The Fleet leapfrogged Grays in the table with their fourth win of the season…
Billed as a crucial six-pointer between two sides desperate to exit the relegation zone, it was the Fleet who took the spoils with a goal more worthy of winning a 100m sprint than a football match and recorded their fourth win of the season, all by the same scoreline.
And though far from a vintage performance after the home wins over Mansfield and Stevenage, the fact that the Fleet ground out three points from a game that looked destined for a draw says much about the improving character and spirit on the field.
Liam Daish was able to welcome back Alex Stavrinou after Charlton gave the midfielder a clean bill of health, though lost America-bound Ross Smith which meant Dean Pooley slotted in alongside Leon Crooks in the centre of defence. And the Fleet looked keen to resume where they’d left off against Stevenage and showed that their recent run of goalscoring form was no fluke.
That said, the opening goal on 10 minutes had everything to do with the individual skill of Magno Vieira who created his own space from little more than a half chance to give Fleet the lead. Stavrinou did well inside his own half to scoop Stefan Bailey’s short pass out from under the attentions of several Grays midfielders and his sideways ball to Crooks was hoisted forward over the visiting defence. Vieira ran on to it and made a feint as if to shoot before cutting the ball back across defender Gavin Hoyte, completely wrong-footing him, and the Brazilian still had plenty to do before firing it home past Preston Edwards.
Grays offered little in return in the opening 30 minutes though their physical presence meant Fleet had to scrap for every ball and Will Salmon in particular found himself the focus of much attention from the visitors’ front men. And the Fleet could have been two up on 20 minutes when Bailey rose above the defence at the far post from a Peter Holmes corner but Edwards held the on-target header. And another chance followed when some lax Grays defending allowed Ishmael Welsh to skip free down the left and his deep cross found the advancing Ricky Shakes but the Fleet wide man couldn’t connect as he slid in towards the six-yard box.
But seconds after that chance, the Fleet shot themselves in the foot on 31 minutes, allowing a relatively toothless Grays back into the game. An innocuous looking ball forward on the break caught Crooks in two minds as he went to clear and the ball skipped under his foot into the path of Ryan James. The Grays forward looked up and picked his spot before curling a decent effort around Cronin from the edge of the box.
The goal robbed the Fleet of the initiative and for 15 minutes either side of half-time, Grays were able to get a toehold in the game and spread the play wide, though much of it was scrappy and aerial.
The home side struggled to get going in the second half, not aided by an overly-fussy referee, though Welsh should have done better than roll a low-powered shot along the ground two minutes after the break. With Shakes struggling to see much of the ball, the gulf between Fleet’s midfield and the hard-working figure of Vieira up front seemed to indicate that another goal was going to be hard to find.
Darius Charles almost managed it, however, when his effort from a Holmes corner on 63 minutes was turned away well by Edwards while 12 minutes later at the other end, substitute Fola Onibuje almost scored with his first touch of the game but Cronin did brilliantly to gather the ball low by his left-hand post.
And four minutes later the Fleet found the breakthrough they were looking for, and did so in some style. Shakes, who had come alive in the final quarter, quite literally raced on to a pass forward and outsprinted three big defenders who did their best to outmuscle him. Full credit to the Fleet man for staying on his feet as he was clipped and overran the ball in the box, but he still had the presence of mind to strike a confident shot past the onrushing Edwards.
It was left to Cronin, however, to ensure the three points when he made an outstanding stop three minutes later. Grays found space down their right and a looping cross towards the far post found Richard Graham with a huge gap to aim at. The winger struck his shot well enough but the Fleet goalkeeper somehow managed to leap low and claw the ball away from danger when an equaliser looked certain.
The Fleet played the remainder of time out without too much bother and took the points, leapfrogging Grays in the process, in what could prove to be a crucial tussle by season’s end. It is often said of promotion-chasing teams that the sign of a good side is when they can grind out wins when not playing at full tilt. A similar thing may be said of the Fleet for achieving three points here when ideas, fortune and energy appeared to be in short supply as the game wore on.
TEAM: Cronin, Salmon, Charles, Crooks, Pooley, Stavrinou, Bailey, Holmes, Welsh, Shakes, Vieira (Ginty 90). Subs not used: Forshaw, Heeroo, Wills, Easton.