EBBSFLEET UNITED 2-2 MANSFIELD TOWN – MOORE OPENER NOT ENOUGH
Report by Ed Miller
Fleet fans usually know not to expect too many points on the opening day of the season. After all, only twice in the last 12 years have the Fleet recorded a victory on the first day of the season. Those among the large crowd this afternoon may have been forgiven for expecting to improve that statistic, however, but a sucker punch from old Fleet nemesis Mark Stallard a minute from the end of normal time ruined what looked to be a pleasing opening-day victory.
There were few surprises in Liam Daish’s starting line-up, though Peter Hawkins appears now to be the preferred right-back, with Mark Ricketts once again dropped to the bench as he was at Wembley. With anticipation heavy in the unseasonably damp air, the Fleet started brightly and Ricky Shakes burst through the middle within five minutes but such was his surprise at finding himself in that position that he rather lashed his shot off-target.
But the Fleet were not content with that and three minutes later Sacha Opinel – who helped create the Fleet’s last goal in anger at Wembley – hit a ball from defence that debutant Michael Gash latched on to and the striker did brilliantly from outside the box to make space and curl a shot into the bottom of the net that rebounded in off a combination of the post and goalkeeper.
Six minutes later and the Mansfield defence was opened up again as Shakes demonstrated a quite remarkable burst of acceleration down the right that left Alan O’Hare for dead. He lifted a cross deep into the box and Stacy Long showed great skill in taking the ball down and turning onto his left foot before unfortunately blasting his shot high over the bar.
Long was not to be denied, however, and after a couple of unsuccessful incursions inside the Mansfield penalty area, he got himself into an almost identical position as Gash had scored from, twisted and turned inside his marker and despatched a shot from 25 yards that again bent past Paddy Gamble in the Mansfield goal for 2-0.
Luke Moore saw another shot go close a minute later while a poor Mansfield had to wait until the 33rd minute to get a sniff of the Fleet goal, the troublesome Aaron O’Connor firing a harmless effort wide of Lance Cronin’s post. Their first shot on target came seven minutes later when Stallard thumped one straight at Cronin, while at the other end, Long’s trickery parted O’Hare and Adie Moses like the Red Sea but he couldn’t direct his shot with enough accuracy.
Fleet fans sensed an early victory as the second half began but in truth the home side’s impetus had been fading ever since the second goal. Mansfield emerged more purposeful and where their attacking players like O’Connor, Stallard and Michael Blackwood had been all but invisible in the first half, they suddenly seemed to exhibit more menace.
Blackwood posted his intent five minutes after the restart with a shot from the edge of the box and when the visitors threw on former Nottingham Forest striker Jason Lee on 57 minutes, his added height put the previously imperious James Smith under pressure. And as Mansfield turned the screw, Sacha Opinel found himself booked shortly afterwards for a foul on Nathan Arnold (Fleet fans were meanwhile wondering what Stags midfielder Matt Somner needed to do to get himself cautioned).
The visitors clawed their way back into proceedings on 63 minutes when Blackwood beat off the challenge of three Fleet players, passed the ball wide to Alex Jeannin who found Blackwood again with a return pass and the former Kidderminster midfielder lashed a shot high against the far post into the roof of the net from an angle.
Try as they might, the Fleet couldn’t restore their earlier dominance. Long twisted and turned to no avail down the left flank but more often than not his solo efforts ran out of steam and the Fleet midfield visibly wilted as the game wore on. On 68 minutes Smith burst through to find himself in an unaccustomed forward position but he blazed a shot wide when well-placed.
The inevitable introduction of John Akinde followed on 76 minutes, though it raised a few eyebrows as Shakes was the player sacrificed rather than Gash. Akinde was immediately in the thick of the action, bursting through on goal only to hit a tame shot against a defender and then minutes later in a similar position he inexplicably opted for a pass to Gash instead of shooting. On 87 minutes, Neil Barrett blasted a superb 30-yard shot inches wide from a corner and Akinde could have again wrapped things up a minute later when he did well to outpace O’Hare only to drag his shot too far wide of Gamble’s far post.
But from those let-offs the game unravelled. Jeannin was enjoying more freedom down the exposed Fleet right where only Hawkins was on hand to stem the flow. Sure enough, a minute before the end of normal time, Jeannin and Blackwood galloped down the wing and crossed for Stallard to bundle home an equaliser as confusion reigned inside the Fleet box.
Fleet fans could scarcely believe they were actually hanging on for a point as Mansfield won a corner in time added on and it was a sore disappointment to actually greet the final whistle with relief instead of jubilation.
On reflection, it was certainly a case of two points lost given the Fleet’s control of the game in the first half but there were enough positives from the contributions of Shakes, Gash, Moore and Long to suggest that with a little more poise and a few wiser heads, the Fleet can build on last season’s foundations.
TEAM: Cronin, Hawkins, Opinel, Smith, Charles, Barrett, Stone, Shakes (Akinde 76), Long, Moore, Gash. Subs not used: Mott, Appiah, Ricketts, Purcell.
Front page photo: Jeff Chick