The Fleet maintained their 100% first-leg record with their fourth win at this stage of the play-offs, a hard-fought advantage to go into Sunday’s decider. Two first-half goals kept the home side at bay, despite the Fleet gifting Hampton a way back into the game on the stroke of half-time – but any advantage from the away leg will more than satisfy Daryl McMahon.
The manager made one change to his starting line-up, deploying Dean Rance in place of Darren McQueen in a starting XI that matched the one at Maidenhead. And despite McMahon’s public pronouncements that Danny Kedwell would definitely not feature, the Fleet skipper was named on the bench instead of Mark Phillips.
And the selection of Rance proved to be a masterstroke as the midfielder gave the visitors a dream start after only five minutes. Gathering the ball 20 yards out, there looked little on but Rance fired a low shot that struck a Hampton foot and the crazy deflection left goalkeeper Sam Howes rooted to the spot as it skidded into the bottom corner.
The game began at a high tempo but it was a rushed affair with neither side settling on the ball, though Fleet looked to have the edge early on. Rance was involved again on 13 minutes when Dave Winfield’s foul on Christian Jolley gave the Beavers a free-kick in a dangerous position but the Fleet goalscorer got his body in the way to block the shot and Tom Jelley screwed the rebound wide of the post.
Hampton, who were able to recall a number of players who had sat out recent weeks through injury, were forced to replace midfielder Harold Odametey after only 16 minutes, bringing on defender Sam Gallagher who sat just in front of the back four. It seemed to favour the hosts and they began to dig in a little more in midfield. There were plenty of tackles flying in and referee Pollard was content to talk to the players rather than issue any yellow cards.
The home side enjoyed a couple of free-kicks and corners that Nathan Ashmore dealt with while Fleet passed the ball around in midfield but didn’t fashion too many more chances. That was until the 43rd minute when a neat ball through to Sam Deering saw the Fleet midfielder accelerate between two defenders who closed on him as he went to ground and the referee awarded a penalty.
The goalkeeper guessed the right way but he was powerless to stop Aaron McLean smashing the ball to his left to give the Fleet a 2-0 lead.
It looked as if that might be the decisive moment of the tie but Hampton were gifted a lifeline almost immediately. Jolley loosed off a shot that Ashmore had covered but the Fleet keeper allowed the ball to squirm away from him and Duncan Culley accepted the chance to poke it home to the cheers of home fans.
And Fleet almost undid all their good work straight after the restart when Jack Connors played a risky ball back across his own penalty area and with Jolley and Culley haring into the box, Ashmore managed to claw it away to safety.
Four minutes into the half, Deering showed a great turn of skill to skip down the right flank and unleash a deep cross that McLean met but he could only steer the ball over the bar. They were probably the two best chances for either side for the rest of the game as the second half degenerated into a stop-start affair with too many stray passes. Whereas the referee was content to let things flow in the first half, he had a much harder time of it in the second and was constantly whistling to bring the game to a halt.
Hampton started to gain a little edge in midfield but Fleet had two half-chances from set-piece, with Winfield flashing a header across goal and then trying to play another back into Kenny Clark’s path when he might have been better finding the target himself.
Jolley saw the first yellow card for the first of two rather bruising challenges on Rance and Culley followed him into the book, while Anthony Cook found his name written down as well.
Ashmore saved a shot from Brendan Kiernan, the ex-Fleet winger largely peripheral otherwise, and Michael Kamara sent a header just wide. As the game entered the final stages, Winfield had to battle in a one-on-one race with substitute Shaquille Hippolyte-Patrick and just had the pace to get a vital touch before the Hampton player curled a shot just over.
With Hampton looking strong in the closing stages, it was actually the visitors who fashioned two better chances. Deering’s high ball in from the left curled towards the top corner but was well-saved by Howes, on loan from West Ham, and the young keeper did well to push Drury’s late turn and shot away for a corner. There was even time for a 30-second Kedwell cameo to eat up some more seconds as Fleet closed the game out to go into Sunday’s second leg with a one-goal lead.
The roller-coaster starts here. Don’t miss Sunday’s big game, kick-off 3pm, to see if Fleet can force a result that would mean Stonebridge Road hosting its third final in four seasons.
EUFC: Ashmore, Cook, Connors, McCoy, Winfield, Clark, Powell, Drury, McLean (Kedwell 90), Rance, Deering. Subs not used: Mambo, Miles, Shields, McQueen
HRBFC: Howes, Kamara, Casey, Collier, Murphy, Solomon (Rivic 81), Jelley, Odametey (Gallagher 16), Culley, Jolley, Kiernan (Hippolyte-Patrick 70). Subs not used: Bishop, Hicks