Gloucester City may have hit rock-bottom of Skrill North in midweek, but Fleet will underestimate the Tigers at their peril as the two sides go head-to-head for the 55th time – but the first in a cup tie.
In-form Fleet, with manager Steve Brown surely top contender for manager of the month, have zoomed into the Skrill South reckoning this month, climbing to a season’s high of third on Tuesday night after a late victory at Hayes & Yeading. By contrast, Gloucester conceded a late goal – a free-kick four minutes from time – at Vauxhall Motors on the same evening to leave them rock bottom of their division.
But, having seen off the determined challenges of the likes of Folkestone and Tunbridge Wells in cup competitions this season, and coming unstuck against Chelmsford in the league, Brown will know he can kick his players’ league form into touch in this one-off tie – especially as the Tigers have already claimed Skrill South scalps this season in Havant & Waterlooville and Boreham Wood.
With Ben May missing through a neck injury he picked up on Tuesday, Fleet fans might fear a return to the early season struggles in front of goal. But that would be to the detriment of players including Billy Bricknell, Anthony Cook, Alex Osborn and Michael Thalassitis (not to mention Aiden Palmer!), all of whom have shown they have plenty of goals in the tank.
Bricknell is likely to get the nod to replace May, with Thalassitis alongside him – while Osborn and Cook will provide the usual flank-switching manoeuvres behind them in support. Stacy Long’s match-winning contribution on Tuesday will also give Brown further food for thought.
The Fleet boss has made no secret of his desire to push on in cup competitions, whatever the busy fixture schedule of his players, and as fans of this club are all too aware, once a side negotiates the early rounds of the Trophy, the very real prospect of Wembley can quickly open up.
When last our clubs met, Gloucester City were one of football’s more ambitious sides. Their signing of Fleet legend Steve Portway in 1994, and later another Stonebridge Road favourite in Simon Ullathorne, signalled their intentions as a progressive Southern League club with designs on the Conference as they looked to emulate the success of neighbours Cheltenham Town. They made it to the semi-finals of the Trophy in 1997 under manager Leroy Rosenior and were pipped to promotion to the Conference by Cheltenham.
Financial problems and a flood which all but sunk their Meadow Park ground in 2000 saw them relegated to the Western Division. But a resurgence in 2003 won them promotion back to the Premier Division and another run in the Trophy, this time to the quarter-finals. They reached their present level of Conference North via the play-offs in 2009, ending a continuous 70-year period of Southern League membership.
But against that small measure of success, the Tigers were rendered homeless by yet another flood at Meadow Park in 2007, so a nomadic period of ground-sharing has followed with Forest Green, Cirencester and currently Cheltenham.
Away from their current plight in the league, City have proved to be a formidable cup side. Building on their run to the First Round in last season’s FA Cup, losing to Leyton Orient, they did again this season, bowing out to Fleetwood. But in the process, they saw off Havant & Waterlooville, thrashed Yate Town 7-0 and beat Hampton & Richmond. Add to that success over Boreham Wood in the previous round of the Trophy and it’s clear the Tigers’ league form won’t count for much.
Gloucester are likely to have one addition to their midfield, 17-year-old Zack Kotwica having signed on loan from near neighbours Cheltenham Town, and he is eligible to play in the Trophy. Despite his tender years, the Gloucester-born player has made six League Two and cup appearances for his club this season and recently inked a two-year professional deal. Other loanees include teenage striker Connor Waldon from Swindon, Torquay’s Kyrtis MacKenzie and Bristol Rovers’ Jordan Goddard.
Gloucester’s one area of real concern is definitely their defence, having leaked 36 goals this season – more than any other club in either Skrill North or South apart from Chelmsford. Up front, however, they carry a real threat in 33-year-old striker Darren Edwards who has managed six goals this season even in a struggling side, while strike partner Scott Wilson has four.
Managed by former Bristol Rovers midfielder Dave Mehew, it is actually City’s assistant manager Adie Harris who is likely to be more familiar to Fleet fans having played against us for Bath City, in a Trowbridge side that once beat us 9-0 and as part of the Cinderford team who took us to a replay in the Second Round of the FA Cup to decide who would play against Aston Villa.
And finally, City fans may well be in better voice than the Fleet crowd tomorrow as they will have had the opportunity to pit their vocals against another group before the match. They will not be alone as they travel on a supporters’ coach to north Kent tomorrow: joining them are Forest Green fans en route to Dartford, the clubs joining forces to drive to Kent in the one vehicle. I wonder whose songs will get precedence…
Fleet v Gloucester head-to-head
|Venue||Matches||W||D||L||Goals||+ / –|
|Home||27||8||10||9||32 – 39||-9|
|Away||27||5||3||19||36 – 68||-32|
|Total||54||13||13||28||68 – 107||-39
Form guide (League, FA Cup, Trophy)