The Fleet won’t leave it much later to score a winner this season and Myles Weston’s strike, deep into stoppage time, capped a furious final 13 minutes and guided his side into Round Two of the Buildbase FA Trophy.
Eastleigh might feel hard done by having netted an instant equaliser after Danny Kedwell had opened the scoring for the Fleet on 77 minutes but home fans will highlight the hard work and spirit that saw their side over the line, particularly the quality of Weston who dictated most of the forward play throughout the afternoon.
As promised, Daryl McMahon named a strong side, making only one change as skipper Dave Winfield started his first game for four months, with Jack Connors dropping to the bench. On a cold, grey day, the game took a while to warm up with Fleet slow out of the blocks. Eastleigh showed some power up front through Chris Zebroski and Bradley Hudson-Odoi found a gap in defence to aim a shot at goal but he pulled it wide.
Weston, whose recent displays have been at the heart of much of Fleet’s own good form, threaded an excellent pass across goal to the feet of Sean Shields on nine minutes but Callum Howe hacked away the resulting cross. A minute later, another fine period of play handed the home side their best chance of the half. Under pressure, Shields found Powell with a delicate pass. Powell in turn switched play with another great ball through that Shields ran on to but with both he and Kedwell going for the same pass, there was some confusion and though Kedwell got the ball around goalkeeper Stack, he was forced wide and the shot crept past the post.
The pace of the game picked up but neither side could force a clear-cut chance. Powell hit a low drive just before the half-hour mark that took a touch off the surface but Stack was behind it and gathered it. Eastleigh then immediately attacked at the other end and Nathan Ashmore had to save from Zebroski. The former Torquay striker had an even better chance a few minutes later when, with his back to goal and six yards out, he fought off the Fleet defence to create some space, turned and let fly but Ashmore managed to block the effort.
There was one last half-chance for the Fleet when Chris Bush showed some skill to battle for the ball and find Shields and the Fleet winger beat his man but struck his cross too hard across goal.
While the first half entertained in fits and starts, the second saved all its highlights for the final period. Fleet began eagerly enough and when an excellent long ball forward courtesy of Shields found Weston, his cross into Drury eight yards out was most promising. Drury cushioned a header back to Kedwell lurking on the 18-yard line but the shot was unable to draw a save from Stack.
The visitors enjoyed a good spell after that with Hudson-Odoi stretching Bush down the Fleet left and the former Wealdstone and Sutton player might have scored on 54 minutes when only Shields stood in his way and Ashmore diverted his shot out for a corner. Zebroski also flashed a header right across the face of the Fleet goal as Eastleigh suddenly fancied their chances of taking the tie and McCallum’s headed effort from inside the box forced Ashmore into an acrobatic save.
But the home side managed to settle and some decent defending via Winfield and Kenny Clark saw out the threat, McMahon introducing Connors and Dean Rance to halt the advance of blue shirts. Connors’ introduction was instrumental in creating the opening goal on 77 minutes. With Shields battling to stay in possession, Connors helped him out and advanced quickly into Eastleigh territory before resupplying Shields. His cross flew across goal as Weston couldn’t get a foot but it reached Kedwell. He still had plenty to do with defenders in front of him, so with one touch and a turn inside, he created space and picked his spot with a well-placed shot past Stack.
The roar which greeted that suggested Fleet fans thought they were through but fewer than three minutes later, it seemed it was all back to Eastleigh on Tuesday. With Fleet lying deep, Sam Matthews had room to deliver a cross and inside a packed box, Cav Miley got a head to it and directed it out of Ashmore’s reach for the equaliser.
Neither side particularly wanted a replay and it made for an entertaining last 10 minutes. Weston’s cross found Kedwell in a similar position to where he scored but this time the visiting defence got in the way.
With three minutes of stoppage time to play, Fleet fans seemed resigned to a replay in Hampshire and even when Weston collected the ball at the death, there seemed little on. He might have been better advised to find a teammate as he pondered his options on the edge of the Eastleigh box but instead he spotted a gap and arrowed a low shot through the defence and beyond the goalkeeper to haul the home support in the Kuflink Stadium out of their seats in appreciation.
Tune in Monday for the Round Two draw!
EUFC: Ashmore, Magri, Bush (Connors 75), Clark, Winfield, Drury, Powell, Weston, Shields, Coulson (Rance 75), Kedwell. Subs not used: McCoy, McLean, Miles
EFC: Stack, Hoyte, Wood, Howe, Boyce, Hollands, Hudson-Odoi (Yeates 65), Miley, Matthews, McCallum, Zebroski (Constable 84). Subs not used: Obileye, Read, Shaw