Fleet responded from the setback of conceding first to take the lead but they eventually settled for a draw against a strong and impressive Eastleigh side.
With Ryan Blake in Wales for U21 duty with Northern Ireland, Liam Daish was forced to reshuffle his defence, recalling Derek Duncan, and he drafted in Joe Howe at right back in place of Craig Stone. Michael West also earned a start at the expense of Conor Okus.
The opening period was unremarkable but the game exploded into life on 11 minutes when a cross into the box pinged around the Fleet goal until ex-Grays and Oxford striker Jamie Slabber stabbed the ball home.
But Fleet were not behind for long. On the quarter-hour mark, after Ashley Carew had done very well to win a free-kick, Duncan whipped in a mid-height cross from the left and Calum Willock nipped in ahead of his marker to place a header beyond goalkeeper Jason Matthews.
Physically strong, pacy and dangerous going forward, Eastleigh looked like one of the better sides at Stonebridge Road this season and Clint Easton was involved in numerous tussles with Slabber.
Eastleigh were most potent down their right side with the impressive Sean McAuley getting wide at every opportunity and delivering a series of quality crosses. Slabber thought he had regained the lead for the visitors when he headed home just such a cross on 19 minutes but to the relief of home fans, the linesman’s flag was raised.
The Fleet were equally strong on the attack, however, and Michael West had the best opportunity as he raced clear from an excellent Ricky Shakes long ball. His first touch was excellent as he brought the ball down but the onrushing goalkeeper did enough to force West to slide his shot inches wide of the post.
Willock, Ashley Carew and Shakes all had opportunities while at the other end McAuley again went close as he raced clear of Duncan but shot wide. Then with the last foray forward of the first half, Fleet seized the initiative. A ball over the Eastleigh defence saw Shakes battle his way clear but he was upended in the box by former Fleet man Warren Goodhind, who received only a yellow card to the chagrin of Liam Daish on the touchline.
Carew exorcised the ghosts of recent penalty misses by despatching a confident spot kick to give the Fleet the lead against his former club.
But the lead lasted barely two minutes after half-time and there was a measure of good fortune about Eastleigh’s equaliser. Former Welling midfielder Anthony Riviere ballooned a shot towards the corner flag but McAuley managed to gather it out wide. His shot at Edwards bounced back into play where Riviere reacted quickest to fire home.
Fleet coudn’t quite grab the game by the scruff of the neck but they edged the remainder of the second half as McAuley’s influence for Eastleigh waned and Easton and Lorraine got the measure of Slabber. Service to Willock and Shakes was mainly long-range but the latter in particular continued his recent good form and gave Eastleigh plenty to think about.
There were still plenty of chances to win the game, however, as West’s shot appeared to be cleared courtesy of a hand while the same player drew a great reaction save from Matthews. And substitute Gareth Williams went closest when he capitalised on a low ball into the box and hit a shot that was goalbound only for Shakes being in the way, while his rebound was parried by Matthews.
Eastleigh still posed a considerable threat, however, and Edwards produced a great save from Slabber’s point-blank-range header as the visitors continued to get too many free headers in dangerous positions.
Now it is on to Liam Daish’s former club Havant & Waterlooville where the boss must be hoping that Fleet’s away record yields further points as the top positions continue to get ever-tighter.
TEAM: Edwards, Howe, Duncan, Carew, Easton, Lorraine, West, Marwa, Willock, Shakes, Phipp (G Williams 75). Subs not used: Hagan, Pooley, Okus, Stone
Tom Phipp romped home with the Farnborough man of the match. Vote for tonight’s [ HERE ].