, having suffered the same fate at Basingstoke.
Eventually a new official turned up but it seemed to catch Concord cold as within a minute of the restart, Fleet took the lead. A long kick upfield was cleared only as far as Cook and he made it third time lucky as on this occasion his excellent shot flew over Butler and into the net.
Much like the first game last week, following Fleet’s opening goal on the quarter-hour mark, Concord came storming back into it. Edwards failed to hold a Sam Collins free-kick and Matt Fry sent a header onto the bar with the home side inches away from an instant equaliser. They then forced a corner and Collins was on hand to drive a low effort along the goalmouth.
Ben May almost extended Fleet’s lead on 20 minutes when he headed Osborn’s delivery narrowly wide and the Fleet No.9 struck again moments later, while Dean Rance thundered another effort just off target as the visitors refused to sit back and saw out their lead until half-time.
The second half continued in much the same vein as the first and May’s touch on Cook’s cross was hastily cleared out of the six-yard box before Concord made two changes, top scorer Tony Stokes and Steve King coming on. The shake-up was a positive one for the home side and they began to cause the Fleet one or two problems as time ticked away. Collins fired one wide and Stokes wasn’t far away from meeting a Lewis Taaffe cross, but Fleet were enjoying moments of pressure too, playing a good line high up the park.
But that couldn’t stop Concord from equalising on 73 minutes when Taylor Miles’ ball in was deftly finished by Leon Gordon to seemingly break Fleet hearts. The visitors were for the first time beginning to look stretched and anxious about the scoreline and Concord weren’t far off ruining the night entirely when James White’s header grazed the crossbar on 81 minutes.
Just as it seemed Fleet might buckle, skipper McMahon responded within a minute, justice perhaps for his chalked-off ‘goal’ last week as he bent a sublime free-kick around the defensive wall and into the back of the net for 2-1. The cheers had barely died in Fleet throats, however, when the game was turned on its head again. Taaffe went to ground in one of those 50/50 challenges that usually go the way of the defender – and that’s what the linesman seemed to indicate – but the referee pointed to the spot.
Edwards, whose world-renowned sending-off had come at the hands of the same referee three years earlier, was furious and Fleet players remonstrated for several minutes before calm was restored. It was left to Stokes to ruin the Fleet night, but Edwards had other ideas and dived majestically to block the spot-kick and send his side into their second set of play-offs.
The first leg of the play-off semi-final, in all likelihood against Bromley, will take place at Stonebridge Road on Wednesday, April 30. The second leg will follow on Saturday, May 3, two days before the Kent Senior Cup Final.
TEAM: Edwards, Howe, Palmer, McMahon, Acheampong, Sankofa, Osborn (Sessegnon 90), Rance, May, Bricknell (Corcoran 87), Cook. Subs not used: Hall, Huke, Thalassitis