Fleet take the Long road

Stacy Long makes FA Trophy history for the Fleet as his solitary goal sets up a semi-final against Aldershot…


Stacy Long’s goal four minutes from the end of extra-time finally broke a deadlock of 206 minutes between these two sides and ultimately guided the Fleet into the FA Trophy semi-finals for the first time in their history and a massive two-legged tie against League leaders Aldershot Town.

Fielding an unchanged line-up following Saturday’s draw at the Pirelli Stadium, the Fleet took a while to get going in a cagey opening period that saw balls over the top to either sets of strikers as the main ploy. From one such ball, Shaun Harrad almost caught the Fleet defence unawares as early as the second minute when he found space and loosed off a low shot which Lance Cronin acrobatically plucked from mid-air as it sped goalwards. The first concrete chance for the home side came on 12 minutes when John Akinde was released by Raphael Nade and he found Stacy Long in space in the midfielder’s customary position on the left edge of the box. Long twisted and turned, hit Deeney with his first effort and then rather disappointingly let fly over the bar with the rebound. Four minutes later James Smith got into a good position in the box but
his powerful header from a Long cross was parried by Saul Deeney.

Andy Corbett carved out a chance on 36 minutes, outfoxing Sacha Opinel down the Burton right and cutting a ball back across goal which just eluded John McGrath and Harrad. With neither midfield getting to grips with the game, there was little creativity and as a result fewer chances, though Michael Bostwick struck a dipping shot from the edge of a crowded penalty area that scraped the top of the bar on the stroke of half time.

The Fleet were more purposeful in the second half, though it took them some time to get going but they got more adventurous as it became clear that Burton were content to sit deep and defend. The effervescent Long had another effort which Deeney gathered within minutes of the restart but he took too many touches and failed to finish. It was Long again 10 minutes later surging into the box to meet Deeney one-on-one but the midfielder’s effort was again awry as he clipped the post. Deeney was forced into action moments later when Akinde threatened to turn McPhee’s pass into the net but the goalkeeper did well to save.

Now with their tails up the Fleet had a succession of chances. Nade sent a header just over, then McPhee really should have opened the scoring as he nipped in ahead of Nade to blast a shot high over the stands from just 10 yards. Akinde had two efforts and McPhee tried his luck again when put into space by Neil Barrett but nothing would give for the home side. Burton rallied in the final quarter as they sensed the Fleet slowing down and Harrad saw a wayward effort bounce past Cronin’s post on 82 minutes. Opinel and Paul McCarthy were steadfast, however, and the skipper needed to maintain composure at the back as Burton finally grew in stature in the closing period. Opinel tangled with Corbett late on, with the Burton bench screaming for a penalty but it appeared there was little contact and as three minutes of extra-time were signalled, the Fleet should have wrapped things up. First McPhee sent a shot bobbling wide of Deeney that looked destined for the bottom corner but the Burton keeper somehow managed to push it round the post. Then from the resulting corner, substitute Luke Moore skimmed a shot inches over the bar from a central position.

And so into extra time, and Akinde nearly started in the best possible fashion, bursting through down the right but his cross was dealt with by Ryan Austin as Nade was poised to strike. That was as good as it got in the first period of extra time with both sides tiring fast and seemingly content to wait for penalties, though McPhee again had a gilt-edged chance with a header that Deeney was equal to.

With the Fleet fans in the rather surprisingly low announced crowd of 849 wondering when another substitution might be forthcoming but in their heads mentally preparing for penalties, Daish threw George Purcell into the fray with 15 minutes remaining. He found his way into the book soon afterwards as the referee somewhat harshly deemed his shot after an offside decision as kicking the ball away, but burst into life just when the Fleet needed him most against a tiring Burton defence. Twice in two minutes the linesman enraged Fleet fans with two dubious offside flags but then with Purcell and Long suddenly appearing to be forward of the Burton line, he allowed play to continue and Purcell advanced down the right, crossed low into Long’s path and finally Deeney slipped up, failing to gather the resulting shot and Stonebridge Road erupted as the ball trundled over the line.

It was no less than the Fleet deserved in a game they should have sewn up long before extra time, and they saw out the final four minutes plus stoppage time with Long sprinting into the corners to frustrate Burton’s long-overdue attempts at a revival. The roars of appreciation and no doubt relief at avoiding a penalty lottery that many had aceepted as a foregone conclusion spilled forth at the final whistle with the realisation that Wembley is only 180 minutes away.

TEAM: Cronin, Hawkins, Opinel, McCarthy, Smith, Bostwick (Moore 83), Barrett, Long, McPhee, Akinde (Purcell 106), Nade (Eribenne 120). Subs not used: Mott, MacDonald.

Attendance: 849


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First-Team Squad