A minute of madness costs the Fleet dear as Oxford cruise to win…
League leaders Oxford United maintained their quest for automatic promotion with a fairly stress-free victory at Stonebridge Road courtesy of two goals within a minute of each other.
The Fleet made one change following their win at Eastbourne, Darius Charles returning to the centre of defence and Scott Shulton dropping down to the bench, meaning Dean Pooley started in midfield as he had last Saturday against Hayes.
From the off it was clear that the Fleet were more purposeful than seven days previously and worked hard to keep Oxford at bay.
The visitors were giving a debut to new signing Jamie Cook and he tucked in behind James Constable whose early efforts found him mainly straying offside and complaining about the decisions to referee Kinseley.
Fleet were first to register a meaningful shot on 18 minutes after Gavin Heeroo’s free kick was eventually spread wide to Ricky Shakes and the Fleet midfielder sent a decent effort wide of Ryan Clarke’s post from the edge of the box.
The home side were matching the league leaders and the fans were starting to find their voice, particularly when an ongoing duel between Jordan Collins and Matt Green threatened to turn nasty, Green leaning into the young Fleet full back and appearing to lead with his elbow on the quarter-hour.
But Green had the last laugh nine minutes later when Oxford’s Adam Murray launched a long ball from his own half down the middle of the field. As Charles and Collins ran to cover, the Fleet skipper motioned for Collins to clear but the Fleet number three appeared to be in two minds as to whether to pass back to his goalkeeper instead. Green exploited the indecision and bundled Collins off the ball, running through to roll a precise shot past Lance Cronin and into the bottom corner of the net.
Barely had the disappointment registered among home fans when Oxford immediately went two ahead. Murray again spread play wide with a ball lofted over the Fleet defence to Green and the Oxford winger beat Collins to cross into the middle. It was hacked clear but only as far as Simon Clist who curled a fine effort past Cronin from 12 yards out.
Given the Fleet’s inability to score more than once at home this season, the game already seemed to be over as a contest, Oxford content to minimise their effort and the Fleet seemingly shellshocked by the rapid change in their fortunes. Cook tried an audacious long-range lob from 40 yards out which had Cronin back-pedalling but the first half ended without further incident, bar Collins’s 38th minute booking for pulling on Green’s shirt.
The second-half was as much of a non-event as the end of the first, though the Fleet had a 10-minute spell in the ascendancy, sparked into life by Vieira’s mazy run through the Oxford defence on 49 minutes but the Brazilian couldn’t get direction or power on his final shot. Charles headed wide a minute later and again Vieira got a sniff on goal but flashed a header wide as goalkeeper Clarke enjoyed an easy day at the office. With Mark Creighton and Luke Foster in full control of the Fleet forwards and untroubled in the air by Simon Thomas, the home side were simply overpowered.
On 71 minutes, Fleet’s deserved man of the match Leon Crooks almost grabbed a goal that might have set up a grandstand finish as he stole in behind the Oxford back line but snapped a half-volley just wide of the post.
Oxford were on cruise control and didn’t seem desperate to add to their tally, though Cronin did very well to block Constable’s shot when he was through on goal on 71 minutes and he thwarted Dannie Bulman three minutes later. A neat rapid move with Cook back-heeling into Constable’s path was also cut out by Cronin as the Fleet defence seemed bamboozled.
A flurry of substitutions by both sides in the closing quarter merely disrupted an already lacklustre game in which Oxford displayed serious championship credentials while the Fleet were again left to reflect on what might have been if only they could cut out the errors that are ultimately costing points.
TEAM: Cronin, Salmon, Collins, Crooks, Charles, Heeroo (Wills 84), Pooley, Shakes (Shulton 76), Welsh (Forshaw 87), Thomas, Vieira. Subs not used: Lamprell, Ginty.