FLEET REFUSE TO LOOSEN GRIP ON TROPHY AS THEY ROLL OVER WREXHAM…
…then come and get it!
EBBSFLEET UNITED 3-1 WREXHAM
Report by Ed Miller
The Fleet refused to relinquish their hold on the FA Trophy in a dramatic, furious second-half display that knocked out what little wind Wrexham’s sails possessed as the visitors saw a lucky one-goal lead evaporate in a 30-minute blitz by Liam Daish’s side.
Wrexham manager Dean Saunders promised to put his big guns on show for tonight’s replay though Daish all but stuck with the side that played most of the second half at the Racecourse, bringing Luke Moore in at Ricky Shakes’ expense. And the Fleet launched themselves into the fray with some fervour in the opening 10 minutes, the midfield getting to grips with the game early on.
Giuseppe Sole, playing in a more orthodox left midfield role, had the game’s first chance after Mark Ricketts had exploited a mistake by Sean Williamson but the Fleet winger’s shot was no trouble for goalkeeper Gavin Ward. Another mistake at the back, this time from Ashley Westwood, allowed Stacy Long to skip into the penalty area unimpeded but again his shot to the far post was comfortably gathered by Ward.
John Martin, making his home debut, was showing a decent example of drive and skill but his energy was a little too much to the fore on 18 minutes as he saw yellow for a dangerous challenge on Andy Fleming, though the Wrexham defender was quickly on his feet.
Fleet fans gave substitute Sacha Opinel a warm reception on 22 minutes after Derek Duncan limped off moments following a hefty challenge in midfield and that signalled a slower pace to the game, though with the Fleet doing most of the running. Jefferson Louis fired a shot over the bar from a Wrexham free kick but the visitors carried little threat with Jon Brown’s wide runs easily snuffed out and top scorer Marc Williams contained well by Darius Charles, Leon Crooks and the offside flag.
Fleming was fortunate that the referee missed his two-handed deflection of a Barrett effort on 25 minutes and then Moore attempted an audacious overhead kick on 32 minutes that Ward was rather slow to follow, but fortunately for him it crept wide of the post. The game rather petered out in the final quarter, though Long again benefitted from a Westwood error to supply Sole, but the Woking loanee blazed his shot over. There were a few anxious moments at the end of the half after referee Simon Beck gave one of many baffling decisions for a Wrexham free kick on the edge of the penalty area but, like everything Wrexham produced tonight, the effort lacked conviction.
If the Fleet edged the first half, they positively bossed the second, though it took a while in coming. Neil Barrett should have done better with a low shot that lacked power after he was put through by Michael Gash but seven minutes into the second half, the sky fell in on the Fleet. Opinel, presuming either Lance Cronin or one of his central defenders was waiting in the hole to pick up a loose ball, inexplicably headed across his own penalty area. The only man in position was Louis who gleefully accepted the gift and had an easy job to poke the ball past the goalkeeper.
Fleet’s Wembley hero sank to his knees as the Stonebridge Road faithful looked on in horror, scarcely believing Wrexham had managed to take the lead. But the feeling that this was our trophy, no-one else’s, crept back into the players almost immediately and Moore sprang clear of the Wrexham defence only to scuff a shot at Ward.
It signalled a period of Fleet dominance unseen at Stonebridge Road this season. And more importantly it resulted in a goal as on 56 minutes, Gash’s direct running allowed him to get a toe to the ball which released Sole down the left and he kept just ahead of his marker to stroke a shot past Ward which seemed to take an age to cross the line. Minutes later and the crowd was in uproar as another Gash ball into Moore saw the Fleet youngster pause with his back to goal and then play in Barrett who was clean through only to be upended by Andrew Crofts who was fortunate to see only yellow.
Moore drove the spot kick low but too central and Ward guessed the direction to frustrate the Fleet fans. It did little to frustrate the players, however, and they went at Wrexham with a zeal and passion that could only have one outcome. Moore, Gash and Sole all went close with efforts which kept Ward busy as the visiting defence was put firmly on the back foot. With 20 minutes left, Opinel – desperate to make amends – almost grabbed his first Fleet goal when he had two attempts in a goalmouth scramble from Sole’s corner that were somehow lashed clear by a frantic Wrexham back line.
But just as it seemed the Fleet’s fire might flicker out without reward, Crooks’ ambitious ball over the top found Gash and he held Westwood off to stab a pass wide to Moore. The Fleet’s number 18 barely paused as he lashed an unstoppable drive into the only gap between Ward and the post to give the Fleet a lead. It got even better eight minutes later when Martin smashed an equally stunning shot from 30 yards which seemed to take a deflection as it powered into the back of the net and Stonebridge Road erupted in the knowledge of a second successive semi-final.
Long could have made it a deserved four at the end as he ran clear to tuck the ball under Ward but the effort was ruled out for handball. Saunders tried to rally his side, bringing on ex-Sheffield United striker Patrick Suffo and former Hibs winger Jamie McCluskey and the latter almost grabbed a second goal for Wrexham when his shot evaded Cronin but bounced back off the post and into the Fleet goalkeeper’s arms. Louis also had a chance in a goalmouth scramble in the six-yard box but Cronin managed to first sit on it and then gather the ball as Wrexham strikers piled in.
But it wasn’t to be for the men from North Wales and the Fleet cruised home following a second-half display as assured as any at Stonebridge Road this season. It means a second semi-final for last year’s Trophy winners and another 180 minutes of football before a possible Wembley appearance – though that will depend on how much say Stevenage have in proceedings.
TEAM: Cronin, Ricketts, Duncan (Opinel), Crooks, Charles, Barrett, Martin, Long, Sole, Moore (Shakes), Gash. Subs not used: Mott, Judge.