Fleet’s promotion dream was undone in the final seconds of extra-time as a late equaliser saw the visitors through to a penalty shootout in which they prevailed to take the place in the National League for 2016/17.
Danny Kedwell’s two penalty conversions in the 120 minutes looked to have given the Fleet the edge but, cruelly, he was the man to miss the crucial spot kick in the shootout that saw the Stones through at Stonebridge Road.
Daryl McMahon made two changes to his line-up, bringing in Tom Bonner at full-back and Jordan Parkes out wide, with Dean Pooley dropping to the bench and Anthony Cook missing out altogether. And the home side were on the back foot early on as Maidstone came out full of purpose, penning Fleet into the final third and forcing a number of set pieces. A header from Jay May was cleared off the line in only the third minute as corners and the long throw of Alex Flisher initially unsettled the men in red.
Fleet’s first real sight of goal didn’t come until 11 minutes into the game, with Matt Godden’s chance easily held by Lee Worgan. Several more Stones corners saw Nathan Ashmore having to save from Vas Karagiannis as a goalmouth scramble almost resulted in the visitors getting their noses in front.
However, it was Fleet who did that on 20 minutes as Stuart Lewis drove into the box and as the Maidstone defenders came across to clear, the referee spotted a handball and awarded a penalty. Kedwell duly converted and the Fleet were a goal to the good in a match of few chances.
The goal seemed to give the home side a lift and they looked much more interested in proceedings for the remainder of the half. Dean Rance had a header cleared out of the box from a free-kick and Sam Deering lashed one over the bar as the home midfield maintained possession far better than when they’d started the game. However, the Stones still looked dangerous from every set piece they launched into the Fleet box and Ashmore did well to block an effort from Karagiannis before Anthony Acheampong got in the way of a corner that seemed destined to fall for Flisher in the penalty area.
Fleet held out to half-time but their hard-won lead was surrendered only a minute into the second half. Winger Bobby-Jo Taylor skipped down the left, managed to force his way past Bonner and then evaded two further tackles as he cut in and struck a low shot into the far corner for the equaliser.
The second half progressed in a fairly cagey fashion, Worgan spilling a free-kick into Parkes’ path the only real chance for the Fleet at that stage but it was cleared out of the six-yard box. Taylor almost repeated his trick for the goal by getting behind the Fleet back line a second time but Ashmore was quickly off his line to gather that one. Fleet ended the half strongly and had a number of half-chances, Parkes twice denied and a Kedwell header was hacked away by Worgan before the goalkeeper got down very well at the foot of the post to push away a Bonner header.
Into extra-time and neither side seemed to have the guile to win it in a drab first period, where Ashmore’s speed off his line broke up an excellent Maidstone attack that saw Flisher in space before Godden flashed one across goal at the other end. It all seemed to be heading towards the inevitable penalty shootout but three minutes into the second period, it looked like it would all be settled by a single penalty. One more Fleet attack brought about another handball call by the referee and he again pointed to the spot. Kedwell stepped up again and smashed his spot-kick high into the net to lift the roof off Stonebridge Road as the advantage in a game of so few chances seemed to be absolute.
Fleet defended their lead well for the remaining 10 minutes and the Stones, though they passed the ball across midfield looking for an opening, didn’t seem likely to find a chink in the red wall in front of them. But, as the board went up for the two minutes of added time, Maidstone launched one last attack. With Fleet standing off, another cross came in from the left and as the red shirts threw bodies in the way, the ball kept falling to a Maidstone player and substitute Dumebi Dumaka managed to see enough of the goal to send a shot past a sprawling Ashmore to finish the game on an unbelievable note.
And so, as it was six days before, a penalty shootout ensued. Maidstone’s first three went to plan, with Parkes and Charlie Sheringham burying Fleet’s. Bonner’s miss wasn’t as costly as it seemed as Dumaka’s effort was saved by Ashmore, but with conversions by Godden and Dan Sweeney it was effectively sudden death when Kedwell’s third penalty of the afternoon was saved by Worgan. And in that simple act, Maidstone’s ascent to the National League was confirmed while Fleet’s season was over and the National League South beckons for 2016/17.
EUFC: Ashmore, Bonner, Howe, Lewis (Sheringham 120), Acheampong, Clark, Deering (Kissock 57), Rance, Kedwell, Godden, Parkes. Subs not used: Miles, Pooley, Shields.
MUFC: Worgan, Driver, Mills, Coyle, Parry, Rogers (Paxman 111), Karagiannis (Dumaka 81), Healy, May (Sweeney 87), Taylor, Flisher. Subs not used: Davies, Godmon