Fleet stopped the rot, achieved their only draw of 2012 so far and – more importantly – gained the point that finally assures Blue Square Premier football next season.
In wet conditions, and on a bumpy pitch, Liam Daish opted to start Tom Phipp and Liam Bellamy in place of Ricky Shakes and Neil Barrett against a large, physical Braintree side who had enjoyed a confidence-boosting victory over Luton two days earlier. And the home side started well when Craig Stone’s lofted pass beat the Braintree back line and Calum Willock sprinted clear but he delayed his shot for far too long, allowing goalkeeper Nathan McDonald to block.
But Braintree’s heavyweight front pairing of Ben Wright and Sean Marks were giving Fleet’s central defenders a fair bit of bother and it was left to Stone on two or three occasions to mop up as the visitors combined close control in midfield with power up front. Twice Lance Cronin was called into action, first to deny Matt Paine’s header on 18 minutes and then, more crucially, to divert Wright’s drive over the bar after Paul Lorraine failed to clear his lines.
Fleet came back and after Michael West spread play wide to Liam Enver-Marum, a delivery for Willock was headed just over the crossbar. But the Fleet No.9 wasn’t to be denied for long. On the half-hour mark he tried to get a shot away under pressure and was bundled to the ground by Paine. Up he stepped and after an inventive shimmy, Willock tucked away the penalty for his first Fleet goal since January.
The lead lasted only four minutes, however, as Braintree were first denied a rather optimistic shout for a penalty and then immediately awarded a dubious one when Marks collapsed under the faintest of contact from Smith. Wright’s drive into the net gave Cronin no chance and it was 1-1.
Fleet closed out the half when Ram Marwa fired off a shot from West’s set piece, but McDonald was equal to it and the sides went in at the break all square.
That situation didn’t change in a goalless second half that Fleet edged as they snuffed out the threat of Wright and Marks and so enjoyed more possession and chances in what was a largely dormant 45 minutes. Johnny Herd replaced a limping Joe Howe on 56 minutes and Ricky Shakes and Nathaniel Pinney later saw action, Shakes unfortunate to see the ball bobble awkwardly as he shaped to shoot from 10 yards, while Pinney broke clear of the Iron defence but showed too much of the ball to Paine who hacked clear.
At the other end, Billy Gibson just cleared the crossbar with an effort but it was as close as Braintree came. Fleet, with Marwa, Bellamy, West and Enver-Marum doing plenty of running, ably supported by man-of-the-match Stone from the back, kept pressing and really should have had a penalty when Willock was tugged to the ground by Paine in an incident that seemed more deserving of the whistle than the Marks-Smith tussle of the first half. Twice, also, the referee frustrated players and fans when he pulled play back for fouls, the second time with Pinney in a good position inside the box.
Fleet had two final chances, first when Smith was inches away from a ball to the far post and then with time ticking away, Enver-Marum’s free-kick forced McDonald into a low save.
But Daish’s side will just feel glad to have finally reached the 50-point mark and achieved safety four games early as fans look forward to a strange feeling of relaxtion as April progresses.
TEAM: Cronin, Stone, Howe (Herd 56), Lorraine, Smith, Marwa, Bellamy, Phipp (Shakes 71), West, Enver-Marum, Willock (Pinney 80). Subs not used: McNeil, Barrett.
Paul Lorraine won man of the match v FGR. Vote now for today using drop-down menu above.