Matt Godden’s ninth goal of the season and a stirring second-half performance couldn’t quite propel Fleet to victory over their nearest challengers Oxford City, who had a man sent off late on for a foul on Fleet’s goalscorer.
Daryl McMahon named an unchanged starting lineup, though Robbie Willmott – fit again after an ankle problem – was a surprise inclusion on the bench. The visitors were without leading scorer Bradley Bubb, who had picked up a hamstring injury earlier in the week, but they fielded four of their Spanish contingent in the eleven.
Fleet got off to an encouraging start and broke through the Oxford back line in the opening minute only to see the ball cleared to Stuart Lewis who hoisted it over the bar. On six minutes Danny Haynes broke into the box from the right and his low delivery was turned just the other side of the post by the sliding challenge of David King in a somewhat risky tactic that could quite easily have backfired. Moments later, Dean Rance’s fantastic tackle parted the Oxford defence but his ball into Godden, who duly scored, was that bit too quick and the flag went up for offside.
Oxford’s first effort of note arrived on the quarter-hour mark, the impressive Luke Coulson breaking wide and then cutting inside but finding his path – very fortunately for the home side – blocked by Tom Bonner. Matt Fish then floated in a long-range free-kick that caught the wind – and the goalkeeper out – but just crept past the upright.
The visitors seemed content to play a dangerous passing game along their own penalty box and then launch the ball to Kynan Isaac on the left flank and it suited the Fleet who rarely looked troubled in the opening 25 minutes. But from that point on, Oxford ventured a little further forward as Fleet’s edge seemed to have worn off.
The running of Coulson again unlocked the Fleet and he laid a ball off to King whose low cross was met by Lafuente’s diving header that seemed to come off a body or the post and spin away to safety. But Fleet were stunned on 32 minutes by a quite exquisite free kick routine straight off the training ground. From 20 yards out, Lafuente rolled a ball back into Coulson’s path. He flicked it up and then smashed a shot over the wall that rocketed past Brandon Hall.
Godden could have responded almost immediately when Danny Kedwell played him in but the Fleet striker fired it over when well placed. The home side became a little ragged and their passing disjointed, with a tricky shot fired wide by Joe Howe and a Kenny Clark header going over the bar, but in truth it was difficult to see where a goal was coming from as City coasted towards the interval.
Kedwell had other ideas though on the stroke of half-time. His pass from wide on the left found John Paul Kissock in a central position. Kissock dinked the ball over City’s static defence and Godden, just springing the offside trap, ran on to it and fired it past Laurie Walker.
The goal came at a vital time and Fleet came out with real purpose in the second half, restricting City’s forward momentum for 45 minutes. Godden’s shot on 46 minutes was fumbled by Walker, falling at the feet of Stuart Lewis but he could’t quite dig it out of a sea of legs. Kedwell then surged in between Walker and a defender to fire an effort on goal but it was cleared by Alejandro Santiago before it could get to the line.
A cross to the back post saw Haynes sprinting in but he came up just short as the ball bounced wide while at the other end, in a rare City attack, Kenny Clark’s brilliant challenge prevented Isaac from getting a shot away. Lewis twice sent efforts on target and Godden continued to be a menace, either cutting in from the right or when bearing down on goal, one such effort hitting the post before a borderline offside flag went up.
It was backs-to-the-wall stuff from the visitors who rather cynically went to ground too easily in the closing stages, drawing plenty of ire from the Fleet fans on the terraces. They set a few nerves jangling, however, when Coulson had another free kick in a similar position to the one he scored from, but this proved harmless and Fleet were back on the attack. When Godden surged forwards again, he was pulled back by King who was red-carded for the offence, and the resulting free-kick was parried by a stretching Walker.
It was breathless stuff in the final moments but Fleet couldn’t find their killer instinct and it was a point apiece, one that Oxford will likely cherish more than the team just above them. Fleet proved they were the better side on the day and must hope they get a break or two in front of goal in the coming weeks to match the effort and domination they’re achieving.
EUFC: Hall, Fish, Howe, S Lewis, Clark, Bonner, Rance, Kissock, Kedwell, Godden, Haynes (Willmott 69). Subs not used: Miles, Acheampong, Sheringham, Parkes
OCFC: Walker, King, Lapoujade, Fleet (McDonaugh 46), Santiago, Arzamendi, Coulson, Fofana, Sterling-James, Lafuente (Pond 84), Isaac (Benjamin 74). Subs not used: Pifarre, Stonehouse.