Ebbsfleet United maintained their unbeaten record against Eastbourne Borough – but more importantly cemented their play-off spot – as Anthony Cook’s 48th minute strike earned Steve Brown’s side maximum points.
In a game in which Fleet were largely on top but the visitors adept at soaking up the pressure, it always seemed likely a single goal would win it. And for the third game running, Fleet managed to get one in the spell immediately after half-time. But unlike those games, the men in red saw their lead through to the 90th minute.
Brown named an unchanged side for the penultimate league fixture at Stonebridge Road and Fleet were straight into the action, earning a free-kick right on the edge of the box inside 60 seconds. That effort hit the wall, however, and Fleet continued to come up against a defensive wall for the remainder of the half.
Joe Howe’s well-worked ninth minute cross into Ben May almost saw Fleet take the lead, but the striker’s header was just over the crossbar. Four minutes later, the Stonebridge Road faithful thought they had the lead when Anthony Cook muscled his way past Lewis Tallack and whipped in a low shot that goalkeeper Craig Ross spilled. May was on it in a flash, heading the ball past Ross but somehow a defender raced across to clear off the line.
Howe was cautioned in the 18th minute for sliding in on Simon Johnson, the referee taking the lenient view that both players had gone for the loose ball and shortly after that Dean Rance was relieved to just get spoken to after a spat with Charlie Gorman inside the Fleet penalty area.
Still Fleet pressed and a trademark Cook run down the right saw his low cross just evade Rance’s sprint into the box. The lively Daryl McMahon and Billy Bricknell then exchanged passes in a neat move that didn’t quite come off before Ross pushed Howe’s cross-cum-shot out from under the bar.
At the other end, Eastbourne’s best chance curiously arrived from a drop ball when instead of the expected pass back to Preston Edwards, Gorman instead chose to launch a speculative shot at the goal that was only inches off target.
Fleet managed to squeeze in two more decent chances before the half-time whistle, the first created by May whose delivery to Bricknell outwitted the Eastbourne defence but the resulting shot was pushed away by Ross and cleared before the incoming McMahon could drive it home. And Bricknell again saw a header drift just past the post from McMahon’s corner in time added on.
Those missed chances could have demoralised the Fleet, but Cook picked the lock minutes after the restart. Aiden Palmer and Bricknell combined on the edge of the Eastbourne box, and the latter played the ball wide to Cook. The Fleet winger seemed to pause as he picked his spot then drove a low shot into the bottom corner.
The elation around Stonebridge Road almost reached fever pitch five minutes later when Bricknell and Palmer combined again, the Fleet full back’s cross on a plate for May but his header was sent just past the upright.
There followed a fairly uneventful phase as Fleet sought to kill the game while Eastbourne remained stubborn in their resistance. While offering little in the final third, the visitors did threaten to break through the Fleet back line on 73 minutes but Anthony Acheampong cut out the danger with an excellent challenge inside the box.
Rance hit the base of the post two minutes later after a clever one-two with Bricknell and then May had the ball in the back of the net but an offside flag cut short the celebrations.
Eastbourne finished strongly and Edwards’ quiet afternoon was almost spoiled as he had to mop up a few half chances for the Sussex side but Fleet didn’t look like relinquishing their lead.
Three points at Maidenhead would all but ensure play-off qualification and Brown’s squad now have a few days’ rest before they go again, keen to wrap things up before any potentially rearranged match at Concord.
TEAM: Edwards, Howe (Sessegnon 79), Palmer, McMahon (Osborn 90), Acheamping, Sankofa, Corcoran, Rance, May, Bricknell (Thalassitis 77), Cook. Subs not used: Hall, Lorraine