A week to remember for the Fleet was rounded off in the best possible way as league leaders Eastleigh – unbeaten since August – were toppled in a combative and occasionally feisty affair. Another three points takes Fleet up to eighth place and within two points of the play-off positions – as Steve Brown’s side look like they really mean business.
Brown was able to name an unchanged side from the one that took Weston-super-Mare apart three days ago and if that result had fired a warning to the league, then the Fleet were determined to send another message out against a side looking for its ninth match unbeaten.
It was a cagey opening with both sides respecting the other’s reputation, though Eastleigh’s strength and range of passing threatened to expose the Fleet defence. When it did, on 9 minutes, Jai Reason almost got clear of his last man after a ball through from Stuart Fleetwood, but the former Braintree midfielder fell to the floor and was booked for diving.
The pattern of play was something of a role reversal from other games this season, with Fleet playing second fiddle to the visitors’ possession game as they switched the ball from side to side and camped in the Fleet half without ever troubling Preston Edwards. Fleetwood and one-time Fleet striker Craig McAllister roved around the edge of the home side’s box while Ben Strevens always looked capable of playing a ball in behind the defence but on the two occasions the Fleet back line lapsed, Fleetwood and then Reason sent their shots high of the target.
But then Fleet struck against the run of play on 19 minutes. Anthony Cook worked his way into space, played in Alex Osborn who knocked on a superb ball that cut open the Eastleigh defence; Billy Bricknell ran through and kept his head to fire a shot in off the inside of the post.
The visitors responded by pushing the Fleet back into their own half once more and it was a deep line the home side held. But hold it they did for most of the remainder of the first half, with Paul Lorraine leading by example. Reason sent a free-kick just over the bar after Shane Huke felled McAllister right on the edge of the box while Will Evans’ balls down the right wing threatened to expose the Fleet flanks time and again.
Just when Fleet looked like heading into the dressing room a goal to the good, however, Eastleigh found the time and space they needed courtesy of Ross Flitney’s goal kick. It soared over the inattentive Fleet defence, finding Fleetwood in far too much space, and he was able to pick his spot past Edwards.
Given Eastleigh’s territorial dominance, Fleet could easily have buckled after that body blow but they dug in second half and produced a controlled defensive display and threatened on the counterattack. And they regained the lead within five minutes of the restart when Osborn raced into the box, cut inside Chris Todd, whose challenge in the corner of the box was deemed illegal and the referee pointed to the spot – which resulted in lengthy protests from the visitors’ defence.
The delay did not unsettle Bricknell, however, and he powered home a low penalty for his fifth league goal of the season. Having won the penalty, Osborn nearly upset the Eastleigh defence once again when he deftly maneuvered around three Eastleigh defenders to work his way into the box but a corner was scant reward for his skill.
It was his final contribution, however, as he took a knock to the thigh and was replaced by Chris Sessegnon. Still Eastleigh probed but with Lorraine and Dean Rance in particular flying in with tackles, the Fleet protected Edwards who saw a couple of shots flash across his goal but nothing that threatened to haul the league leaders back into the game. And Fleet put the result beyond doubt in the final minute when Cook and McMahon – against his old side – lined up for a free-kick on the edge of the Eastleigh box, the latter curling a shot around the wall and out of the reach of Flitney to send Stonebridge Road into raptures.
TEAM: Edwards, Howe, Palmer, McMahon, Lorraine, Huke, Osborn (Sessegnon 77) Rance, May, Bricknell, Cook. Subs not used: Hall, Long, Sankofa, Corcoran