You have to go back to the last century (1999 to be precise) to find a time when the Fleet weren’t in the hat for the 4th Qualifying Round draw – and Ben May made sure that run was maintained as he ended the afternoon just the width of a crossbar away from scoring a hat-trick as Eastbourne’s miserable record of never having beaten the Fleet continued.
Steve Brown made one enforced change to his side, an ill Shane Huke taking a place on the substitute’s bench as a precaution, with Osei Sankofa replacing him alongside Paul Lorraine. And Sankofa, whose other start this season came against Folkestone in the previous round, put in a commanding aerial performance in the first half as both sides played it long to their front men, the visitors showing first when Darren Lok fired a low shot just past the post.
Fleet soon began to establish control and could have taken the lead in the seventh minute when May, with his back to goal, launched a ball over his shoulder that Billy Bricknell brought down and one-on-one with goalkeeper Craig Ross, he tried to pick his spot but Ross did enough to block the shot.
Ten minutes after that, Fleet took the lead. Anthony Cook’s curling free-kick was tipped over the upright by Ross and the Fleet winger delivered the resulting corner for May to climb highest and power home a header. Fleet threatened from every set piece and were duly rewarded once again when the same Cook-May combination produced a second goal on 28 minutes. Cook floated in a free-kick from 25 yards that held up in the six-yard box and May ran in to meet it and nod it over Ross for 2-0.
Goals aside, May was once again turning in a decent performance and engaged in an aerial battle with former Dover teammate Ian Simpemba who grew visibly frustrated as the first-half wore on. The visitors struggled to find any fluidity with only veteran Gary Hart giving the Fleet back line anything to think about, with Sankofa and Paul Lorraine mopping up everything in the air.
Eastbourne hauled off their midweek hat-trick hero Chris Shephard after half-time for teenage prodigy Elliot Levy and though they enjoyed more possession in the second period, it was Fleet who came closest to scoring once again. A lovely move on 51 minutes saw Joe Howe’s run down the flank turned inside to Stacy Long – on two minutes earlier for the injured Daryl McMahon – and he fed Alex Osborn who crossed low for the onrushing Ben May. With a hat-trick in his sights, May somehow scooped the ball high against the crossbar from a matter of yards.
That was the last clear sight of goal Fleet enjoyed as they sat back to absorb the little pressure that Eastbourne threw at them. Chris Sessegnon replaced Billy Bricknell on 72 minutes as the home side went 4-5-1 and Boro started to look a little more threatening though didn’t fashion anything that troubled Edwards. Fleet nearly did it for them, however, when Aiden Palmer failed to clear and Hart’s reaction shot drew an equally speedy response from Edwards who saved with his legs.
Dean Rance picked up his sixth booking of the season as he put himself about in midfield, while Cook continued to run the flanks to provide May with some service. But any chance of a hat-trick went with one final chance as Long and May passed it between them on the edge of the Eastbourne box but their attempts to walk the ball into the net came to nought.
So Fleet go into the hat for the Fourth Qualifying Round for the 14th year in succession – and pocket another £7,500 in the process.
TEAM: Edwards, Howe, Palmer, McMahon (Long 49), Lorraine, Sankofa, Osborn, Rance (Corcoran 89), May, Bricknell (Sessegnon 72), Cook. Subs not used: Hall, Huke, Green, Phipp.