THE FLEET KEEP A HAND ON THE FA TROPHY WITH JAMIE’S WINNER…
EBBSFLEET UNITED 2-1 STALYBRIDGE CELTIC
Report by Ed Miller
The Fleet kept their grasp on the FA Trophy courtesy of a second-half fightback against a resolute Stalybridge side who had taken the lead midway through the first half. Goals in quick succession from Stacy Long and Jamie Hand turned the game on its head and saw Fleet through to the next round, a home tie against Swindon Supermarine on January 31. It was the Fleet’s first win since beating Bognor in the opening round of the Trophy a month ago but for long periods of the game, it looked as if the visitors were on course for an upset. The Fleet worked hard for an equaliser but seemed unable to ignite a spark that would blow open the Celtic defence.
It was a much-changed Fleet line-up tonight as Kezie Ibe was rewarded for his goal on New Year’s Day with a place in the starting line-up at the expense of Luke Moore, while Mark Ricketts, James Smith, Jamie Hand, George Purcell and Craig Stone all won a recall. And the home side started with a spring in their step, forcing an early corner and getting George Pucell into wide positions from which he was able to attack his opposing full-back. Purcell was getting a lot of time on the ball and firing off a succession of fine crosses that Michael Gash and Stone almost got on the end of.
But the visitors soon came back into it and once they’d settled, they exhibited a calm and controlled passing game, orchestrated by winger and former Halifax player Steve Torpey whose touch and vision stood out. Dean Pooley was unsettled by the height of Nathan Joynes and Matty Barlow, while front man Lee Ellington was also getting into good positions behind the Fleet defence. Celtic grew in confidence as they weathered the initial Fleet momentum and Torpey let fly from distance with a shot that troubled Lance Cronin while Terry Barwick had a good effort also beaten away by the Fleet keeper.
As the Fleet were increasingly pegged back in their own half, the visitors made the most of their ascendancy. On 23 minutes, Hand dwelt far too long on the ball near the centre circle and was easily robbed by Keith Briggs. He supplied Torpey who made ground down the middle and caught a static Fleet defence off-guard by playing the ball wide to Joynes who shot past Cronin from the left edge of the penalty area to give Stalybridge the lead.
Gash and Hand had half chances for the Fleet but in truth Stalybridge looked fairly comfortable, with Torpey dashing from wing to wing, controlling the midfield with Briggs’ assistance and the visitors building up from the back and utilising the long ball sparingly but effectively for Ellington to run onto. With Celtic’s defence having got the measure of Purcell and with Gash finding himself facing an uphill struggle against the big men at the back, Meynell and Smart, the pressure was off the visitors and they enjoyed the luxury of space in midfield to spray passes around. Purcell hit the side netting after good work down the left late on and Ibe almost got on the end of a Stone cross as he went in on goalkeeper Paul Phillips on the goalline.
Liam Daish resisted the impulse to change things too early in the second half but the faith he showed wasn’t repaid by his players who carried on in much the same vein. The Fleet certainly enjoyed more possession and began to press Stalybridge back into their own half, but there was little of note to trouble Phillips. With an equaliser looking more remote as time went on, Daish chose a double substitution, taking off Ricketts and Ibe and bringing on Moore and Ricky Shakes, with Craig Stone dropping back into defence.
Moore’s running off the ball certainly gave the visitors something new to think about but too often the Fleet were guilty of trying to walk the ball into the back of the net as they clustered around the Stalybridge box and passed it to and fro without anybody taking a meaningful shot at goal. But as fans’ frustrations threatened to boil over, the Fleet made the pressure tell on 63 minutes. A long ball into Moore found the Fleet striker in the box with his back to goal and he laid it off for Stacy Long who stroked the ball home through a gap as Stalybridge defenders closed on him. It was Fleet’s first goal at Stonebridge Road since December 6.
Suddenly the mood lifted as the Fleet fans saw that the Trophy title was still theirs and it took their players only five more minutes to make sure of it. Shakes, who had looked determined and useful since his introduction, found the ball at his feet from a Long pass but he let it drift past him for Hand to run onto and the Fleet midfielder atoned for his earlier error by placing a brilliant low shot into the bottom corner of the net from 20 yards out.
It seemed to knock the stuffing out of a Stalybridge side who could not find the same fluidity as they had shown in the first half and with their star player Torpey forced ever deeper, their strikers looked starved of service. With Shakes doing a fine job of stopping any attacks down the Fleet right and Moore keeping the visiting defenders on their toes, the Fleet didn’t seem unduly troubled as they saw the dying minutes out.
That was until stoppage time, however, when Smart set Barlow free down the left and his cross found substitute Nick Platt in a central position but somehow the header was straight at Cronin who nevertheless reacted smartly to stop an otherwise certain equaliser. That let-off saved Fleet a long trip north next week and handed them a potential route to the quarter-finals with Swindon Supermarine standing in their way at the end of the month.
TEAM: Cronin, Ricketts (Shakes 58), Opinel, Smith, Pooley, Hand, Stone, Long (Barrett 88), Purcell, Ibe (Moore 58), Gash. Subs not used: Mott, Hawkins.