Not that skipper Jack King needed any kind of redemption after his 8th-minute sending-off against FC Halifax Town on the opening day of the season – but the fact the 34-year-old defender was named man-of-the-match against the same opposition on what turned out to be the last day of the season encapsulated exactly the Fleet’s own road to recovery from August through to March.
It certainly all started in the worst possible fashion. July’s undefeated pre-season schedule and the usual start-of-the-campaign optimism combined to produce an expectation that Fleet could take advantage of a start on home soil against opposition who’d had their own summer shortcomings.
Halifax had been forced into a managerial change right in the middle of pre-season preparations and their lack of player recruitment in a small squad marked them down as strugglers in the views of many pundits.
For the new-look Fleet, fielding six debutants, King’s early sending-off combined two minutes later with a shot that squirmed out of Nathan Ashmore’s grasp was beyond even the most pessimistic fan’s nightmares barely 10 minutes into the season.
John Goddard’s equaliser and a rallying spell by the Fleet did much to raise the mood but Halifax’s numerical superiority told in the end with two goals in two minutes ending the contest. And when defender Nathan Clarke’s free-kick from his own half sailed over Ashmore’s head and under the bar in the last minute, that really summed up the first afternoon.
It got little better as Fleet, forced to play James Ball in defence and sign academy teenager Emilio Regini-Moran just to fill the bench, were well beaten by Bromley in midweek.
Garry Hill added two short-term signings to fill the gaps, with Bondz N’Gala and Brandon Thomas-Asante coming in, but nothing seemed to work for the Fleet. Better displays at AFC Fylde and at home to Yeovil Town nevertheless ended in defeats and even though Fleet had the gall to take the lead at much-fancied Solihull Moors, that too succumbed to an unfortunate and narrow reverse.
Hill continued to wheel and deal in the market as Thomas-Asante’s short stay was ended, Salford City offering him a deal in League Two where he went on to score six times in 15 starts in 2019/20. An experienced head in Frankie Sutherland was added as the club held a Q&A evening at the Kuflink Stadium where Hill and Dave Archer responded to concerned comments about the on and off-field situation. “This is, without a doubt, my toughest start to a season,” said the manager. “I don’t think I’d be managing if I had any more of them! We all need a little bit of luck if you assess the games we’ve played but you can’t coach against sendings-off or errors.”
A shock move saw Jordan Homes signed and he immediately replaced Ashmore in the Fleet goal for the visit of Notts County. Finally Fleet got some reward as a solid performance and a little bit of luck with a County own goal saw a 2-2 draw chalk up the first point.
Two days later, on Bank Holiday Monday, an early sending-off for the home side at Boreham Wood and an excellent James Ball strike sent Fleet on their way towards a first win and there was finally a sense that fortune was beginning to turn Fleet’s season around.
With the addition of Alex Reid on loan and Botti Biabi, announced as was fast becoming the norm at the Fleet right before kick-off, optimism on the last day of August was heading back on an upward trajectory.
That was until fellow strugglers Aldershot Town made off with the points. They opened the scoring on the counterattack – from Fleet’s first corner shortly before half-time – and despite Holmes showing what he could do by saving a penalty shortly after the break, he was cruelly exposed a little later by a defensive mistake and Shots were 2-0 up.
A late Gozie Ugwu goal and red card for Ian Hendon on the touchline put some fire into Fleet bellies but the month ended as it had begun… badly.
HIGHLIGHT OF THE MONTH: The first-half v Boreham Wood where Femi Ilesanmi’s third minute sending-off quickly followed by Ball and Ugwu strikes put Fleet on course for the first win of the season.
LOW POINT OF THE MONTH: The midweek mauling at Bromley showed just how much work Fleet had to do to compete as a Ravens side full of former players coasted into a 3-0 lead.
THE STATE OF PLAY: After eight games in August, Fleet were one off the bottom on goal difference with four points. Chesterfield and Barrow (!) occupied the other two relegation spots with the gap to safety already four points.