Fleet’s only brush with a top-tier side in our history came during 1995/96 – and encapsulated everything about the ‘romance of the cup’.
The qualifying rounds of the FA Cup are always greeted with cliché about it being ‘your year’, about how great journeys can start in such innocuous surroundings.
All of which was true of the Fleet’s journey from September 1995; few would have predicted a run-of-the-mill early tie hosting Combined Counties League outfit Godalming & Guildford would be the start of something that would see Fleet players go head-to-head with seasoned internationals and household names including Dwight Yorke, Andy Townsend, Mark Bosnich and Gareth Southgate.
Caretaker Fleet boss Chris Weller, thrust into the limelight following the departure of Gary Aldous, had only been in the job for two matches before his charges despatched Godalming to the tune of 7-0 in that first FA Cup hurdle.
There was a goal for Matt Thomas and a substitute appearance by Balbir Beila, two names that are barely remembered by Fleet fans such was their short time on the field in a red shirt, but they too are a part of that FA Cup story, even if figuring in just this early round.
Fleet powered on through the next match, winning 6-0 at Molesey and watched by 295 – Mark Munday already with five goals and Dave Powell with four and the competition hadn’t even reached the third qualifying round.
Carshalton Athletic were next, a traditionally troublesome opponent in cup ties down the years, but defender Peter Mortley – who featured on the scoresheet three times during the cup run – got the winner in front of 685 at Stonebridge Road.
The Fourth Qualifying Round should have been a formality against Isthmian First Division Marlow – and it was, in the end, Fleet winning a second replay 4-0 in front of a then-huge Stonebridge Road crowd of 1,346.
But before that Marlow could and should have sent us packing. After a 1-1 draw at Stonebridge Road, it was back to Buckinghamshire and Fleet found themselves 3-1 down with seven minutes to go before Colin Blewden and Paul Lamb saved the day to scrape a 3-3 draw.
Stonebridge Road’s first League opposition in 15 years were brushed aside in Round One as Jimmy Jackson and Mortley put Fourth Division Colchester United to the sword in front of 3,128 and we were presented with a winnable Round 2 tie at Cinderford Town from the division below.
Of course, that wasn’t easy. The travelling fans battled westward to perch themselves upon muddy ravines, beneath swaying TV gantries, and in quickly descending fog to peer into the misty dew in classic FA Cup weather conditions. Few could forget (though didn’t see!) Cinderford’s late equaliser to Blewden’s opener in the foggy gloom at the far end of the pitch as Weller’s men hung on grimly to take the Forest of Dean side back to Kent.
In the midweek that followed, there was the first ever live televised FA Cup draw for the Third Round and it was Cinderford/Fleet paired at home to Aston Villa… a huge tie in either club’s history. Fleet played second fiddle to Cinderford’s capture of the media hearts with their manager and ex-Villa defender Chris Price hogging the coverage as draw participant Terry Venables said “he’d do it for Cinderford”.
Fleet were having none of that and despatched Cinderford in clinical fashion to the tune of 3-0, a game (played on a Thursday night after a Tuesday postponement) watched by 2,851 at a jubilant Stonebridge Road.
Dave Powell sealed it with his ninth goal of the competition late on and he would keep the record that season of top goalscorer in the FA Cup. He got nothing for it bar a mention on FA Cup Final day but had he done it a season later, sponsorship money to the tune of £5,000 would have landed in his lap!
And so it was Fleet ‘hosting’ Villa, with the tie soon switched to Villa Park as Stonebridge Road’s then 3,500-capacity was deemed unsuitable (plus the larger carrot of Villa’s gate receipts loomed large!).
Finally, Fleet had the headlines. Striker Grant Best, who worked for Sky Sports, was the subject of numerous interviews including a spot on the sofa beside Helen Chamberlain in Soccer AM’s first season. Farmer-by-trade Jimmy Jackson earned a ‘Tractor Boy’ headline in a national newspaper while Maurice the Monitor (manager Weller’s pet reptile) was the talk of the town – and reduced a Grandstand journalist to a laughing fit on TV.
In the days leading up to the game, talk was of Villa breaking the record win in the Cup! Fleet were offered odds of 7,500-1 to win while the Stafford Rangers manager (his club bottom of the league) made no friends in Northfleet by predicting a 26-0 win because he didn’t think we were very good in our recent Southern League game against them!
None of it weakened the resolve of the 7,000 fans and 55 coaches from North Kent who greeted the players’ arrival outside Villa Park like it was Final Day itself. Though perhaps Villa’s first-minute goal might have done more to weaken that resolve as predictions of the floodgates opening suddenly seemed on-point.
Nonetheless, Fleet were convinced they should have earned a penalty for a trip on Micky Cotter and the same player was unlucky not to fire past Bosnich in the second-half as the “plucky non-leaguers” had the temerity to match Villa for long spells.
Bar the early goal and another quick one at the beginning of the second half, Fleet frustrated Villa and earned the plaudits of the Midlands fans as they trooped off just a goal down at half-time. A third goal put any thoughts of a revival out of reach but with Mexican waves, ironic chants of ‘Boring, Boring Villa’, a lap of honour and an immense dose of pride in their club, the 7,000 had one of their greatest days following the Fleet in their lives.
Villa chairman Doug Ellis made a point of entering the Fleet dressing room post-match to deliver his assessment: “How you’re in the Beazer [Homes] League I don’t know,” he said. “We’ve played other sides in the Premier League not as good as you…”
A clearly emotional chairman Lionel Ball and manager Chris Weller, choked and tearing up, delivered their opinions at the end in another moment that seared itself into the annals of Fleet history. It was an unremarkable season otherwise, Fleet struggling against a relegation that they eventually pulled clear of, but the cup run made that side special.
Goalkeeper Turner together with left back Paul Lamb and goalscoring midfielder Munday would help establish Margate as a Conference side – had Fleet held on to them, perhaps our rise to the top tier of non-league might have come sooner.
Elsewhere in that Villa Park team, Powell, Jackson and Mortley were firm Fleet favourites who would remain with the club through further seasons. Blewden and Cotter had plenty of rich history with the club. Youngsters like Matt Gubbins and Ian Gibbs had proven themselves in previous seasons through promotions and then there were the experienced heads to guide them through – Mark Harrop, Dave Walker and the late John Glover (who didn’t play but was instrumental behind the scenes).
It was a day dreams are made of – and for non-league clubs those days are few and far between and cherished all the more for it.