And so the title race, gloriously, dramatically and unexpectedly, goes to the final week of the season. So little separates the only two teams to ever get 90+ points in this division in the same season that Maidenhead – the only side to beat Fleet at home in 2016/17 – saw their own unbeaten home record ended by the same team on their final York Road display of the regular season.
And Daryl McMahon’s side had it all to do. Injuries had given his squad a lopsided look and a goal down at half-time, Maidenhead were only 15 minutes from the title when skipper Dave Winfield rammed home the winner in front of Fleet’s jubilant travelling fans.
There was dreadful news from the camp shortly before kick-off when it emerged Bradly Bubb had damaged his achilles in training and would be sidelined for eight months, a fact McMahon had kept under wraps during the run-up to this game. That left only Darren McQueen and Aaron McLean, barely match fit, up top for the Fleet. Indeed, McMahon’s line-up choice was an unexpected one, with McQueen relegated to the bench. In came Dean Rance and Aaron McLean for starts, while Anthony Cook replaced Sean Shields, in what was a 4-5-1.
Maidenhead fans packed their end, while Fleet supporters enjoyed occupancy (though not exclusively) of the other end, making for a superb atmosphere. The opening spell was cagey but Fleet probably just about shaded it as they enjoyed more possession in midfield, though passes went astray on a firm but slightly bobbly pitch.
Dave Tarpey managed to get an early touch inside the Fleet box but Kenny Clark blocked his shot and the same player came to Fleet’s rescue again on 13 minutes when a cross from the right was put on Sean Marks’ head but Clark managed to steer it wide for a corner.
Before that Jack Powell had a shot over and McLean saw his header sent behind from a deep Cook delivery. Sam Deering’s busy persistence won a ball in midfield off James Comley just past 10 minutes and he got the ball in between the Maidenhead defenders but McLean was just behind it.
But the home side upped their game from the quarter-hour mark and felt sure they were in front when Nathan Ashmore failed to gather a cross and Marks’ effort came back off the underside of the bar with the home players claiming it had crossed the line.
Three minutes later it was Fleet’s turn to test the woodwork when Cook’s mazy run inside Jack Parkinson and subsequent curling shot just shaved the top of the bar.
The Magpies did look strong in the final third and from crosses, and it was a corner that gave them a lead on 21 minutes. Harry Pritchard’s delivery was decent as it swept in towards the Fleet goal but it wasn’t dealt with, allowing centre back Dean Inman to get his head to it at the far post and steer it into the far corner.
The goal settled the home side and Fleet struggled to create chances going up the slope in the remaining 25 minutes of the half. It took until the 38th minute for the visitors to show their teeth again when some fancy footwork from Jack Powell saw McLean and then Deering pass the ball quickly along the edge of the box and on to Drury who flashed a low shot just past Carl Pentney’s post.
It called for an immense effort in the second half to divert Maidenhead from their ambitions as the home side looked like they were in cruise control. Indeed they had sniff of goal immediately upon the restart when they played the ball wide to James Mulley on the right. The red shirts allowed him acres of space but they managed to close down the distance before he could gather himself and strike.
Fleet started the half slowly but with a little more purpose and a couple of Powell free-kicks from 20 yards gave the visiting fans hope, but neither tested Pentney. Maidenhead claimed a half-hearted handball – though the roar from their end was immense – before McQueen was sent into the fray on the hour mark at the expense of Rance.
The game and the title was nearly all over on 62 minutes when Marks’ quick thinking played in Tarpey for a shot on goal and his effort was on target and firm but Ashmore did very well to get a strong wrist on it and save Fleet’s bacon.
It was a crucial intervention as four minutes later, Fleet were back in the game. There didn’t seem much on when Deering gathered the ball 30 yards out but he turned Magpies skipper Alan Massey inside out before passing across to Drury who was lurking in midfield. The Fleet No.8 took a look up and despatched a cool, clinical shot to the right of the goalkeeper and in it went.
From that point, Fleet looked a different class as Maidenhead sensed the title wasn’t quite there for the taking. Ashmore had to save well from a cross and Winfield cleared a corner into the metaphorical Row Z with a hefty sweeping-up operation as the ball bounced inside the six-yard box.
The skipper was then in action, crucially, at the other end. On 75 minutes, Powell’s corner evaded the near post, goalkeeper Pentney was surrounded and couldn’t claim the ball as he pushed it on for Winfield at the far post to bundle the ball over the line via the underside of the bar to scenes of immense cheer in the away end.
Fleet looked assured going into the last 15 minutes and they forced a succession of set pieces as the clock wound down. But the Magpies had their moments. Jack Connors took one for the team when he was booked for a challenge on Tarpey on the edge of the Fleet box and Ashmore made a brave claim from a very dangerous delivery.
But in time added on, it was hearts in mouth time. Winfield had to clear a corner with his knee high over the bar before a long delay at the Maidenhead end as the referee had to settle first a players’ set-to and then an issue with something thrown at Ashmore. McMahon sent Yado Mambo on for the final corner with Maidenhead queuing up for the goal that would hand them the title but the set piece zipped along the goal and mercifully to safety as Fleet remained steadfast.
That was the last action and while the title remains in Maidenhead’s hands so long as they win at Margate, the jubilation at the Fleet end was all about spoiling the party and taking this immense race for silverware into the final week.
EUFC: Ashmore, Cook, Connors, McCoy, Winfield, Clark, Powell, Drury, McLean (Shields 85), Rance (McQueen 60), Deering (Mambo 90). Subs not used: Phillips, Jordan
MUFC: Pentney, Clerima, Steer, Parkinson (Upward 74), Massey, Inman, Tarpey, Comley, Marks (Cox 66), Mulley (Smith 78), Pritchard. Subs not used: Wiltshire, Peters.