As the league table stands, Fleet face their toughest test at Stonebridge Road this weekend when third-placed St Albans City are the visitors, knowing a win would see Daryl McMahon’s side leapfrog their opponents inside the top five.
City are one of only two teams to have scored more league goals than the Fleet this season and in Louie Theophanous boast the division’s second highest scorer, his nine goals typical of his performance at this level over the past few seasons.
With Dave Winfield sitting out the final game of his suspension, McMahon is unlikely to tinker with the defensive setup that has seen the Fleet keep two clean sheets in their vice captain’s absence, unless Mark Phillips comes back into the reckoning. McMahon was still playing his cards close to his chest on Phillips’ availability, telling FleetOnline: “It’s one of those situations where he’s assessed on a day-to-day basis. He came back at Stortford but he’s not done anything much since then with the whiplash on his neck. He did a little bit on Tuesday, mainly a warm-up and nothing more, and we’ll see what he was like on Thursday. I hope to have him on the pitch, and he’ll want to be on the pitch, but his well-being comes before anything else.”
There’s better news for Stuart Lewis who has had a recurring groin problem and McMahon is still, as with Phillips, approaching that on a game-by-game basis but Lewis hasn’t missed a moment of training this week and appears ready to continue where he left off with a brace of goals against Sudbury.
Aaron McLean, meanwhile, is facing a long spell on the sidelines with an injury that is worse than originally feared. “Aaron’s out for quite a while,” McMahon said. “We’re still waiting for a final prognosis but from the scan results we have, the injury will keep him out for three months as a best-case scenario. But we’ve got four strikers in waiting so we’re fine with that – along with Keds, there’s Bradley Bubb, Darren McQueen and Charlie Sheringham all more than capable. And with Cookie, Shields, Deering, Powell pitching in, we’re OK. We’ve even got Stu Lewis and Dean Rance providing us goals too! Aaron was playing really well and we’ll miss him but we’ve got people itching for a start. Like anything in life, one person’s misfortune is someone else’s opportunity.”
St Albans will also be missing some firepower up front as ex-Boreham Wood striker Junior Morias is in the middle of a four-match suspension. He’s one of eight former Boreham Wood players in the City squad, which has been rebuilt over the summer by Allinson, the man who took the Wood into the National League 18 months ago. The City boss presided over a quite remarkable escape from relegation at the tail-end of last season and from almost certain candidates for the drop, his side are now looking good for an assault on promotion.
McMahon was assistant manager and a player under Allinson and knows plenty about the characters in the St Albans squad, many of whom he played alongside previously. “Ian’s incredibly experienced and he knows how to win at this level,” the Fleet boss said of his opposite number. “This will be a decent test of where we’ve got to these last few weeks.”
St Albans were only five minutes away from having to replay their FA Cup tie against Dereham Town in midweek but a late goal saw them through and Allinson gave his charges a night off training as a result. Fleet will need to be wary of the Saints’ record this season: while they have lost two matches like ourselves, they have played everyone else in the top eight and travel to Stonebridge Road in a more confident state of mind than their last visit when they lost 1-0 to a McLean goal in only Allinson’s second game in charge.
His summer signings include Boreham Wood goalkeeper James Russell, former Dartford defender Josh Hill, experienced ex-Shrewsbury full-back Ben Herd and Wealdstone winger Shaun Lucien. Stevenage pair Ryan Johnson and Dipo Akinyemi (who dropped down the pecking order on Matt Godden’s arrival) are on loan until January while City enjoyed something of a coup to land midfielder David Noble, recently of Exeter City, who pulls the strings in midfield. McMahon will also have warned his players of the threat of Rhys Hoenes, a signing from Royston Town, who – in the mould of Anthony Cook – likes to attack from out wide at pace and his trickery won no fewer than 24 penalties last season!
On paper, this game has blockbuster written all over it with two sides in form and with plenty of potential goals in their armoury. It’s also another chance for Sean Shields to shine against the club where he first made his name as Fleet seek to preserve an unbeaten record at home against City that stretches back to 1999.