Liam Enver-Marum produced a classic smash-and-grab to send Fleet tumbling out of the FA Cup in a game home fans could not believe they lost. To rub salt into the wound, Joe Howe was sent off late on as Fleet failed to make the Fourth Qualifying Round for the first time in 15 years.
There was just one change to the line-up, Shane Huke coming in for Kenny Clark, while Basingstoke fielded their ex-Fleet pair of Enver-Marum and Louie Soares. And the league leaders made a decent start, penning Fleet back and earning a couple of corners. But that really was as good as it got for the visitors for the next 40 minutes as Fleet proceeded to create chance after chance that either flew just off target, hit the woodwork, or were saved by on-loan Reading goalkeeper Stuart Moore.
The first chance arrived on seven minutes when Charlie Sheringham smashed a low shot goalwards that Moore parried and Billy Bricknell smashed onto the crossbar, but the second of those chances was deemed offside. Five minutes later Matt Johnson’s long throw from the right flew along the six-yard box and three Fleet players attempted but failed to steer it over the line. The home side were just finding their range and more chances followed. A minute later, Brandon Hall’s clever and accurate kick upfield found Anthony Cook who steered the ball into Bricknell’s path and the Fleet striker held off two defenders only to see his drive tipped over the bar by Moore.
On 20 minutes Cook rifled a shot just past the post with Sheringham inches from connecting and then Johnson’s deep cross to the far post was headed goalwards by Basingstoke defender Nathan Smart who was very fortunate to see it go the other side of the woodwork.
The chances kept coming and going. Sheringham saw a low drive blocked by Moore and then the goalkeeper got down to stop McMahon’s free-kick. Sheringham was again denied as he pounced on a poor pass across the Basingstoke defence, this time getting his shot past Moore but seeing it roll wide of the foot of the post. Moore saved Johnson’s header next and although he was far away from McMahon’s looping free-kick three minutes from half-time, the ball bounced back off the upright as home fans howled with frustration.
Basingstoke finally showed some teeth as the half closed and Hall had to be alert to push Chris Flood’s free-kick away and from the resulting corner he got a good stop on Jamie Brown’s shot.
It was more of the same as Fleet began the second half, Bricknell driving a shot down the middle that Moore saved and then McMahon sending another effort curling the wrong side of the post. But finally, on 52 minutes, Fleet got some reward for their efforts. Cook shimmied his way into the box and sent in a cross that Dean Rance powered goalwards. Again Moore pushed it out and as Bricknell couldn’t reach it, Sheringham managed to get his head on the loose ball and, finally, over the line it went for 1-0.
Basingstoke looked troubled as Cook fired another just wide and they played a series of defensive howlers, almost presenting Cook with another chance but he wasted it with an errant shot while Bricknell and Sheringham waited for a pass. Joe Howe sent a low cross in that missed all the Basingstoke defenders but crucially the Fleet forwards, too.
And on 73 minutes the game turned. Fleet should have been out of sight when Sheringham’s skill held off two defenders and he split the back line with a pass to Bricknell. The Fleet No.10, with the goal at an angle, opted to cut it back inside where McMahon was positioned to fire it home but he instead opted for a pass to Cook who was some way behind the ball and had to check his shot, with McMahon firing the rebound over the bar. The visitors went straight down the other end and, from nothing, their top scorer Flood fired a shot past Hall for the equaliser.
Back came the Fleet and Bricknell unleashed an effort that had the fans ready to celebrate but it went wide and then Godden thumped one into the side netting. But the visitors had found a determination that before their goal looked to have been ebbing away and it started to get antagonistic, Rance clashing with Shaun McAuley and getting cautioned for his troubles.
With six minutes left, the league leaders produced the classic sucker punch. Tom Bird crossed to Enver-Marum at the near post and he directed a header past Hall. Fleet couldn’t quite believe it and with only six minutes to salvage the game, couldn’t find a way past a rejuvenated Basingstoke. Bricknell found himself well placed but couldn’t get a clear shot on goal and the ball spun clear to McMahon who saw Moore again save his shot, before Howe warmed the keeper’s hands once more.
But worse was to come for Howe as a long clearance sent substitute Lloyd Macklin racing over the halfway line. Howe raced across to cover but the Basingstoke player went flying over his challenge and, after the referee initially pursued Aiden Palmer for the foul, he was corrected by his assistant and red-carded Howe. The Fleet defender was just about last man, but whether he was was denying a “clear” goalscoring opportunity was debatable.
The visitors rightly celebrated at the final whistle, knowing they had somehow earned a path into the next round, while Fleet will need to rake over the bones of this and the midweek league fixture to see why two decent performances have left them all but empty-handed.
TEAM: Hall, Howe, Palmer, McMahon, Acheampong, Huke, Johnson (Godden), Rance, Sheringham, Bricknell, Cook. Subs not used: Edwards, Sessegnon, Corcoran, Clark, Mazzone, Sanderson