So here we are at last. Seven months on from the shutdown that prematurely concluded 2019/20, Fleet’s longest lay-off in club history finally comes to an end.
It may be a start to a season like no other – by now we’d usually have 15 or so league games behind us – but the anticipation remains the same. Indeed at the Fleet it’s arguably much greater, with an almost entirely new squad under a new manager, playing tidy football with plenty of goals returned in pre-season.
There’s some continuity, too, to the fixtures – from Hartlepool to Halifax to Hastings, the odds of drawing another team beginning with ‘Ha’ in the Emirates FA Cup must have been suitably long.
Quite apart from the late start to the season and the lack of supporters able to attend, it’s also something of a novelty to kick off the season with an FA Cup tie. It’s 42 years since Fleet began a campaign with a cup tie (v Ashford Town in the Southern League Cup) but never before have we started in this competition.
The first consideration for Fleet fans is who will form their first-choice XI, with Dennis Kutrieb having taken a good long look at his entire squad this summer. Goalkeepers Tom Hadler and Jordan Holmes have enjoyed equal billing in pre-season while newest signing Charlie Rowan might well have played himself into contention for a defensive berth.
There’s plenty of options for the manager in midfield and, depending on the formation deployed, a fight for a start up front as well.
It’s been four years since Fleet last competed in the Second Qualifying Round, winning that one 5-0 at home to AFC Sudbury. For our visitors, meanwhile, this round has been a rather more regular appearance and they will be hoping to summon the giantkilling feats of the Hastings side of seven years ago who earned a Third Round tie at Middlesbrough.
This will be the 72nd meeting between the sides (Fleet have won 33 to Hastings’ 23) but the curious fact here is not one of them has come in this competition before.
Another curious fact as far as Hastings are concerned this season is they have neither scored nor conceded a goal in three successive games. They recorded two goalless draws from two games in the Isthmian South-East Division and also drew 0-0 with Chesham United in the previous round of the FA Cup, going through thanks to a 6-5 penalty shootout win.
Indeed the only goal action Hastings fans have seen this season is a single strike in the 1-0 win over Herne Bay in the Preliminary Round.
Former Fleet promotion favourite Craig Stone is their best-known player as far as home fans are concerned but there’s experience elsewhere, too, with former Eastbourne pair Gary Elphick and Ryan Worrall having come against us in the past.
The danger man is striker Ben Pope who hit 25 goals as Hastings led last season’s Isthmian South-East before Covid ruined their promotion hopes.
For all of Hastings’ fondness for a draw so far this season, that can’t happen this weekend as the tie will be decided on the day, with extra-time being skipped if the scores are level on 90 minutes, penalties being immediately implemented to decide who walks off with the £3,375 prize fund and the place in the 3rd Qualifying Round draw.
The Fleet are, of course, streaming this match live for the cost of £7.99. You can buy your ticket and watch the game via the link below. You will need a passcode which should be emailed to you shortly after purchase. If you do not receive your passcode, please email firstname.lastname@example.org with details of your purchase.