Excitement is in the air. Sure, it’s new-season excitement… as ever. But it comes off the back of Fleet’s only play-off appearance at this level and the club’s second highest league finish ever. Having been 30 minutes from a Wembley final, Daryl McMahon’s side exceeded all expectations and now, with expectation anew and excitement in abundance, it’s time for an altogether different challenge.
Bigger teams await, sleeping giants are potentially reanimated, and the Fleet dive headlong into a stronger National League with belief and confidence coursing through their veins.
The curtain-raiser doesn’t come much bigger this season than a clash at home to non-league novices Chesterfield who kick-off outside the Football League for the first time in almost a century. Themselves rejuvenated this summer under new manager Martin Allen, following back-to-back relegations from League One, hopes are high in Derbyshire that the team from beneath the crooked spire can aspire to something more than struggle and toil.
Daryl McMahon knows he has a job on his hands once more this season, and a different one at that with Fleet no longer the favourites as they were in the South or the plucky new boys of the last campaign, but it’s a job he’s eager to embrace.
“It’s the real stuff now, not pre-season and that’s what it’s all about, that’s what we’re here for,” he told eufc.co.uk. “I’m really looking forward to it. Pre-season was good, great, but it’s done with. In terms of the results this summer, I’m not too bothered by them… whether you win six or lose six, it’s about the performances and we had good performances in those six games. That’s where the confidence comes from, the way we want to play and how we play.”
The Fleet boss has predicted that last season’s relegated League sides will bounce back, while believing this year’s new clubs will be better equipped.
“When you look at it realistically, we’re nowhere near some of the big teams in this league,” he said. “I think sides from last season will be much better – Orient, Hartlepool, the sort of teams that came down and didn’t do as well as they expected. They’ll be under pressure to perform better and I think they will. Chesterfield and Barnet coming down have done a good bit of business in bringing in two very experienced managers who will be able to adapt to the league straight away. So it will be a much, much tougher league this year than last year… but I do think we’re going to be a better team than we were last year too. We can only worry about ourselves and try to finish as high as we can.”
Fleet didn’t quite make it through pre-season unscathed, with Kenny Clark injuring his groin and Dean Rance aggravating a problem he was carrying last season. For McMahon, that’s hardly new territory with injuries suffered in each of his summer campaigns as manager, but he’s looking on the bright side of that.
“It’s the natural thing, you always pick up one or two injuries,” he said. “We thought we’d got away with it this year as we got through the first weeks really well with no-one injured. But we’ve done well to only have one player in Kenny crocked given previous summers. Dean’s had his issues carried over from last season but hopefully now they’ll be back fit soon.”
Kenny Clark was in light training this week and McMahon thinks he’s not far off, while Dean Rance’s recovery is ahead of schedule with the midfielder possibly only 10 days away from a return to the training pitch in earnest.
“Kenny’s done little bits this week in training,” the Fleet boss reported. “Saturday might come too soon but we won’t rush him and kill him with a recovery, it’s a long season and we need him properly fit. There’s no point struggling through games right at the start and risk ruining his season when the squad is there to fill the gaps. Dean’s doing really well, too, and he could be back in less than two weeks, 10 days maybe.”
Dave Winfield also misses out as he begins the first of a three-match suspension following his sending-off at Tranmere in May. New signing Michael Cheek goes straight into the squad having completed a full pre-season campaign at Dagenham.
McMahon comes up against Martin Allen, a manager who has excelled with Barnet at this level before and also won League Two with Gillingham. And the Fleet boss knows his opposite number will be doing everything in his power to steer Chesterfield away from those familiar first-day blues that relegated sides often suffer.
“Martin’s done clever business this summer,” McMahon said. “They’ve got players who know the level, not just ‘big names’ or players winding down careers, so I’m sure they’ll be looking to hit the ground running. We can try and put a block on that against Chesterfield. It’ll be tough but we’ve proven ourselves and we have to build on last season in every aspect.”
Fleet’s starting lineup is anybody’s guess, with those such as Bagasan Graham playing themselves into contention while fit-again players including Sam Magri, Jack Payne, Sean Shields and Darren McQueen must battle it out with new signings and those who took the club into the play-offs last season. Magri, Jack King, Chris Bush and Lawrie Wilson seem likely to feature given the injuries and suspensions in defence, but in front of them it’s extremely difficult to pin down who will fill the teamsheet.
Chesterfield arrive with a same-sized squad as the Fleet and Allen will need to pick and choose from seven new signings. He has taken two experienced players from Barnet in Curtis Weston and Michael Nelson, while young starlet Charlie Carter from Woking should get the nod in midfield. Elsewhere, Sam Wedgbury has arrived from Wrexham, striker Lee Shaw has made the step up from Grantham Town and Sam Muggleton was signed on Wednesday, having featured for York and Boston last season. Two more experienced players have also been recruited – goalkeeper Shawn Jalal, a title winner with Macclesfield last season, and defender Will Evans, whose last competitive game was against the Fleet for Aldershot in the play-offs.
In terms of goals, new signing Shaw might start from the bench, meaning former Fleet loanee Gozie Ugwu and ex-West Ham and Maidstone wide attacker Zavon Hines will be relied upon. Neither of them featured among the goals much for Chesterfield last season but both have a decent track record at National League level.
The Spireites are expected to bring as many as 700-800 supporters making for a fantastic opening-day atmosphere at the Kuflink Stadium. The match is segregated, with away fans occupying the Swanscombe End.
Supporters are kindly reminded to make use of Ebbsfleet International Car Park C (£3) as cars parked locally are liable to ticketing along Thames Way and Lower Road.