Grimsby Town took the points in this last game before Christmas in a humdinger of a match that saw Fleet fall 3-0 behind in the opening 15 minutes, only to twice threaten a revival.
Ebbsfleet, missing skipper Paul Lorraine who was celebrating the birth of a son, drafted in Ian Simpemba at the back but were otherwise unchanged from their win over Truro. But Lorraine’s absence was felt during a cataclysmic opening period in which Fleet shipped three goals to a Grimsby side looking to shake off the disappointment of a midweek FA Cup defeat at the hands of Salisbury.
With barely two minutes on the clock, Liam Hearn – with three hat-tricks to his name already this season – took advantage of an errant Ram Marwa pass to run clear and fire past Preston Edwards as Fleet handed the Mariners the same goal head-start they enjoyed at Stonebridge Road.
But unlike that game, Grimsby went from strength to strength and with Fleet still trying to find their feet they were hit by a sucker punch. A Michael Coulson corner found Will Antwi, on loan from Luton, at the far post and he rose clear of a sleepy Fleet defence to head his side two goals to the good.
At sixes and sevens, Fleet imploded two minutes later by conceding a third when a hesitant defence allowed Luke McCarthy to gain possession, though with more than a suspicion of handball, and he slipped a pass through to Hearn who was composed and clinical as he shot beyond Edwards for 3-0.
With the home side scenting a thrashing in the air, Fleet just tried to steady themselves and keep the black and white shirts at bay. Thoughts of a revival were far away but a stroke of luck on 25 minutes provided a glimmer of hope when home goalkeeper James McKeown tried to cleared his lines from a pass back – but only as far as Nathaniel Pinney who knew little about it as the ball rebounded off him and rolled over the line.
And three minutes later, the Fleet had Grimsby rocking. Pinney won a corner, West floated it over and Yado Mambo was at the far post to head home an unlikely second. With the home crowd’s cheers now turned to groans, Fleet looked much more assured at the back and eager going forward and Pinney fired in a chip that was just off target while Liam Enver-Marum was denied by a decent challenge as he looked to profit on Calum Willock’s pass.
Grimsby had chances of their own, however, when Edwards touched a shot just along the bar and Marwa cleared in something of a scramble. A minute before half-time, Anthony Elding’s shot beat Edwards but Simpemba did well to get back and clear off the line. And Elding was at it again a minute later, supplying a pass that had Howe backtracking and the Fleet full back just about managed to shepherd the ball to safety under pressure from two Grimsby players.
Liam Daish would have impressed upon his players the need to keep Grimsby on the rack and avoid a repeat of the opening stages but Fleet’s mini-revival was halted in its tracks within three minutes of the restart. The hosts worked a good move down the right, Elding broke clear of the Fleet defence and found Coulson whose fine shot gave Edwards little chance. Coulson, whose right-wing forays were troubling Howe at the back, was at it again on 53 minutes forcing Simpemba into a clearance.
Fleet were finding it difficult to put the home side under much pressure but when Willock burst into the box on 56 minutes and was felled as he went through, the vociferous penalty claims seemed justified. At the other end, Mambo’s great challenge denied Hearn a hat-trick and Craig Disley’s dangerous ball across the six-yard box on 69 minutes invited merely a touch in front of the gaping Fleet goal.
As time ticked on, the game seemed to slipping away from the Fleet. Coulson was enjoying plenty of space getting behind the Fleet full-backs and his cross on 72 was cleared by Howe, while Frankie Artus’ cross-cum-shot flew over the upright with Edwards unsure of its direction.
On 81 minutes Ricky Shakes, on for Pinney, combined with Craig Stone to supply Willock who nodded the ball into Enver-Marum’s path but last week’s hat-trick hero should have done better than blaze the ball over. There was still plenty of drama to come, however, as Edwards kept Fleet in it two minutes before the end, stretching superbly to tip Andi Thanoj’s fierocious shot over the bar.
Then, right on full-time, nervous Grimsby were dealt a body blow. Willock found Shakes with an excellent pass and the Fleet substitute obliged as he zipped through and planted a fine shot across goal that whizzed past McKeown into the top corner. With four minutes of time added on, the visitors went for broke. Howe’s shot was blocked by Antwi, twice Grimsby cleared their lines and then substitute Jamie Darvill’s last-gasp effort was deflected behind for a corner.
Sadly for the Fleet, time was against them and the referee’s final whistle was met with cheers of relief from Grimsby fans who, at 3-0, might have expected a much easier ride than their opponents gave them. For the Fleet, it was nearly yet another noteworthy revival with a performance that, but for the kamikaze opening period, promised much more.
TEAM: Edwards, Stone, Howe, Simpemba, Mambo, Marwa, West, Phipp (Barrett 72), Enver-Marum (Darvill 82), Willock, Pinney (Shakes 59). Subs not used: Welch, Herd.
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