There were plenty of observations upon Dennis Kutrieb’s appointment that Fleet would be ruthless from the spot given German proficiency in penalty shootouts and so it proved as the manager’s first game was decided on spot-kicks.
But credit to Hastings United who pushed Fleet all the way and were indeed only moments from victory as they led 2-1 going into time added on before Ben Chapman’s very well struck equaliser kept his side in the competition.
It’s Fleet who progress into the Emirates FA Cup Third Qualifying Round but the Isthmian South-East club must have thought they were there only for late heartbreak.
Fleet’s first competitive match under Kutrieb saw a few surprises sprung given how the manager had lined up towards the end of pre-season, while the Hastings defence contained the familiar figure of Craig Stone.
The opening exchanges were marked by a couple of challenges the referee quickly clamped down on, showing yellow cards to Fleet’s Tobi Adebayo-Rowling and Josh Payne within the first 10 minutes, Payne’s tackle producing an angry reaction from the opposition.
Hastings were the first to get sight of goal on eight minutes, the impressive wide man Tom Chalmers beating Tom Hadler to take advantage of an errant pass, but fortunately for the home side, Adebayo-Rowling was on hand to steer it clear of the line.
Fleet’s passing was assured but lacked the fluency at times to get behind Hastings and the visitors fancied their chances when Aaron Capon’s header wasn’t far off on 24 minutes.
And four minutes later they really should have been ahead when Jake Elliott showed great technique to launch a cross for Kenny Pogue who headed over from no more than six yards out.
There was another booking for each side as Hadler and Adebayo-Rowling needed treatment in a collision with Capon, while James Dobson also saw yellow.
Fleet skirted around the edges of the Hastings box and a couple of crosses were tempting for the front men but nothing was quite coming off in the final third as the visitors, clearly building on their almost-promotion prior to Covid’s intervention last season, went in at the break with the wind in their sails.
Perhaps sensing that, Kutrieb shuffled his line-up, bringing on Jack Paxman and Rakish Bingham. And it was Paxman who raised the stakes for the Fleet almost immediately.
He was busy in midfield from the whistle as Fleet suddenly rained in a few crosses and eight minutes in the substitute had his side’s best opportunity. Bingham and Lee Martin showed quick thinking in an exchange of passes and shaping for the shot, Paxman pulled the trigger and rattled the corner of the crossbar with his effort.
Hadler saved from Elliot who got half a yard of space in the box before the incident in the other box that turned the game Fleet’s way. Stone was unhappy to be penalised when an attempted Adebayo-Rowling cross struck his arm on 58 minutes and Martin fired the resulting spot-kick home for 1-0.
No sooner had the Kuflink Stadium settled into a Fleet lead than Hastings were back on terms. Bringing top scorer Ben Pope off the bench, in their very next attack his delivery opened up the Fleet defence, Oliver Black’s shot was blocked and Pogue was there to fire a tame effort under Hadler – but it crossed the line nonetheless.
Both sides upped the tempo and Bingham smashed an Adam Mekki cross just wide while Ryan Worrall’s delivery at the other end should have yielded more as Fleet just managed to clear that. Pope, meanwhile, crashed one wide of the post when he looked odds-on to score.
Goodman’s looping header was tipped over by Louis Rogers from a Dobson free-kick before Hadler sprung into action at the other end, denying substitute Marcus Goldsmith from point-blank range and then making a follow-up stop as Hastings pressed and menaced the Fleet defence.
Hadler saved twice more as Hastings finished the game strongly but the warnings from the visitors weren’t heeded and they seemed sure to have won it four minutes from time. Worrall found Elliott and the visitors’ quick-thinking passing left space for Sam Adams to drift in on the left of the box. A ball out to him was only going to result in one thing as he duly slotted past Hadler for 2-1.
Fleet threw on Charlie Rowan in the closing moments as Hastings did their best to snuff out all threat. But two minutes into stoppage time, they conceded one last corner and the home side capitalised. Elliott’s clearance went only as far as Chapman and he struck a true, crisp volley, burying it past Rogers.
Having progressed courtesy of penalties in the last round, Hastings had some form going into the decider. But understandably they were deflated and even more so four kicks into the shootout as Hadler saved brilliantly from Worrall and Chalmers in quick succession to leave Fleet needing only Bingham to slot home the last kick. He did so with confidence and with that Hastings’ hearts were broken.
EUFC: Hadler, Adebayo-Rowling, Wood, Goodman, Dobson, Mekki, Payne, Chapman, West (Paxman 46), Martin, Grant (Bingham 46). Subs not used: Holmes, Allen, Cundle, Egan
HUFC: Rogers, Black, Worrall, Elphick, Stone, Elliott, Adams, Chalmers, Pogue (Goldsmith 71), Capon (Pope 59), Ward.