FRUSTRATING FLEET FALL TO A FOREST GREEN SUCKER PUNCH IN HOME DEFEAT…
EBBSFLEET UNITED 0-1 FOREST GREEN ROVERS
Report by Ed Miller
The Fleet produced a disappointing performance on the heels of their victory over Weymouth as Forest Green came away with the points courtesy of Jonathan Smith’s 42nd minute scorcher. Fleet fans, upbeat following Saturday’s display, should really have known what to expect on a cold Tuesday night against a big, well-drilled side who, once they got their noses in front, were largely untroubled as their opponents searched in vain for an equaliser.
With only one enforced change to the line-up, Peter Hawkins coming in for the injured Darius Charles, Liam Daish must have been hoping for more consistency from his side in a game they really needed to win to give their season a shot in the arm. But the early exchanges were hardly encouraging with the Fleet’s controlled passing game of Saturday seemingly abandoned and the visitors had the first opportunity when winger Chris Thomas sprung the offside trap on 7 minutes but fired a shot into the side netting when free of the Fleet defence.
Rovers had the best opportunity of the opening period on 18 minutes when Darren Jones fired low and hard through the Fleet wall from a direct free-kick and Cronin had to be alert to push it away. Sacha Opinel picked up a yellow card for a foul in the lead-up to that free-kick, his second dubious tackle, though when Jonathan Smith put in a worse challenge on Jamie Hand five minutes later, lunging two-footed at his ankle, he escaped caution. The frayed tempers, however, were about the only thing livening up an otherwise dour encounter. Darren Kempson forced Cronin into a save while Andrew Mangan was unsettling Hawkins and Dean Pooley though the two Fleet central defenders never quite succumbed to the threat, Hawkins blocking Mangan’s decent effort with half an hour gone and Pooley recovering from a botched clearance to rob Curtis MacDonald.
The remainder of the half made for uninteresting viewing for the spectators, a fact not helped by referee Stewart’s constant interruptions for petty fouls which broke up an already dour midfield battle. Yet just as the game appeared to be petering out towards half-time, the Fleet defence fell asleep. On 42 minutes, Mangan got behind them and ran on to a long ball. As he bore down on Cronin, Hawkins got in his way and headed the ball backwards, away from Mangan, but only as far as the onrushing Smith who, unmarked by any other Fleet defender, cracked an unstoppable shot into the top corner of the goal.
Things could have been even worse for the Fleet when Cronin performed a howler of a clearance which fell to Mangan but fortunately for the Fleet he dwelt on the ball, considering his options with the goal at his mercy, and Cronin was able to recover to make a much-needed save.
The visitors came out of the blocks the stronger in the second half, spraying passes across midfield, with MacDonald causing Danny Slatter problems down the Fleet right. But it was the home side who almost got a goal back on 49 minutes, Opinel crossing to find Long who combined with Moore to evade the Rovers defence but Neil Barrett somehow scuffed the resulting pass high over the bar from the edge of the six-yard box. It signalled Fleet’s best period of the game as Moore and Purcell livened up but on 51 minutes, the already makeshift Fleet defence received another blow when Pooley, having just performed a wonderful saving tackle on Mangan, limped off to be replaced Mark Ricketts.
A minute later, Moore lifted a shot too high when well-placed and then Michael Gash had two headed efforts in quick succession slip wide of the far post, the second on 58 minutes from Opinel’s cross being particularly dangerous. But Gash’s frustrations boiled over just after the hour mark when he remonstrated with the referee who was continually blowing for fouls against him despite the Fleet striker’s protestations that he was being manhandled by Darren Jones.
Jamie Hand and Danny Slatter then had efforts saved by Terry Burton and when Purcell jinked into the area to supply Hand with another decent chance, the midfielder’s attempt was blocked by a number of bodies and the Fleet just couldn’t get on the end of a rebound as Rovers eventually cleared the danger. That was the last real spell of danger from the Fleet as their opponents, anonymous as an attacking force for most of the second half, brought on the tall Michael Symonds who set about the Fleet defence with gusto. Though they were still on the back foot, Rovers’ football on the break was quicker and more considered than the Fleet’s whose own attacking fury had blown itself out with 20 minutes remaining.
Symonds and fellow substitute Adriano Rigoglioso hit a number of wayward efforts at goal but Symonds’ was getting his eye in and on 88 minutes forced Cronin into a good save as Fleet pushed up the pitch and left gaps to exploit at the back. Hand had another shot beaten away by Burton and in four minutes of time added on, Long and Slatter flattered to deceive with crosses but by then a disappointed and somewhat angry Stonebridge Road faithful had largely decamped to the warmth of their cars.
TEAM: Cronin, Opinel, Slatter, Hawkins, Pooley (Ricketts 51), Hand, Barrett (Murray 71), Long, Moore (Ibe 81), Gash, Purcell. Subs not used: French, Stone.