It may have only produced two matches but March stood alone in the season with a 100% win return for the Fleet. Both victories arrived courtesy of Gozie Ugwu’s boot, both by 1-0 scorelines and both coincidentally away at clubs beginning with ‘H’.
And visits to Hartlepool and Halifax were games that by any sort of analysis of the seven months beforehand, Fleet had no real right to win.
Yet March kicked off with a little disappointment as Bromley recalled Adam Mekki from loan, the former Tranmere man having shown some sparkling form, especially in the crucial win at Maidenhead. Given the suspensions and injuries Kevin Watson had had to contend with, the ill luck of losing the likes of Albie Morgan and Myles Weston, the embargo delay to Michael Timlin’s inclusion, the lack of real options to mix things up in his forward line and now the departure of Mekki at a crucial point in the season, he might have been forgiven for thinking Lady Luck wasn’t rooting for his side in any way.
The new month also brought what had previously been a far-flung concern to our shores. ‘Covid-19’ had been an overseas problem for a month or two, scarcely on the radar for football fans thinking about promotion, play-offs and survival. Yet as early as March 5th, the National League banned pre-match handshakes and issued advice alongside the Government about avoiding contact.
Whether the elimination of the ‘fair play’ handshake had much to do with the ructions at Hartlepool who knows, but the repercussions of a sour conclusion to Fleet’s long trip north were eventually overtaken by national events.
A fairly run-of-the-mill tussle exploded late in the game with Hartlepool piling the pressure on the Fleet box but somehow unable to breach Jordan Holmes’ goal. With accusations of racist remarks made, causing several stoppages in play, coupled with an Ugwu penalty winning the game for the Fleet against their play-off-chasing hosts and a post-match flare-up that saw Ayo Obileye and Pools boss Dave Challinor red-carded, this was a game where Fleet were only too pleased to get out of town clutching a vital three points.
“We’re never going to be – at this moment in time – like a Man City or a Liverpool and play teams off the park,” said Watson, honest to the realities of a relegation scrap and the ultimate need for points. “It’s not like that when you’re scrapping for your lives. We play when we can. I nor my team wouldn’t, while we’re winning, have wanted any sort of delay to add any more time on to the game. We were under pressure and the last thing we wanted was nine minutes added time.”
A different sort of pressure was to follow with the National League opting to go it alone in continuing to play matches against the backdrop of an increasing global crisis as the spread of coronavirus continued unchecked.
With the Fleet due to play in front of the BT Sport cameras – plus the postponement of Premier League and EFL football – there was the prospect that the 5.15pm kick-off at Halifax could be the last TV game in Western Europe.
Initially stuck waiting at St Albans for a final decision for the green light or the call to halt, the Fleet squad – by now halfway up the M1 – were somewhat surprised to hear they had to play the game.
All eyes turned to The Shay where what proved to be the last game of the season mirrored that of its opening day, with Halifax the opposition. Shrugging off early Halifax pressure, Fleet – already short on numbers – lost Josh Umerah to injury but his replacement Tomi Adeloye soon carved out an opportunity to tee Ugwu up for what prove to be the winning goal.
Halifax huffed and puffed but ultimately lacked the imagination to breach a stubborn Fleet defence, with Lawrie Wilson playing out his season at right-back hampered by an injury for much of the second period.
As the night drew in on The Shay, Fleet’s victory was enough to lift the club to a season-high of 21st and third in the form table. With the season’s final placings still unresolved almost two months on, it remains to be seen how crucial the two March victories were for a wholly unlikely survival.
But with only Chesterfield of the other relegation-threatened sides in the top half of the form table, Watson, his players and supporters too will know they had given themselves every chance to escape – and the right to do so following an incredible comeback from the jaws of failure.
In this season review, it’s certainly been fair to say that much of it made for unpleasant viewing. But punctuated throughout were glimpses of improvement, sparks of consistency and flashes of something more – ending with two clean sheets and a record of not losing back-to-back games under Watson’s management. Those improvements all came to a head when it mattered most, together with a spirit and squad togetherness that had been questioned earlier in the campaign.
And perhaps that wasn’t quite fair on the 2019/20 players – they had after all been thrown together to succeed a much-loved squad that had delivered promotion and play-offs in successive seasons. Of the side that played at Tranmere Rovers in the 2018 semi-final, only Lawrie Wilson survived to that last pre-lockdown game at Halifax.
They were on a hiding to nothing early on, with anything less than a top half position invariably going to see them compared unfavourably to those that came before. As it was, an unending stay in the bottom three of the league for the entire campaign was tough on the whole club.
That those players under Watson came through to deliver the points they did in the latter quarter of the season was testament to their guts and belief. Everyone will have their own opinions on the season as a whole but there were few amongst the Fleet support in the end who could deny that the squad returned the pride and spirit that we have come to expect in our red shirt.
What the future holds as we head into the close season after a blank April, who knows. March 2020 will be remembered for a host of reasons for a long time to come but in simple football terms it ended with what we all want from this game of ours – we went out with a bang and came home with a win.
HIGHLIGHT OF THE MONTH: At one point before kick-off against Halifax all the other results in the league were going against us. By 7pm at The Shay, seeing the Fleet climb to a high of 21st and within touching distance of getting out of the bottom four, it felt very, very good.
LOW POINT OF THE MONTH: Obviously, the end of the season as coronavirus spread. Football, of course, and the suspension of the campaign, pales into insignificance against the wider crisis and loss of life. Yet as we left Halifax unsure of the future but proud of our team, the question left hanging over when we could resume and do what we all love doing made for an emotional farewell.
THE STATE OF PLAY: It was the giddy heights of 21st for the Fleet after two wins in the month, as Maidenhead continued to freefall and Fylde dropped the odd point. With out of form Bromley due next at the Kuflink Stadium, there was every chance of climbing out of the bottom four as just a point or two separated Fleet from those above us – Chesterfield, Wrexham, Eastleigh, Dagenham and Aldershot. But there, alas, it finished…