An astonishing final quarter to this game will live long in the memory of those supporters who witnessed it as a spirited, passionate and at times unbelievable turn of events made it three wins from three, nine points and nine goals for the visitors so far this season.
Fleet’s against-all-odds victory means that Eastbourne have now gone 22 games without a win against their bogey side – and they’ll surely never be in a better position than they were with 10 minutes left here, 2-1 up against 10 men and an outfield player in goal.
As if those considerations weren’t enough to be pitted against the Fleet, there were seven minutes of added time and a sending-off for Christian N’Guessan to contend with too, meaning the visitors finished with nine men and yet still held out. That said, to term it “holding out” would be to do a disservice to the Fleet who took the game to their hosts in the latter stages, pressed and harried and twice got their reward courtesy of goals from defenders on a night of a high drama.
As hinted at after the excesses of Saturday’s win at Weymouth, Fleet shook up the squad with seven changes, Chris Haigh coming in for Mark Cousins between the sticks amongst them.
Eastbourne began with new signing Brad Barry, nephew of Gareth, in their back line plus a number of experienced familiar faces including Lee Worgan and Chris Whelpdale.
There was little of note to fill the opening minutes with a low sun affecting the view for many supporters – and Haigh as well no doubt. It was 12 minutes before the first solid opportunity, Ben Chapman and Toby Edser combining well from the left, Edser’s shot curling away from the far post.
Eastbourne then carved out two of their own, a cross into the box being headed twice, once by each team, as it winged its way along the area. And moments later an even better chance presented itself when Leone Gravata teed a pass out wide to Jake Hutchinson who snuck past Dominic Poleon and fired across the six-yard box where two Eastbourne players stretched unsuccessfully for it.
Fleet, meanwhile, had lost Alex Finney to injury to be replaced by Greg Cundle – the first of a series of adverse events for the visitors on the night.
Hutchinson’s 28th minute threaded pass for Gravata appeared to be offside but play was waved on and it required a quick reaction from Haigh to come off his line to block. Fleet counterattacked that one immediately and Josh Wright found Poleon who twisted as he held his man off and reversed a shot just inches wide of the near post.
The lively Darren McQueen found Shaq Coulthirst in a packed box minutes later and he tested Worgan with a low effort. But the opener came at the other end on 32 minutes when Hutchinson’s quick ball wide to the speedy Shiloh Remy exposed the Fleet defence. Whelpdale took it on, weighing up a delivery until Gravata came running in to hammer home from a central position.
Fleet tried to respond with Cundle finding Wright in the middle and he briefly had sight of goal before he was closed down and the shot blocked. Haigh had to be alert to Whelpdale’s shot after Gravata skilfully back-heeled into his path.
The Fleet got back into the game on 42 minutes from their first corner. It was swiftly taken and when Chapman went to ground in the box, the ball was knocked back across goal and trickled through to Poleon who poked it past Worgan from close range.
But that joy lived only for five minutes of the second half as Eastbourne regained the lead courtesy of a set piece. It was launched from the right-hand side by James Hammond into the box and attacked with menace by the red shirts surrounding Haigh’s goal. Twice it pinged forward and off the underside of the bar, to cross the line from Alex Wynter’s header.
Cundle sent a good low shot just past the post on 53 minutes and second substitute Craig Tanner smashed his first touch off the bar on the hour, rattling the woodwork as it flew beyond Worgan, as Fleet sought another equaliser.
Kutrieb’s men kept trying to pick the lock and Poleon fired over from Edser’s pass but he was surrounded and frustration grew as a well-drilled Eastbourne side were able to get men behind the ball at every opportunity to block any path to goal.
But the game erupted into life quite like no other in recent times with 20 minutes left. Half-time substitute Charlie Walker scythed Cundle down on the halfway-line and in the altercation to follow, both players earned yellow cards.
That raised the noise levels and the tempo and it initially seemed to benefit Eastbourne but the Fleet were galvanised into action too. It began on 76 minutes when Fleet claimed a handball in the box as Rakish Bingham and Poleon sprinted in to get on an O’Neill cross and Miquel Scarlett handled as he fell towards the ball to clear.
But before the appeals could begin in earnest, Eastbourne broke at speed upfield, Hutchinson in acres of space down the left. Haigh had to advance well out of his area and he went for the ball ahead of the Eastbourne player, both players going down as their legs collided. Eastbourne appealed vociferously for a red card against Haigh but the referee got it spot on by booking Walker, deeming Haigh’s kick for the ball perfectly legitimate.
Alas for the Fleet, Haigh was unable to continue and in visible pain for the injury and he was aided off the pitch. Having used all three substitutes, Fleet were unable to introduce Cousins and after a lengthy spell of discussion, the most versatile man in recent club history, Ben Chapman – all 5ft 9 inches of him – threw the orange jersey over his head and donned Haigh’s oversized gloves!
At 2-1 down, nobody truly gave Fleet much hope and awaited the Eastbourne onslaught. It never came, in part because the teal shirts didn’t let them as they summoned up the will to win the game. On 81 minutes, Chris Solly came homing in on goal from the right flank to exchange passes with O’Neill and he arrowed a low effort from a tight angle towards the far post that somehow found a path through and crossed the line off the post – just – before bouncing back out as the referee indicated a goal.
Fleet fans were in dreamland and four minutes later they were in wonderland. Tanner’s corner from the left was perfect and O’Neill rose like the proverbial salmon to power in and plant a header firmly past the stranded Worgan. The celebrations said it all.
But with five minutes of normal time that turned into a daunting seven more of added time, the visitors still had their work cut out. Chapman was spared too many worrying moments but had to make one stop in the six-yard box and shepherd a corner off the line in a further heartstopping moment. As the corner was awarded, N’Guessan received a second yellow card for holding on to the ball to go with the somewhat soft one he picked up in the first half for his first foul.
But even down to nine men, the Fleet weren’t done and McQueen raced forward to square it to Bingham, with the ball running just past him.
The final whistle arrived, however, and the players and staff took the richly deserved applause of the sizable travelling contingent who won’t forget these heroics in a hurry.
EUFC: Haigh, O’Neill, Finney (Cundle 18), Solly, Wright (Tanner 57), N’Guessan, Chapman, McQueen, Edser, Coulthirst (Bingham 66), Poleon. Subs: Sterling, Cousins
EBFC: Worgan, Innocent, Barry (Elliott 69), Dickenson, Wynter, Hammond, Whelpdale (Walker 46), Remy (Scarlett 64), Vaughan, Gravata, Hutchinson. Subs: Mbonkwi, Seymour
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