Sixteen years apart, it took another last-minute Notts County goal at the Swanscombe End to steal a replay at Meadow Lane from Fleet’s grasp. This time, however, the home fans were convinced they were at least in the draw for Round 2 after Gozie Ugwu’s penalty a minute from time had levelled the scores.
It was tough on the Fleet who had led with a contender for goal of the round via Josh Payne, though in between that and the grandstand finish, the visitors were tight, controlled and showing why they have risen up the league table.
Kevin Watson made four changes to his side, Jack King returning from suspension, together with Alex Lawless, Alfie Egan and Jordan Holmes, meaning Jamie Grimes, Frankie Sutherland and Harry Palmer were on the bench. Loanee Albie Morgan was also out as he had not been given permission by Charlton.
County have been known for patient approach play and they were happy to let Fleet dictate the pace in the opening five minutes and twice Myles Weston tested Damien McCrory with a couple of runs down the flank.
The game had hardly settled down when Josh Payne brought everyone off their seats with a wonderful goal. Seven minutes in, Alex Reid chased a lost cause down the left. County half-cleared their lines but Payne gained possession 35-40 yards out from King’s intervention and whipped a fantastic dipping shot that beat the stretch of goalkeeper Sam Slocombe and thundered in beneath the bar.
That unsettled County’s gameplan for a spell and Fleet were good value for their lead. Payne was snappy in midfield, supported by the tireless Egan and measured play of Lawless.
Reid ran on to a good pass from Lawless four minutes later but it just took a touch off a County defender and on 16 minutes Tyler Cordner’s powerful shot was blocked in the box. Slocombe had to punch a couple of crosses clear as Fleet went in search of a second that might have taken any wind from the visitors’ sails.
Neal Ardley’s side had come back from 2-0 down last weekend, however, and they began to stamp some authority on the match. Playing a measured, possession game with passes along the back line and through midfield, they had Fleet chasing the ball without troubling Jordan Holmes.
The Fleet goalkeeper had to be alert to Wes Thomas’s overhead kick, though, when Cordner’s clearance was cut out on the edge of the box.
Back came the Fleet and Payne’s free-kick clipped the County wall before flying behind for a corner. And the goalscorer then set Reid free and his run into the box and low cross just skipped beyond Ugwu.
But County were level in controversial fashion on 34 minutes. A dubiously awarded corner was whipped in with pace by Regan Booty and with a Fleet defender being held down, Kyle Wootton hit a shot on target through a crowd that was scrambled away by Andre Blackman but the assistant referee flagged it had crossed the line.
The remainder of the half passed without incident, though referee Carl Brook had to wave away protesting players as they disappeared down the tunnel.
Fleet struggled to get much tempo going after the restart and the visitors continued their spell of control, though again without much cutting edge.
Thomas should have done better with a chance on 48 minutes, however, when he was afforded plenty of time and space on the right flank but he lashed his shot well over Holmes’ bar.
But when given the opportunity came, County looked capable of stepping it up and they did so on 58 minutes. Thomas turned Cordner 40 yards out and with a spring in his step raced forward, spreading play to Wootton who with just as much accuracy and speed of thought arrowed a fine shot beyond Holmes into the far corner.
For a spell, Fleet’s defence looked stretched and Enzio Boldewijn exploited some gaps to fire an effort just wide, moments after the home side had escaped a counterattack.
Josh Umerah was introduced just past the hour mark and it sparked Fleet into a slow but steady revival. Weston began to tease play wide and draw County’s midfield further apart and his cross on 65 minutes saw Ugwu head at Slocombe, but without real power.
Reid and Umerah saw close-range shots blocked as County were forced into some frantic defending before Cordner powered a header just wide of the post from a corner.
On 71 minutes, another Weston run carved another chance with Ugwu on the end of it from 10 yards. Slocombe got a hand to it to push it away and on to the post and Richard Brindley had to bundle it off the line.
The visitors were defending for all their worth but still showed they had some cutting edge when Holmes got down low to a Thomas shot and Damien McCrory found space to wrap things up but side-footed a poor effort wide.
Fleet threw men forward and four minutes from the end, Ugwu flicked on a header beyond the County defence, Umerah just getting to the ball before Slocombe and he lobbed the goalkeeper, who got a slight touch to divert it wide.
A minute from the end, Fleet got the final chance they needed. Blackman raced into the box and his low cross was adjudged to have hit Brindley’s arm and the referee pointed to the spot. Ugwu made no mistake with his third spot kick in four games and Fleet fans were suddenly consulting train times to Nottingham.
That proved a false dawn, however, as the equaliser prodded Notts County into life in the four minutes of time added on. Wootton should have scored from a position 10 yards out but Holmes made an excellent reaction save and the visitors forced two corners. From the second of Booty’s deliveries, Ben Turner climbed highest, beating Blackman at the back post to nod the ball into the roof of the net for the winner.
Fleet fans have felt the dejection of last-minute goals in FA Cup ties on several occasions and once more that feeling greeted the final whistle. On the plus side, however, it was another battling performance by Watson’s men and one to build on in the coming weeks as attention returns to the more urgent league situation.
EUFC: Holmes, Ekpiteta, King, Cordner, Weston, Blackman, Lawless (Umerah 63), Egan (Sutherland 67), Payne, Reid (Adeloye 81), Ugwu. Subs not used: Palmer, Obileye, Wilson, Grimes
NCFC: Slocombe, Rawlinson, Brindley, McCrory, Rose, Turner, Doyle, Boudewijn, Booty (Bakayogo 90), Wootton, Thomas (Tyson 86). Subs not used: Kean, Dennis, Kelly-Evans, Osbourne