Dean Rance wrote himself into Fleet folklore with his winning penalty on Tuesday night hardly thinking the list would reach as far as him as kicker number seven. But even that was up in the air as Fleet’s players weren’t entirely sure who would take what turned out to be the matchwinning penalty.
“I didn’t know I was taking one until literally the last minute,” Rance told BBC Radio Kent’s Charles Webster. “We’ve taken all six penalty takers and then it was ‘Who’s taking next?’ It was either going to be me or Dave [Winfield] and I weren’t letting Dave go in front of me. I knew even if I missed that we were still in it so it was there to win it. [The order] up to six was set but we didn’t really know who was going to take the next one so it was going to be Clarkey, Dave or Ashmore so I think I have to take one in front of that lot!”
The Fleet midfielder was jubilant at the final whistle but insisted the stirring fightback in extra-time and then even from within the shootout itself was nothing more than he’d expect of his teammates.
“We’ve shown all season that when our backs are against it we come out fighting,” said Rance, “and it shows the character of the group. We’ve got great character and we’ve shown it over years. That’s one of our main attributes as a team.
“For the last three years, we’ve been the team with all the pressure, the team that’s expected to win every week. We’re the underdogs, that’s how other people look at us, we’ll take that. We can handle the pressure either way. We can compete at the higher end of this league. We didn’t come into the season just thinking mid-table, we knew we could go higher.
“A lot of people didn’t expect us to be where we are now but we knew, as a group, from the beginning of the season, that we had it in us to achieve what we’ve done and we thought we could finish higher. We started slow and have got stronger as the season’s gone on. Injuries played a part. We’ve gone under the radar so people were looking at all the teams in front of us without realising we were on a little run below them. Then when the time came to strike to get into the play-offs, we knew we were going to get there.”
Rance knew his team had to be patient and ride out a storm from the home side in front of a noisy crowd. “They’re a good footballing team,” he admitted, “so you can’t just go gung-ho against them. When they’ve got the ball, you have to be in a good shape otherwise they’ll just pass through you. We know when we get the ball back, we can keep it but also exploit the spaces. We knew that when they’ve got the ball, if it’s not on to press, we just got in our shape and as long as it’s in front of us and not hurting us, we’re pretty comfortable.The game plan was to contain them and as the game went on, we got stronger and especially in the second half of the 90 minutes, we were looking like the team that was going to score. ”
It’s now on to Tranmere Rovers with minimal time for the squad to prepare but Rance believes there’ll be no shrinking violets amongst the Fleet players at Prenton Park.
“I think there’s a few surprises still to go,” he said. “It would be nice to pop up with a goal but as long as we win. The atmosphere will be the same [as tonight]; they’re a good passing team and we’ll have to go there and contain them but we’re a good footballing team, so we’re not going there to be overawed by it all. We’re more than capable of the win.”