A lot of water has passed under the bridge since that day 11 months ago in what was billed as the “National League South title showdown”. In the event, Maidenhead’s subsequent defeat to the Fleet at York Road didn’t prevent them clinching the championship but both teams nonetheless earned the right to stage this same fixture one level higher.
Some 194 points were swept up by both sides last season and with eight games of this campaign remaining, the South’s trailblazers of last season have shown they are good enough to keep hold of their prize: with Fleet (on 56 points) and Maidenhead (on 48), both clubs are safe in all but mathematics and will take their place amongst the non-league elite once more next season. Of course, it’s not out of Fleet’s hands to perhaps go one step higher given that the play-offs are still in reach, but few at the Kuflink Stadium are getting that far ahead of themselves.
Daryl McMahon played down last season’s rivalry between the clubs and sees Saturday’s reacquaintance as just another National League fixture. “It’s a different rivalry now than when you’re one and two in the league,” he told FleetOnline. “We want to win every match, we’re at home and we’ve got three points to go for. I don’t think there’s much to carry over from last season between the sides. I watched Maidenhead last week against Boreham Wood and on Saturday against Barrow as well. We know them really well, as they do us, and we’re itching to get back into the fight after a stop-start March.”
Fleet’s on-off month has given the squad plenty of recuperation time but there is a suggestion it is time they could have done without, having been on something of a roll with four wins and a draw from five games. McMahon, who scooped manager of the month for February, says it’s down to his players how the enforced break pans out.
“You can look at it in so many different ways,” he said. “You can say you’re in good form and you want the games to come; you can say it’s a nice little rest after coming through a tough winter period and have a breather to recharge and go again. But I think the proof will be in the pudding in the run-in to see whether the on-off break has been good to us. The lads have definitely trained hard and worked hard. Their attitude and application, even without a game, has been excellent. We know the mileage they cover every day through the GPS vests worn in training and it’s the same as a normal week which is pleasing. Nobody has taken their foot off the gas. And I hope now Saturday we can reap the rewards and take the game to Maidenhead.”
Fleet filled in their blank weekend with a training match at home to Eastbourne Borough last Saturday and it was a pleasing workout as far as the manager was concerned. The home side won 3-1 courtesy of goals from Danny Kedwell, Corey Whitely and Sean Shields.
“It was a really good game,” McMahon said. “I’ve played in those types of games and they’re difficult sometimes, it’s snowing, it’s freezing, it’s not a ‘real’ game and it’s 11 o’clock in the morning and against a team in the league below. But the attitude and the work ethic in the game was terrific and we had six players who got 90 minutes that hadn’t had 90 for a little while and the other 10 played 45. So it was a good exercise.”
Norman Wabo played the full 90, half of it alongside Danny Kedwell and half on his own up top and McMahon liked what he saw of a youngster he thinks “will definitely be a Football League player”. Lawrie Wilson also came through an entire 90 minutes having shaken off his hamstring injury. The manager reported no fresh injury concerns since, with only Sam Magri and Darren McQueen remaining sidelined with long-term injuries. Any appearance by McQueen is still some time away, however, with McMahon reluctant to put a date on the striker’s return. “Darren’s not really even getting out onto the grass yet so at the moment it’s unlikely we’ll see him in April,” he said.
Myles Weston is also unavailable as he’s in the West Indies on international duty with Antigua & Barbuda until next Tuesday, with a friendly to play in Jamaica on Sunday before that.
Maidenhead travel to the Kuflink Stadium having endured a sticky patch, which included a 7-1 hammering by FA Trophy semi-finalists Gateshead. Although they got back on track with a creditable 1-1 draw at Boreham Wood, there was little to please Alan Devonshire on his return to York Road when relegation candidates Barrow came away with a 1-0 win. Although the Magpies are yet to reach the promised land of 50 points, it would take an almighty reversal of fortune to see them slip through the cracks at this stage – and a win against the Fleet would take them past that half-century points total.
Their last away win in the league was back before Christmas, at Hartlepool, but they’ll be keen to re-establish themselves with a repeat of last season’s 3-2 win at Stonebridge Road that ultimately handed them the advantage in the title race. Devonshire’s squad is largely similar to last season, with only Dave Tarpey, James Mulley and Dean Inman having exited York Road this season. Recent signings include Reading loanee Gabriel Osho while Moses Emmanuel, once of Dover and Bromley, is on loan until the end of April from Sutton United.
Winger Harry Pritchard, who scored against the Fleet in the 1-1 draw between the sides early in the season, is the current top scorer, closely followed by midfielder Adrian Clifton who returned to the club in the summer. The Magpies’ hat-trick hero from our last meeting here in Kent, Sean Marks, has spent a little time on the bench of late and while he may have only five goals to his name this term, Fleet’s defence will need to be aware of the aerial presence that so ruffled them last season.
Devonshire told the Maidenhead Advertiser following last week’s defeat that “We weren’t very good in the second half to be fair. I thought they deserved it in the second half. I thought we had a blatant penalty early on, but listen, I’ve got no complaints, we were poor. We looked tired, the pitch is heavy, but I’ve got no excuses. It was a poor goal to give away, we have to press the ball.”
Saturday’s match is not segregated so Fleet fans are free to sample the delights of the new Swanscombe End for the first time. A reminder to home and away fans not to park along Thames Way as cars are ticketed. Car parking is available at nearby Ebbsfleet International Station, Car Park C, for £3.