Long inspires cheery new year for the Fleet

Two-goal Stacy Long is the hero as Fleet start 2008 with a bang, beating Grays Athletic…

EBBSFLEET UNITED 4-1 GRAYS ATHLETIC

There was no new-year hangover for the Fleet today as they remained unbeaten over the festive season and did so in some style with a demolition of near neighbours Grays Athletic. For once, in front of a large crowd – the largest of the season in fact – the Fleet performed to their highest standards, playing good football, with effort and guile apparent from Lance Cronin in goal to John Akinde and Luke Moore in attack.

Keeping faith with four-goal Akinde and Moore, the Fleet were unchanged from the last-gasp win at Stafford though a resurgent Grays who had beaten leaders Aldershot days beforehand were a different prospect altogether. And the Fleet were on the front foot immediately, Chris McPhee heading a Stacy Long corner over the bar inside the first 90 seconds. The home side looked more ambitious from the off, Neil Barrett attempting a shot on four minutes and McPhee hitting a decent effort that cannoned off his opposite skipper Jamie Stuart on nine minutes. Three minutes later and Michael Bostwick had another attempt from distance that had venom but was hit straight at Ross Flitney in the Grays goal.

However, much of the endeavour lacked any real intent until the half-hour mark when Akinde pounced on a ponderous attempt by Stuart to clear down the Fleet right and sent a deep cross to the far side of the area where Stacy Long found Sacha Opinel advancing into space. The Frenchman played it inside and Barrett loosed off an unremarkable shot that seemed to elude a possibly unsighted Flitney and it hit the back of the net. The Fleet were playing with an air of confidence now and Grays were finding it hard to get an outlet, with the impressive Alan Power, Danny Kedwell and Ben Watson superbly muscled out of their stride by Opinel, James Smith and – none too subtly – Peter Hawkins whose needless shoulder barge on 39 minutes earned him a yellow card.

The Fleet’s enthusiasm was opitimised minutes later as Akinde stormed down the left wing with Grays players literally bouncing off him, Andy Sambrook crashing injured down the line, Ian Selley left in his wake and only Simon Downer’s illegal challenge stopping the new Stonebridge Road hero. From the resulting free kick, the industrious Long twisted his way into space inside the box and sent a fizzing drive low past Flitney into the bottom corner of the goal for 2-0.

The Fleet took their foot off the gas in the second-half as Grays reshuffled their pack, Sambrook’s injury forcing a change to 4-3-3. In a quiet enough restart, Grays gradually forced their way back into things and were rewarded on 64 minutes when the hard-running Power received a pass from substitute Michael Standing and was allowed time and space by a standoffish Fleet defence to pick his spot and drive a shot past Cronin.

But whereas such a goal has often signalled a Fleet collapse, the home side were in no mood to give up their three points and with Moore and Akinde dragging Grays wide, it allowed the tireless Long time and space to marshal the midfield and orchestrate all that was good about the Fleet coming forward. On 70 minutes he powered into the box and hit a shot that Flitney tipped over the bar. From the corner, Smith was unfortunate to see his shot cannon off the underside of the bar. Six minutes later and it was Long’s running down the left that ripped Grays to shreds again as he wormed his way into the area and, though he probably should have gone for goal, he sent in a low cross that evaded Akinde but was cleared only as far as Bostwick and his rasping drive made it 3-1.

Their two-goal cushion restored, the Fleet continued to press and George Purcell’s introduction on 84 minutes was the catalyst for more endeavour down the left. Three minutes later, Long capped a fine performance with a customary run down that favoured left and he once again cut inside a defender to finish past Flitney at the near post with aplomb. Purcell could even have made it 5-1 in the four minutes of stoppage time but his left-foot rocket skipped wide of the post.

Last season’s unbeaten spell over Christmas and New Year underpinned the Fleet’s play-off challenge and with a similar haul this festive season, capped by today’s exuberant display, Liam Daish can only hope his troops can add consistency to their undoubted spirit. Six points off a play-off place, and with MyFC funds still to come – subject to a successful due-diligence process – the remainder of the season could prove very interesting indeed.

TEAM: Cronin, Ricketts, Opinel, Hawkins, Smith, Bostwick, Barrett, Long, McPhee (Coleman 62), Moore (Purcell 84), Akinde (Eribenne 87). Subs not used: French, Nade.

Att: 1,396

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