The Fleet recorded one of their most famous opening-day wins after Luke O’Neill’s first-half strike – if that’s the right word – took all three points on a memorable first-ever evening in Rochdale.
Fleet gave as good as they got in a busy first-half and although Rochdale enjoyed the bulk of possession and no shortage of chances in the second period, a combination of outstanding defending and the home side’s own wasteful finishing added to the afternoon’s entertainment for the hardy 140 travellers. Fleet might even have added a second when they clipped the bar late on in a lengthy period of added time brought about by new rules this season.
For this first game of Fleet’s return to the National League, Ouss Cissé and Jack Wakely of the new signings made the starting lineup, while Nathan Odokonyero got his first taste of non-league’s top tier with a place on the bench.
Rochdale, too, had new signings on show in their first venture at non-league level since their ascension to the Football League back in 1921.
With torrential rain up and down the country throughout the day and another deluge at kick-off, it made for treacherous conditions as the home side started at an expected quick pace. They wasted an early free-kick before O’Neill set Shaq Coulthirst running behind the Dale defence on five minutes. He slipped a pass to Franklin Domi who tried to find a space to shoot and then to play in Toby Edser but couldn’t quite manage either.
It was a raucous atmosphere for the Fleet to contend with and Tyrese Sinclair tried to raise the home crowd with an incursion down the right, though Darren McQueen responded with a pacy run of his own. And Coulthirst was lively, taking down a misplaced pass out of defence on nine minutes before firing low past former Fleet goalkeeper Louie Moulden’s far post.
As they settled more, Fleet forced more chances. Josh Wright’s corner was met by O’Neill and tipped over by Moulden. From the second corner, Rochdale broke and Domi crashed into a tackle to ensure Mark Cousins wasn’t put under pressure.
His kick-out on 22 minutes, however, allowed Mikey Afuye to get a sight of goal, that one cut out by Cissé before Wakely was well placed to scramble off the line as Devante Rodney tried to convert Kairo Mitchell’s lob over the Fleet goalkeeper.
Cissé was booked on the half-hour for clipping Mitchell but again Dale wasted their free-kick opportunity as a frantic game showed little sign of letting up.
Wakely was on hand again on 35 minutes to get in the way of Sinclair’s path to goal as both sides were guilty of surrendering possession. Nobody in the away end cared about that a minute later when Fleet’s corner broke the deadlock. This time it was Edser from the right delivering it and O’Neill hooked it back over his shoulder and towards the far post where it flew in past Moulden.
There was more defending to be done as Martin’s excellent slide in on Rodney prevented a quick response from Rochdale. A chance for a second Fleet goal was then nipped off Domi’s toes after McQueen had wrestled to keep the ball in play on the goalline. Cundle and McQueen both struck efforts on target but into Moulden’s arms before half-time.
Five minutes were added before that arrived and in that time Rochdale smacked a shot off the bar when Rodney’s nod down to Mitchell produced a thunderous effort on goal. And Wakely was the man there with a foot in to mop up before Dale could capitalise.
In search of the equaliser early in the second-half, Afuye skidded a low shot that might have outfoxed Cousins in the conditions but the keeper got down well to hold that.
Wakely continued to prove vital for the Fleet in defence with a superb stretch to take the ball off the feet of Sinclair after Rodney had split the red defence with a great through ball on 58 minutes. Rochdale bossed possession through the second period and while there were a few anxious moments for the Fleet, the home team frustrated their own fans with attempts mainly off target.
Fleet’s best opportunity arrived via a lovely period of passing football, McQueen and Edser working the ball into the box for Cundle. His shot was goalbound but deflected off Cameron John with Moulden beaten.
Rochdale had the goal at their mercy on 72 minutes when Fleet misjudged a bouncing ball. Twelve yards out, Rodney only had Cousins to beat but ballooned the ball inexplicably high. And an epic goalmouth scramble a minute later saw a crowd of bodies queueing up to force the ball over the line. Instead, Fleet somehow contrived to hack it clear.
With 15 minutes left, George Nevett went close with a good leap to meet a cross from the left, sending his header back across Cousins’ goal right in front of the noisy home support. Sinclair then sent a dipping half-volley over the bar in the final minute of normal time.
With nine minutes added, Rochdale seemed to run out of ideas and Billy Clifford pinged a shot off the bar after good work from Edser and Cundle. The home side brought forth noise from their home end whenever they attacked the Fleet goal late on but it was to no avail and Dennis Kutrieb’s boys were home and dry. Well, not dry. But most certainly the three points are coming home.
EUFC: Cousins, O’Neill, Martin (White 74), Wakely, Wright, Cissé (Clifford 56), Cundle, McQueen (Sterling 83), Domi, Edser, Coulthirst. Subs: Odokonyero, Chapman
RAFC: Moulden, John, Ebanks-Landell, Sinclair, Clayton, Mitchell, Rodney, Keohane, Nevett, Afuye (Henderson 71), Gilmour. Subs: Kelly, Taylor, Oduroh, Johnson.
Attendance: 2,691 (139 EUFC)
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