PREVIEW: Cheltenham Town

Fleet head into the Emirates FA Cup First Round in something of a new situation: it’s been a very rare season where the club has embarked on an FA Cup tie with a different manager than the one who started the competition. But with Garry Hill taking over from Daryl McMahon in midweek, that’s the state of affairs the Fleet squad will need to get to grips with as they plot the downfall of League Two visitors Cheltenham Town.

The new Fleet boss can certainly summon previous glory from the competition, having twice taken Dagenham & Redbridge to the Third Round in successive seasons and then Round Four the year after that. He also took Heybridge Swifts to Round One for the first time in their history in his first senior managerial role as well Hornchurch (at the Fleet’s expense), plus at Weymouth earning a replay at Nottingham Forest. He went on to lead Rushden & Diamonds into Round Two in 2007 and repeated the feat in his last season with Woking.

With that sort of Cup pedigree, Hill will be looking for a dream start as Fleet boss. It’s 15 years since our one and only Round Two appearance this century and never has the club done it under the name ‘Ebbsfleet United’ — a First Round win is certainly long overdue. And it’s been 23 years since the Fleet last defeated Football League opposition when Colchester United were the victims en route to a Third Round tie against Aston Villa.

Hill’s first submitted team sheet will certainly be pored over by Fleet fans eager to see what changes he might make, though with the manager having only been introduced to the players on Thursday morning, it seems unlikely there will be too many shake-ups this early in his tenure. Dean Rance was still awaiting better news on his ankle injury last weekend while Andy Drury limped off after only 47 minutes with a suspected recurrence of his calf complaint so there’s some doubt over those two.

Standing in the way of Round Two — and the £36,000 prize money — are Cheltenham Town. No strangers to managerial upheaval themselves, they were the first EFL club to ditch their boss this season, Gary Johnson sacked just two games into the 2018/19 campaign. His replacement is Michael Duff, who was part of the playing squad the last time Fleet and Cheltenham met in 1996. Duff won several promotions with Cheltenham and his goal sealed their elevation to the Football League, before he departed for Burnley, winning three promotions to the Premier League at Turf Moor.

He was lured away from a job with Burnley’s academy to plot Cheltenham’s escape from a drop back into the National League but so far, despite two wins in his first month in charge, it’s been a tale of struggle ever since. The Robins are nine games without a win and have scored only 12 goals this season. However, both their wins have come away from home and they’ll be looking to this competition to give them a welcome break from league torment.

Duff hasn’t tinkered too much with the squad since taking over, though he has signed former Charlton and Leeds striker Luke Varney, whose transfer fees have totalled £5m down the years. Varney has scored twice since then, both in one game against Morecambe, but the Robins have struggled for goals elsewhere through the side. Teenage forward Kelsey Mooney, son of former Watford striker Tommy, has come in on loan from Aston Villa and Tyrone Barnett from Port Vale but only the latter has made it on to the scoresheet.

Midfielder Jacob Maddox is one to watch, loaned in from Chelsea for half a season with a view to an extension, having played for England at U17–U20 level. In terms of injuries, the Robins have Irish pair full-back Sean Long and midfielder Kevin Dawson out.

The visitors will be looking to avoid their third FA Cup exit to Kent opposition in four years, having lost previously to Dover and Maidstone United. Sutton United and Tamworth have also registered wins over the Robins in recent years in this competition but manager Duff expects that to have no bearing on his approach to the Kuflink Stadium clash.

It’s the 57th meeting between the clubs, with Cheltenham the first side to score at Stonebridge Road following the formation of Gravesend & Northfleet in 1946. Fleet have the edge, with 26 wins to 21. Make it 27 and Garry Hill will certainly, as intended, have hit the ground running.

• This is not a ticketed match and admission for both home and away supporters is via the turnstiles on the day. Season-tickets are not valid. Away supporters are segregated and must enter via the Swanscombe End.

• Home supporters have use of the Main Stand Hospitality Bar for this game. Doors open at 1pm and the bar closes at 2.45pm to enable supporters time to gain admission through the turnstiles.

• Car-parking is available at Ebbsfleet International Station Car Park C for £3. The club cannot emphasise more strongly that this is the best option for parking near the stadium. Local businesses are continuing to contact us to warn they will clamp cars parked on or blocking private property. Drivers should not block areas around Watling Tyres, In-Car Wash (Grove Road), the Ebbsfleet Business Park and the Lower Road Industrial Estate. Furthermore, drivers are warned that parking on the Thames Way clearway near the roundabout runs the risk of being ticketed.


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