The Fleet reach Wembley for the first time ever following a semi-final triumph over the league leaders…
ALDERSHOT TOWN 1-1 EBBSFLEET UNITED (2-4)
By Ed Miller
Destiny, as a well-known ex-Conference manager once said, will always take over. For the Fleet, destiny played second fiddle this afternoon to hard work, grit and determination as the Fleet’s remorseless drive to Wembley was finally rewarded in injury time when Michael Bostwick’s fourth goal of the season set the seal on an afternoon of high drama and nail-biting tension.
Ebbsfleet United fans packed their corner of the Recreation Ground as never before in anticipation of a cup upset and a place at the famous home of English football but there were nervous faces aplenty in the 4,344-strong crowd as the thought that even a 3-1 head-start might not be enough against a free-scoring Aldershot opposition.
For Liam Daish, the task was simple enough: to select the same 11 players who had put Aldershot to the sword so clinically the Saturday before and instill in them the need to defend without inviting 90 minutes of pressure. And so it turned out as the Fleet launched themselves into the fray with mere seconds on the clock, when Chukki Eribenne raced on to a pass over the top and crossed for John Akinde to try his luck in unsettling a Shots defence that had never looked totally secure a week before.
Luke Moore made some early running that buoyed the Fleet’s confidence and Aldershot were restricted mainly to hopeful long-range efforts that lacked conviction, Kirk Hudson’s eighth-minute shot wide of the post the pick of the bunch. The elusive Junior Mendes was also finding room to ply his trade down the right and Sacha Opinel had to be on hand to deny him space to shoot on 12 minutes. The home side’s best effort came on 26 minutes when Danny Hylton twisted into space on the edge of the penalty area and eluded the Fleet back line with a through ball for Louis Soares. The Shots winger had time to place his shot and looked odds-on to open the scoring but Lance Cronin got in the way of his lightweight effort.
The Fleet grew in confidence as the half wore on and countered everything the Shots could throw at them in the final 20 minutes of the first-half. The main outlet for the men in yellow was Stacy Long who pounced on any loose ball in midfield and gave his defence breathing space at every opportunity. From one such battle, he accepted a pass from the battling Neil Barrett on the half-hour and executed a lob that had Nikki Bull back-pedalling to tip the ball over the crossbar.
Inevitably, however, it was the Fleet defence who came to the fore in the second half as Aldershot pressed for an equaliser, gradually turning the screw as they attacked towards their noisy East Bank. As the rain pelted down on the exposed Fleet fans in the corner, the red tide surged forwards, giving the Fleet midfield no opportunity to get time on the ball to play in the Aldershot half. That said, Eribenne almost drew first blood on 51 minutes when he ran on to a Long pass and forced Bull to knock his shot over the bar. Long himself was in on the action five minutes later, sweeping beyond his marker from Akinde’s pass and worrying the home faithful with a shot wide of the post.
Shots manager Gary Waddock shuffled his pack at this point and introduced the dimunitive Scott Donnelly on the hour mark for Hylton and within seconds, the substitute was bossing the midfield, spraying passes wide and running with confidence at Paul McCarthy and Peter Hawkins. From his central position on 61 minutes, Donnelly fed a ball wide to Junior Mendes on the right of the penalty area and the Shots front man got behind his marker to despatch a right-foot drive that Cronin could only snatch at. The East Bank erupted as the Fleet defenders appealed in vain for offside. The Fleet fans’ corner visibly sank a few inches. And the noise level ratcheted up several notches as Aldershot, for the first time in 150 minutes of this tie, could smell Wembley.
Now the men in red enjoyed their best spell of the game as the Fleet looked rattled. But cometh the hour, cometh the men and Opinel and Hawkins were immense. Opinel typified the Fleet rearguard action when he lost out to Soares down the Aldershot right flank but battled back to perform a superb clean tackle and managed to clear the danger despite both players tumbling to the ground. Hawkins, for his part, could be witnessed jumping in the way of anything within his radius and on one occasion ran 25 yards to prevent a corner even as he was rolling over following a Mendes challenge.
On reflection, Aldershot probably failed to really threaten Cronin’s goal but in the cauldron of the Recreation Ground, Fleet fans were feeling anything but calm. Fingernails were bitten, eyes peeked from behind closed hands and backs were turned as the minutes ticked away. Soares and Mendes continually probed down the right, Donnelly bossed midfield and the Fleet were camped in their own half with an animated Liam Daish roaring them forward with increasingly desperate sweeps of his arm.
Mark Ricketts replaced Luke Moore on 70 minutes as Daish sought to shore up his slender lead and as the game entered the final 10 minutes, the Fleet gradually began to emerge as an attacking threat again. When George Purcell entered the fray with five minutes to go, Long found his legs again and began to trouble the indomitable Rhys Day in defence. But the Shots weren’t finished and Ricketts was forced to block Joel Grant’s snapshot on 88 minutes. Shots goalkeeper Bull raced up for the corner and as the Fleet cleared, Purcell led a cavalry charge for the home side’s empty penalty area but couldn’t offer enough pace or power to beat Bull and the goalkeeper managed to get in the way of the youngster’s long-range shot.
It was a chance that nervous Fleet fans knew could be vital as the fourth official indicated another 180 seconds of play but no matter for two minutes later, Stacy Long stampeded up the left wing and instead of making for the corner flag, cut inside and from the edge of the box loosed off a shot that Bull flung to his left. But the Fleet fans sensed blood and in the pandemonium that followed, a yellow shirt that turned out to be Michael Bostwick – but nobody knew or cared at the time – sprinted clear to loft the ball high into the net. The Fleet end exploded with a roar of triumph and elation that even the oldest of fans had never heard before and the men in yellow and their managment team held their arms aloft in the sure knowledge that they were going to Wembley.
The referee played barely a minute of time before a final whistle that was greeted with an immense outpouring of joy on the terraces. The Fleet players swept towards their fans, Danny Slatter danced on his crutches and a hapless photographer was nearly beheaded in the ensuing ‘Dambusters’-style celebration. Rumour had it that Torquay United had made it to Wembley to face the Fleet on May 10 but nobody really knew or cared. Torquay were there for the taking on another day. Today belonged to the Fleet, to their historic victory and to their prize of playing at Wembley Stadium. Never has it happened before for this football club. On Saturday, May 10, it will…
TEAM: Cronin, McPhee, Opinel, Hawkins, McCarthy, Bostwick, Barrett, Long, Moore (Ricketts 70), Akinde (Purcell 85), Eribenne (Nade 56).