It was probably on the cards given last season’s opening encounter saw nine goals, and there was so much expectation around Stonebridge Road, that this one would end in an unremarkable goalless draw.
And the news that pre-season star Billy Bricknell was missing with a back injury further restricted manager Steve Brown’s striking options, though the return of Michael Thalassitis from international duty did actually allow the Fleet boss to field a recognised forward. Thalassitis was joined by six other players in making his competitive debut and he led the line with Anthony Cook and Dominic Green providing support from the flanks, while Stacy Long was also deployed in advanced midfield position.
Fleet must have hoped for an explosive start but the first half was a stately affair with neither side testing the goalkeepers. The home side’s passing was neater than their opponents’, but Havant had slightly more edge in the final third where one-time Fleet loanee Denis Oli used his power to unsettle Shane Huke and Paul Lorraine. The visitors saw half-chances from Sahr Kabba and Ed Harris come to nothing while Fleet’s best effort was a 24th minute low cross by Thalassitis that Cook fired across the face of Scott Bevan’s goal.
Huke then headed a Long corner just wide but for all the crisp interchanges between the Fleet midfielders, nobody seemed willing to take the responsibility for a shot – until Thalassitis fired an effort from long range over the bar.
For Havant, winger Christian Nanetti caught the eye – and not just for his haircut – and he provided the best opportunity of the half, sending a deep cross towards Kabba whose powerful shot from 10 yards could have gone anywhere – fortunately for the Fleet it cleared the bar. There was one last chance for Fleet, Cook sending Aiden Palmer’s cross just past the post, before Michael Corcoran saw yellow for upending Nanetti.
The second half was a case of ‘as you were’ as both sides continued to probe at each other without much end product. Fleet, with Long and Cook in particular attempting to fashion openings, were finding it hard to break down a disciplined Havant side. Indeed the visitors always looked capable of scoring once they got behind the Fleet defence and Edwards twice saved well, first from Kabba low to his left and then a diving save to push away Nanetti’s curling effort.
And Edwards had to rescue the Fleet just past the hour mark when Lorraine and Kabba tangled on the edge of the box and Kabba’s last touch saw the ball rolling towards an unguarded net. Luckily it lacked real power and Edwards was able to get back and scoop it from the six-yard box.
Fleet fans needed something to lift their spirits and Cook provided it on 68 minutes, picking the ball up on the halfway line and sprinting fully 50 yards, riding enough challenges to carve a path into the Havant box, but his shot across goal took a deflection and bounced to safety. That signalled the start of Fleet’s best spell and Cook and Thalassitis combined, the latter heading wide, while Long attempted to prise open the Havant defence but saw his two efforts cannon back off defenders’ legs.
Dean Rance, too, had a good chance from the centre of the box with six minutes left on the clock but his low drive lacked power and was easy for the 6ft 7in Bevan to gather. Long contributed one final moment of hope for home fans when Thalassitis drove upfield on the break, played in Cook whose pass found the Fleet No.10 in space but Long’s rasping effort – like everything else this afternoon – found its way the wrong side of the post.
TEAM: Edwards, Howe, Palmer, Corcoran, Huke, Lorraine, Green, Rance, Thalassitis, Long (Phipp 88), Cook. Subs not used: Hall, Sessegnon, Sankofa, Osborn