Fleet cemented their mid-table position with a somewhat laborious victory over struggling Kettering Town – but missed several gilt-edged chances in the process.
With one change to the starting line-up, Liam Bellamy replacing Tom Phipp, Fleet could certainly boast a strong substitute’s bench with the returning Calum Willock and Ram Marwa joining Phipp on the sidelines.
The opening spell set the tone for the game, with little of note happening as Kettering looked to build on their midweek win but without offering any real threat going forward. Fleet took a while to get going, Gozie Ugwu’s header scrambled out of the six-yard box aside, but the strike force soon found some rhythm against a Poppies back line that never looked too confident.
And the home side took the lead on 20 minutes when Ricky Shakes nipped in to poach David Bridges’ soft back header and flashed a shot past goalkeeper Laurie Walker who stood rooted to his line. Fleet could have scored a second minutes later when Ugwu got clear of the Kettering back line and lofted a ball over Walker but it was just off target.
On the half-hour mark, another great chance came Fleet’s way when Poppies’ player-manager Ashley Westwood was caught in possession by Liam Enver-Marum and the striker bore down on goal with only the goalkeeper to beat – but Walker stood firm and blocked Enver-Marum’s attempted chip.
With Ugwu and Shakes bright in the final third, Fleet looked desperate for a second and contained Kettering to a handful of half-chances, Cronin punching away Danny Mills’ effort and James Gray striking a shot over the bar.
The second half, much like the first, was marked by several good chances for the home side and a considerable lull in play otherwise. One of those chances came on 54 minutes and really should have been a second goal. Ugwu gathered the ball inside the box and held off the defender as Walker came out to gather. A shot seemed the most likely path to goal but Ugwu looked to walk it in, jinking in and out of several challenges before getting round a prone Walker only to somehow blaze the ball over the bar from four yards.
Liam Daish replaced a somewhat unfortunate Liam Bellamy with Marwa, and soon after that Michael West made way for Nathaniel Pinney, but it didn’t change the balance of the game unduly. Kettering dug in and Fleet’s failure to hit the target again gave the visitors some encouragement, though Cronin was bothered only by long-range shots and a couple of efforts from set pieces that he gamely plucked from the air.
Enver-Marum and Ugwu continued to threaten, the former supplying the latter with a ball across goal that Djoumin Sangare hacked away in the six-yard box, while the offside flag frustrated the two strikers on more than one occasion.
Ugwu made way for Phipp on 77 minutes and the Fleet No.11 had two chances to give his side some breathing space near the end, first sliding in to divert Shakes’ low cross past the post, and then firing a decent low shot just wide in time added on.
Kettering’s lack of adventure in the final third was their undoing as they might have capitalised on Fleet’s inability to register another goal, and the home defence had to maintain concentration throughout, but it was another important three points for Daish’s side as they edge ever-closer to the magic 50-point mark.
TEAM: Cronin, Stone, Howe, Lorraine, Smith, Barrett, West (Pinney 66), Bellamy (Marwa 54), Shakes, Enver-Marum, Ugwu (Phipp 78). Subs not used: McNeil, Willock.
Gozie Ugwu won man of the match v Darlington. Vote for today’s game using drop-down menu above.