When the Notts County ball emerged from the FA Cup velvet bag immediately after ourselves in November 2003, Fleet fans could have been forgiven for feeling a little bit blasé about it.
After all, with promotion to the Conference in the intervening time and having played the Magpies only three short years before, it didn’t seem quite such a unique prospect.
That said, there was excitement aplenty still. For one thing, it was a Second Round game and for another, it was on Sky Sports, the club’s first ever live TV game. Fleet were a division up, Notts County not quite as strong as three years previously, and there was every belief we could make it to Round Three for only the third time in our history.
Both sides had a few personnel who had squared off in the 2000 tie – for the Fleet, manager Andy Ford, Matt Lee and Francis Duku were still at the club while Paul Bolland, Shaun Murray, Nick Fenton, Ian Richardson and Mark Stallard remained at Meadow Lane.
Fleet had made it through courtesy of two unexpected wins against Exeter City on penalties and then another spot-kick deciding a First Round tie at Chester. County had exited the competition to non-league opposition (Southport) the year before and manager Billy Dearden was determined his struggling side weren’t going to do so again. They’d already seen off Shildon in the First Round by a quite convincing 7-2 margin.
And they were the better side for large parts of the first-half before Fleet did what was required of every non-league side on telly… we took the lead. It was a sweeping move with Andy Drury at its heart and a majestic shot from Steve Perkins that shocked Notts County and sent Fleet in at the break a goal up.
But the luck went all County’s way in the second-half. Fleet lost goalkeeper Paul Wilkerson to injury in the 66th minute, his replacement Alex O’Reilly having to pick out Fenton’s equaliser within minutes of coming on. New signing, the experienced left-back Paul Gibbs, then had a rush of blood to the head and went in hard with a reckless retaliation challenge on Simon Baldry. He was red-carded but ranted and raved at the referee before he finally left the pitch in a fury and his stay at the Fleet was short-lived after that incident.
The 10 men of the non-leaguers laboured heroically and seemed certain to have secured a replay at Meadow Lane… until the very last moment when Clive Platt stole in for a late and somewhat fortunate winner for the Magpies.
“Those scars will be with me for a while yet,” said Andy Ford, as Fleet exited in heartbreaking, last-minute fashion… the club suffering similar Cup defeats either side of this one, at Huddersfield in 2001 and against AFC Wimbledon in 2010.
County went on to meet Middlesbrough at the Riverside in Round Three but lost 2-0 and were relegated at the end of the season. Fleet went from strength to strength, finishing the Conference campaign with a 12-match unbeaten run.
FLEET: Wilkerson (O’Reilly 66), Lee, Gibbs, Shearer, Moore, Strouts, McKimm, Perkins, Walshe (Gradley 89), Drury, Pinnock (Abbey 76). Subs not used: Haworth, Duku
COUNTY: Mildenhall, Bolland (Murray 81), Fenton, Richardson, Nicholson, Baldry, Jenkins, Caskey, Baraclough, Heffernan, Platt. Subs not used: Deeney, Stallard, Barras, Riley