For four months, Fleet have been playing catch-up as they sought to rein in leaders Maidenhead United. For the next two, hopefully three matches, it’s simply about maintaining the achievements of those four months. In short, if Fleet can prolong their unbeaten record of 2017 then the success that Daryl McMahon knows his squad craves can be theirs.
Ebbsfleet have a good record in the opening leg of play-off semi-finals, having won 4-1 and 2-1 at Chelmsford and Whitehawk respectively, as well as defeating Bromley 4-0 in between at Stonebridge Road. That said, any result in an away leg where you’re still in the tie heading into your home game is vital and McMahon knows his players are ready for it, despite the expected disappointment of Maidenhead’s win at Margate on Saturday.
“If we’d got the results we were looking for on Saturday, then fantastic,” the Fleet boss said. “But it’s the play-offs and I know the fans and the players will be ready, waiting and looking forward to the challenge. We’ve regrouped since the weekend and we’re ready to embrace what’s ahead now.”
McMahon will not risk Danny Kedwell in Wednesday’s game, with the striker having had his cast removed in place of a splint last week as a first stage in his recovery and the manager allowed for the “possibility” that the skipper might be available for Sunday, though Kedwell himself was more bullish in his chances of being ready!
Fleet will remain light on forward options for the trip to The Beveree, therefore, with Aaron McLean (pictured) and Darren McQueen the only two fit strikers. Saturday’s game against Oxford City was the first time the two players had started alongside each other and McMahon will mull over whether to keep that partnership intact or opt for a formation more like the one that began the game at Maidenhead.
Hampton are one of only two sides to remain undefeated in the league against Ebbsfleet this season (Hemel were the other) and in both games against them, Bradley Bubb was the goalscorer – an option the Fleet don’t, of course, possess this time around. McMahon will hope that recent rainfall has at least provided the Beveree pitch a little more ‘give’ after his side struggled to fashion much of a passing game the last time there in March – though the boss didn’t use it as an excuse then and won’t this week either.
Like the Fleet, Hampton are suffering from their share of injuries and have resorted recently to resting squad members or fitting players into unfamiliar positions. Having lost star strikers Jamal Lowe and Nicke Kabamba to Portsmouth in January, the Beavers have been a little light in the forward department. Ex-Whitehawk striker Duncan Culley – who was sent off for a foul on Nathan Ashmore in March – tends to plough a lone furrow supported by Kedwell’s former AFC Wimbledon strike partner Christian Jolley just behind him.
Where Culley has not been available, they’ve had to push former Dartford midfielder Nathan Collier up front while ex-Fleet winger Brendan Kiernan has been rested recently after he too suffered a knock. Right-back Tom Jelley has been deployed on the wing in Kiernan’s absence and midfielder Harold Odametey – who scored in our league fixture in March – was also missing in Saturday’s win over Concord Rangers.
New recruits since we played in March include attacking midfielder Jermaine Osei who has played for Bishop’s Stortford and Stiven Rivic, a Croatian midfielder who has Bundesliga experience with FC Kaiserslautern.
Much like the Fleet have had nothing to lose in the last two league fixtures, Hampton will no doubt approach the play-offs in a similar mindset having grasped their opportunity to qualify in seventh place. They have won three and drawn one of their last five games, including an impressive 5-0 thrashing of Oxford City away from home, and have shown manager Alan Dowson incredible spirit to reach the lower finishing line. He told the Hampton website, “There’s players out there needing operations, players who shouldn’t even be out there, and players out of position and yet we’ve done what we had to do to get the results we needed. We’ve had good results against all of the other play-off contenders and we can easily do it again!”
And chairman Steve McPherson echoed that, saying: “As a club we are naturally delighted. It’s not how you get into the play-offs, it’s the fact you are there. Let’s hope there is a big crowd as the fans always get behind us in the play-offs. It should be a fantastic game and we are excited about it.”
Hampton’s last experience of the play-offs was when, with Alan Devonshire in charge, they lost two finals running at this level to Eastbourne Borough and then Hayes & Yeading United in 2007/08 and 2008/09.
The Beavers’ average crowd this season is around 620, with their highest being 1,146 against Maidenhead in October (there were 1,089 at our last visit in March). With Fleet fans expected to travel in large numbers, that total will likely be exceeded on Wednesday night – and once again the manager and players are asking for another noisy, united support. “Each and every one of our fans has turned up home and away and thrown their weight behind these players,” Daryl McMahon said. “When we travel we often outnumber the home support and if we can get our supporters outsinging home fans, it means everything to the players.”