Report by Ed Miller
The Fleet have experienced plenty at the hands of Stevenage in the past – the odd trouncing, 10 defeats in all, the occasional draw and still fewer slender victories. But never before have Fleet fans borne witness to a victory so complete over Graham Westley’s title favourites as they enjoyed here yesterday.
For sure, Borough were depleted and their strike force reduced. But any team that has pretensions of winning a league title will need strength in depth and replacements who can offer more than was dished up at Stonebridge Road and presumably, given their league position, elsewhere this season.
But that would be to deny Liam Daish’s side the credit they so richly deserved in a game they commanded from start to finish. Unchanged from the 11 that put Torquay to the sword on Monday night, the Fleet began with their tails up and forced a corner in the opening minutes, with Paul McCarthy also threatening with a header in the early exchanges.
And anyone thinking that Fleet were in for an unlucky afternoon on 13 minutes when Ricky Shakes limped off after a challenge on Mitchell Cole would have been reassured by John Akinde entering the fray in his place, Luke Moore moving wide right to accommodate him.
Akinde was into action immediately, powering ahead of two defenders to latch on to a Craig Stone pass but his shot went just over the crossbar.
Borough’s best chance came when Lance Cronin could only punch Scott Laird’s corner to the edge of his box but somehow recovered to save low from Iyseden Christie’s subsequent shot. The Fleet opened the scoring on 19 minutes, however, as Michael Gash tried his luck from a corner which goalkeeper Ashley Bayes punched straight out to Neil Barrett and he slammed home a shot from outside the box in typical fashion.
McCarthy was in action again on 22 minutes, heading the ball at Lawrie Wilson from a Stacy Long corner that bounced from one side of the area to another and needed only another touch to cross the line but the visitors escaped.
Akinde produced more magic on the half hour, crossing low along the goalline and all it needed was a touch, any touch, but Moore somehow got the ball stuck under his feet and couldn’t prod it over the line and a grateful Bayes pounced on it before any other Fleet player could follow up.
The Fleet had another chance to extend their lead on 42 minutes when a wayward cross from Long flummoxed the Stevenage defence and as the ball was going out of play, Gash stole in on the far post but planted his header against the woodwork from a tight angle.
But the second goal came on the stroke of half-time. Another Long corner caused confusion in the box and Stone curled a shot goalwards that Akinde, as nonchalant as can be and with his back to goal, flicked a heel at to direct over the line.
The Stonebridge Road crowd may have feared another Mansfield-style comeback as the second half dawned, but beyond a 60-second spell at the very start and Cole’s run down the left that ended up deflecting off the post, Stevenage did not come close to troubling Cronin, with Christie straying offside more often that not and Anthony Thomas getting little service from his midfield.
The Fleet remained on top without really make too many clear-cut chances, though Akinde almost grabbed number three on 65 minutes, again outpacing the struggling Ronnie Henry/Luke Oliver combination and heading inches over the crossbar with a little help from Bayes’ fingertips. Henry, struggling to contain Akinde’s powerhouse performance, was guilty of what the referee deemed a foul on the Fleet striker inside the box on 69 minutes and a confident Moore converted the penalty for 3-0.
With the visitors visibly deflated and offering little up front, Westley attempted to fire up his forward line with the introduction of Jerome Anderson and Chris Nurse. But it was Daish’s tinkering that paid dividends when Kezie Ibe came on for his debut in place of the impressive Gash on 76 minutes. It was Akinde again who had a hand in the final goal on 85 minutes, romping onto a poor pass and cutting in from the left to take Bayes out of the game and then supply Ibe with a simple enough chance to make it a resounding 4-0.
Moore almost made it five with a 20-yard shot that just cleared the crossbar and McCarthy had enough left in the tank to run the length of the pitch and nod a free kick wide in the dying moments. McCarthy’s energy was typical of the effort applied by Daish’s team. Moore, despite being pulled back into midfield as early as the 15th minute, never stopped running and could be witnessing challenging the goalkeeper in the dying minutes and then seconds later popping up in defence to deny Scott Laird. Gash and Akinde were superb up front, while Darius Charles’ and his colleagues were imperious in defence. There was little love lost between ex-Fleet hero Michael Bostwick and his replacement Craig Stone in the middle, but Bozzie was warm in his congratulations of former midfield partner Barrett at the final whistle.
TEAM: Cronin, Ricketts, McCarthy, Charles, Opinel, Shakes (Akinde 13), Stone, Barrett, Long (Hand 85), Gash (Ibe 76), Moore. Subs Not Used: Mott, Hawkins.