Like every month in 2019/20, February came with its fair share of pain but enough pleasure to keep the Fleet’s fight going into the final months (or as it turned out, month – singular) of the season.
Much-improved Sutton United came to the Kuflink Stadium on the first day of February having escaped with a pair of 1-0 wins on their previous two visits. Tomi Adeloye earned a start after his two-goal blast v Woking and a solid first-half display by the Fleet had supporters hopeful of back-to-back wins.
Marvel Ekpiteta nodded Fleet ahead after just six minutes, sneaking on to Adam Mekki’s free-kick ahead of a slow Sutton defence. Harry Beautyman earned the visitors a point five minutes into the second half and Jamie Grimes had to clear off the line late on to preserve the same for the Fleet.
“The first half we were value for our one-goal lead, if not two,” said Kevin Watson. “At the minute we’re struggling to get that second goal and as we all know, [it’s] too many draws when we needs wins.”
The second week of February was a little more painful for Fleet fans as first Myles Weston’s departure to relegation rivals Dagenham & Redbridge was confirmed, the winger having not appeared in a red shirt since his injury in late December.
That pain might have been offset had Fleet made the FA Trophy quarter-finals that weekend but Southern League Royston Town had other ideas. A goalless 90 minutes on a pitch that was increasingly troublesome to play football on forced an already poor game into extra-time and notorious giantkillers Royston added goals at the beginning and end of the additional half-hour to progress.
Naturally, home fans were less than impressed, a fact that Watson acknowledged, saying: “Fans support, they sing when you’re losing, they sing when you’re winning, they’re always with you. Fans have the best opinions and when they start singing ‘You’re not fit to wear the shirt’, I go in and tell the boys, listen to that. If you don’t want to listen to anyone else, listen to that because they will always give you an honest opinion.”
It was no overstatement to suggest Fleet’s entire season pivoted on the next home game v Chorley, the basement boys already looking doomed but knowing they absolutely had to win at the Kuflink Stadium. Fleet weren’t in quite the same dire straits but a loss to Chorley was nonetheless unthinkable.
In front of newly announced CEO Damian Irvine, who had been recruited to replace Dave Archer after spells at clubs including Wycombe Wanderers and Notts County, skipper Jack King scored the only goal to overcome battling Chorley.
Having seen off Storm Dennis to stage the game, Fleet were almost undone late on once more when David Gregory conceded a late penalty but he turned from villain to hero by steering away Alex Newby’s spot-kick and then performing an even better save in time added on to preserve the clean sheet and the points.
The rollercoaster season hit another downward curve next, however, as a second six-pointer didn’t go Fleet’s way at Chesterfield. Goalless for an hour, the home side made the breakthrough courtesy of Nathan Tyson and added three more goals in the last 13 minutes in what was described as another ‘must-not-lose’ game for the Fleet.
Most other sides might easily have given up the ghost at that point and accepted their fate with few giving Watson’s men any hope at all of mounting a survival bid after the four-goal humbling at the Proact.
But one of the best first-half performances of the season at Maidenhead in midweek reignited the spark. After going behind to an early goal, it seemed Fleet were heading for the trap door but inspired by an exciting display by loanee Mekki and finally welcoming new signing Michael Timlin to the lineup, Josh Umerah and a scintillating quickfire pair of goals by Gozie Ugwu put the Fleet in command and dragged the home side well and truly into the relegation mix.
What proved to be the last game at the Kuflink Stadium on a rare ‘Leap Day’ for football went ahead against all the odds as another storm – this one called Jorge – threatened the fixture. With play-off chasing Stockport the visitors, Fleet more than matched them on an increasingly gloopy pitch but as in the reverse fixture at Edgeley Park, the Hatters managed a late goal from a set piece to bag all three points and again leave Fleet’s survival bid in the mix.
HIGHLIGHT OF THE MONTH: Surely Gozie Ugwu’s rampant run from the centre-circle to disposses Maidenhead moments after his first goal to smash home a second and Fleet’s third of the night. It was so quick, the Twitter account couldn’t keep up.
LOW POINT OF THE MONTH: It really seemed the final nail was on its way into Fleet’s relegation coffin after losing at Chesterfield, and in such a manner as occurred in the final quarter-hour. That this wasn’t the end of the road is testament to the squad’s reaction after that game.
THE STATE OF PLAY: Defeat at home to Stockport at the end of February certainly didn’t help but with teams around us failing, there was still a glimmer of hope. Fleet had climbed into 22nd place above Chorley and AFC Fylde. With safety assumed (because of Bury’s demise) to be 21st place, we sat four points behind Chesterfield, having played two games more and five behind Maidenhead and Dagenham. It was of course a tall order, but the fact we were still in the hunt meant March would prove crucial…