Fleet’s central defenders came up trumps as both scored headers to peg back Salisbury City and rescue a point for the home side. And the Fleet ended the season as they began it, with a 2-2 draw against opponents in white featuring a last-minute equaliser – though this time it was Liam Daish’s side who benefitted from the late goal.
Today’s draw makes it six years since the Fleet have enjoyed a win on the last day of the season but with little more than pride and 14th place to play for, there was never any question that the game was going to be anything other than typical end-of-season fare.
For the Fleet’s 15th match inside a month, a run that began against Salisbury on March 24, James Smith was back in defence for his first appearance in eight games and Darius Charles returned at left back, with Jamie Stevens missing out through injury and Rashid Yussuff relegated to the bench.
The visitors really should have been in front inside the opening five minutes when Matt Tubbs raced onto Charlie Griffin’s through ball as the Fleet defenders appealed for offside. A flag was not forthcoming and as Paul McCarthy and Smith floundered in his wake, Tubbs somehow missed the target, striking the ball wide of Lance Cronin’s post.
The Whites continued to press and had another couple of chances as the Fleet struggled to get going. First, on 18 minutes, Tubbs struck from close range but Smith got a good block in and two minutes later Darrell Clarke fired a low shot through a crowd of players from the edge of the box but with the bottom corner of the goal gaping, Charles deflected it away for a corner.
Stacy Long was attempting to orchestrate things in the middle for the Fleet but their distribution from the back was poor and front pairing Ricky Shakes and Kezie Ibe struggled to make any impact against Salisbury’s physical back line.
And just past the half-hour mark, the visitors went in front with an individual goal not unlike Mark Ricketts’ winner against Wrexham on Tuesday. Winger Robbie Sinclair accepted a pass from Griffin down the right and he cut inside, drove forward into the middle with the Fleet defence backing off before launching a well-placed strike into the bottom right of the goal that eluded Cronin’s outstretched arm.
The Fleet responded inside three minutes, Luke Moore turning to evade Michael Fowler’s challenge before his quick feet dashed off a shot that flew just past the post in what was the Fleet’s best opportunity of the half. Ian Herring and Tubbs again took advantaged of a lacklustre Fleet defence before the first half closed out as Salisbury went into the dressing room good value for their lead.
The visitors were kept waiting for the Fleet in the second half as Daish gave what may prove to be the last half-time team talk to many of his players and he brought Yussuff on for Moore. And the Fleet were back on level terms inside six minutes. Shakes won a free kick wide on the right which Long delivered but Griffin managed to head clear. From the resulting Long corner, McCarthy got his head where it mattered and directed it through a crowd into the net giving James Bittner no chance.
The Fleet were looking a little more positive and both Long from a free kick and Michael West from inside the box had decent opportunities that they blasted over the bar. But Salisbury gradually forced their way back into things and the ever-threatening Sinclair headed narrowly over in the 73rd minute, a move which he started and finished.
And City should have gone ahead in the 82nd minute when Griffin wrestled the ball free from Ricketts in a dangerous position and ran through on goal, firing low and hard but Cronin stopped it with one hand and managed to gather the loose ball before Salisbury could follow up.
But the Fleet were all at sea, their concentration perhaps shot by off-field antics when a flare was thrown onto the pitch, and the visitors took advantage in the 84th minute, Sean Clohessy crossing deep to find Tubbs who headed past Cronin and made for the corner where City fans were celebrating as if they’d won the league.
It was a premature celebration, however, as the Fleet had a couple more set pieces to make amends. Both McCarthy and Smith went close with headers from corners before a last-minute corner from Long floated towards the far post and Smith had a successful second bite at the cherry, heading past Bittner to give the Fleet a point and keep them above Salisbury in the table.
An uncharacteristic lap of honour ensued by all the squad and management, leaving many fans to ponder exactly how many of these Fleet players will be back again for pre-season training. Either way, they leave the Fleet still in the Premier Division after a titantic struggle in recent weeks and their professionalism and dedication gives them all a well-earned holiday, regardless of their footballing futures.
TEAM: Cronin, Pooley (Purcell 68), Charles, Smith, McCarthy, West, Ricketts, Long, Shakes, Moore (Yussuff 46), Ibe.
Subs Not Used: Mott, Opinel, Sole.