If December’s two points put Fleet’s hold on National League status in jeopardy then the start of January did little to aid that cause – which made the side’s huge efforts thereafter all the more impressive.
The rematch against Dagenham & Redbridge to start the new year and decade was almost a carbon copy of the Boxing Day game, Alex Reid putting the Fleet into the lead once more only for the visitors to rob us of a win late on, just six minutes left on the clock when Will Wright’s free-kick glanced off Marvel Ekpiteta’s head and went in.
“That’s as frustrated as I’ve been,” said Kevin Watson, echoing the thoughts of most inside the ground. “We might as well have took the point each from both games and not bothered playing. Out of six draws we’ve had, we’ve been in front in five.”
New Year’s Day brought more off-field news with the announcement of Steve Lovell’s appointment as director of football and pretty soon the results of that could be seen with Josh Payne and Marvel Ekpiteta retained on loan, while David Gregory – in for the Asian Cup-bound Jordan Holmes – as well as Jermaine McGlashan and Adam Mekki were added to the squad.
Two outgoing loanees were Alex Reid and Tyler Cordner and their final games for the club couldn’t have been much worse as Fleet crashed 7-0 at far-flung Barrow. Down to 10 men following Jack King’s dismissal, Fleet fell to a very good side on a roll who punished every mistake in the worst defeat for 27 years. Reid’s later signing for Dagenham was ironic given his two goals against them over Christmas.
“What was served up in the last 20 minutes will not happen again under my watch,” said a clearly anguished Watson. “I don’t want anybody at any point downing tools like happened there. This group I inherited have come a way, quite a way. We’ve had better results but we still are where we are.”
McGlashan and Gregory made their debuts in the FA Trophy v King’s Lynn Town and once again Fleet were up against it with the harsh dismissal of Andre Blackman after only 20 minutes. Supporters were fearing the worst again, down to 10 men against the in-form National North pacesetters but the Fleet hung in there in a gutsy, disciplined performance and Ayo Obileye’s penalty – awarded for a foul on Josh Umerah – won the day.
Back to league action and a 2-0 home defeat to Harrogate Town did little to improve the standing, another sending-off (Josh Payne this time) not helping the cause and a display that was “consistently inconsistent” according to the manager leaving plenty inside the Kuflink Stadium scratching their heads.
Fleet’s academy side put up brave resistance at Ramsgate in the Kent Senior Cup but ultimately succumbed 4-0 late on in that one.
Player movements continued with the impressive capture of Michael Timlin unfortunately undermined by his inability to play until a National League transfer embargo was settled. Cody McDonald’s departure was also announced, the striker having not appeared since his injury a year before.
The month ended on a high, however, with a spirited goalless draw at Torquay signalling the start of something of a revival that would continue to the end of the season.
And three days after that came a second win in four undefeated games against Woking during 2019/20. It certainly didn’t look on the ‘Cards’ (pun intended!) when Fleet fell behind to a 52nd minute penalty. With Woking homing in on their first ever win at Stonebridge Road, super sub Tomi Adeloye scored two excellent goals in the final 20 minutes to prove their was still life in the old Fleet dog yet and that nobody was giving in without a fight.
“We’ve stopped playing the handicap system where we play with 10 and the other team play with 11,” Watson said. “So I’m pleased with that. This challenge has tested me but when your boys produce performances like that, then it makes it very worthwhile indeed.”
To close the month, an announcement came to confirm what many had gleaned via the grapevine, that CEO Dave Archer was to depart the club after six years – and the search was on for a successor to lead the Fleet into February and beyond.
HIGHLIGHT OF THE MONTH: Tomi Adeloye’s two-goal blast to end the month on a high v Woking. They weren’t just winning goals, they were very good goals and all the sweeter for the unexpected nature of them coming as Fleet were staring defeat in the face.
LOW POINT OF THE MONTH: You can’t escape the 7-0 thumping at Barrow coming straight after a low-key Christmas points return – it certainly hurt at a time when Fleet didn’t need any more negative turns.
THE STATE OF PLAY: Defeat against Woking might have been enough to call it a day in the battle for survival but winning that game in hand was a lifeline. We remained 23rd after 32 games, having reached 29 points. Chorley were still bottom and above us were AFC Fylde and Chesterfield. Seven points clear of us in 20th place and with a game in hand were Dagenham & Redbridge while Maidenhead, Eastleigh and Wrexham had a nine-point breathing space.