After the dejection felt in the summer of 2010 after the club’s seven-year spell in the Conference came to an end, the Fleet were faced with a complete rebuilding job. Few credited the new side with an immediate return to the Blue Sq Premier as it was then known but a year on, that prospect was tantalisingly close.
Liam Daish’s recruitment had proved a masterstroke, with goalkeeper Preston Edwards and skipper Paul Lorraine brought into the club in 2010 alongside others whose influence was to prove crucial – the likes of Calum Willock, Ashley Carew, Ram Marwa and Joe Howe.
Ricky Shakes and Craig Stone provided some continuity while for homegrown talents like Michael West and Tom Phipp, it all clicked at just the right time.
West cracked 23 goals that season and alongside Shakes practically owned the club’s first play-off campaign. West scored four and Shakes two against Chelmsford City in a scintillating semi-final aggregate win over Chelmsford City and the pair combined to wipe the floor with Farnborough in the final.
Steve King had assembled a talented Boro squad that had cleaned up in the Southern League and looked set to do the same in the Conference South as they clinched runners-up spot.
Led by Daryl McMahon, there was more than a hint of familiarity about the Hampshire side who also boasted Bradley Bubb, Paul Booth, James Smith, Jack King, Craig Braham-Barrett, Osei Sankofa, Kezie Ibe, Michael Jordan and Jamie Stevens – all past or future Fleet players.
Given home advantage, King’s men were clear favourites. Allocated just one end of the ground and a rather scarce supply of toilet facilities, Fleet fans packed their end and eventually were allocated another section of the stand as police feared overcrowding.
It was all worth it on that Sunday. Michael West’s sublime overhead kick to put Fleet in front on 28 minutes. His superb vision to pick out the speeding Ricky Shakes seven minutes after half-time, the winger looping a first-time shot over Jordan. The power West got in a header 20 minutes after that to send another effort whipping up beyond the Boro keeper.
And who can forget with three minutes left, coasting at 3-0 up, Boro somehow pushing for extra-time with two goals in two minutes from McMahon and Booth?
The nerves were put to bed on the stroke of full-time as Willock got away with Farnborough pushing upfield and slid home one of the most decisive goals in Fleet history to send Daish’s men back to the Premier at the first time of asking!
• With thanks to David Bauckham of CentreCirclePub and Keith Chase for photo usage.