If there’s ever been a more important game against Dagenham & Redbridge than this, then Fleet fans will struggle to recall one. With four games to go and the play-offs within grasping distance like bait on a lure, three points would go a long way towards the end goal of a top-seven place.
Rivals Eastleigh and Gateshead go up against each other, Eastleigh having been pegged back from winning positions to suffer defeats in their last two matches. Sutton United, meanwhile host Leyton Orient so on paper, there’s potential for the Fleet to take advantage.
None of which is interesting Garry Hill. The Fleet manager is refusing to entertain notions “on paper” and telling his players to ignore what “the rest” are doing.
“It is about us, how we approach the situation and how we get on the front foot,” he said ahead of training on Thursday. “We’ve a great deal of belief that we can get the points we need to get in there. We go into four games now and it’s still out of our hands in one way but if someone slips up, then it will be in our hands. But how the rest do, that’s nothing to do with us. How we do, that is.
“We’ve just got to keep ticking over, keep ourselves in a picture where we are now in very, very strong contention. We’ve worked very very hard. We’ve been very very consistent. And we’ve got ourselves in a position, going out and doing what we have been doing over this period of time where if we maintain that, it could see us over the line.”
How teams handle the pressure in this final month will have a major say in who extends their season into May but pressure is not something Hill is given to feeling.
“We’re experienced in the management team,” he said. “We’ve got certain experienced players who have had a lot of success above this level of football and at this level. Players who, whether they’re starting or not, we can call upon them and that’s the same with any member of this squad.
“Everyone’s got to be ready. It’s not a case that if you win a game that guarantees everyone starts the next one. That’s not always been the case. I’ve always tweaked it or made one or two little changes now and then if I feel that there’s certain personnel ready for each game or not.”
Much has been made of a more favourable run-in for the Fleet, but that includes two Kent derbies and Saturday’s game at home to Dagenham & Redbridge that Hill insists won’t be in any way straightforward.
“No game between now and the end of the season is easy,” he said. “You can say you should win that one and this one but the position various clubs are in now, it affects everyone differently and they all want to win games for different reasons. No-one is going to just stand aside.
“I think Dagenham are OK, they’re safe from relegation. But from their point of view, they probably need a point and it’s a local game so why not do that on Saturday against us?”
The Fleet boss also knows no team can afford mistakes in the final month and he thinks the pressure is on those teams above the Fleet in the table.
“It’s a big stage of the season now and we’ve got to try and capitalise on that. Some teams might approach games with caution. You can’t afford major blows now at this stage of the season. The nearer you get to the end of the season, and that applies to us and the clubs around us, it becomes harder to repair the damage.”
Dave Winfield returned to the starting lineup last week at Gateshead and Hill has decisions to make with extra personnel available to him, but it’s a decision he welcomes after weeks of scraping together a full bench.
“Dave Winfield’s been out a long time, he hadn’t really played much football since Boxing Day,” said Hill. “We had him in last week because Lawrie Wilson was unavailable for personal reasons. We should have a clean bill of health this week and everybody available. Dave’s the skipper, he’s a big presence and a big leader but picking the team, you have to take into consideration the players who have played over a period of time and been successful for us. It’s a nice problem to be able to have to deal with and it’s a decision we’ll make for Saturday and hopefully have the right team out on the park to do the job.
“Look where we’ve come from in October, November to where we’ve got to in such a short space of time, that’s all credit to the group, the playing squad, the management team behind the scenes and everybody else, the supporters included, all playing their part.”
All will have to play their part on Saturday against a Dagenham side with a good record in North Kent. This is the 12th meeting of the two sides on the Fleet’s home soil and the Daggers have only lost two of them, the last time in 2004.
After an upturn in form following the arrival of new club owners, Dagenham are all but safe after looking certainties for relegation before Christmas. They ascended from the foot of the table to as high as 13th at one point but have fallen back into the doldrums in recent weeks, winning just two of their last 12 league games.
Fleet might take encouragement from that form, but that run has included stubborn draws away at places like AFC Fylde and Harrogate Town. So if the Daggers are suitably minded, they are capable of applying a spanner to Fleet’s play-off works.
Dagenham won 1-0 here on their last visit in the FA Trophy. While their squad hasn’t changed much, with just midfielder Doug Loft coming in on loan from Shrewsbury Town, manager Peter Taylor has shifted his starting lineup a little, blooding younger players such as Will Wright and Ollie Harfield.
While goalscoring has been something of an issue of late, there is still plenty of threat about the front pairing of Angelo Balanta and Conor Wilkinson who have 20 goals between them this season. And we know all about Kenny Clark’s ability to marshal a defence and stand firm to frustrate strikers. It’s little surprise that the former Fleet favourite has assumed the captain’s armband of late and he’s one obstacle the home side will need to remove if they’re serious about that top-seven place.
The match is segregated and Dagenham fans will be allocated the Swanscombe End. Car-parking is available at Ebbsfleet International Station Car Park C for £3. This is the best option for parking near the stadium. Local businesses are continuing to contact us to warn against cars 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.