A last-gasp own goal denied Fleet all three points at in-form Staines after a controlled performance looked to have all but confirmed the visitors’ play-off spot in front of Wheatsheaf Park’s biggest crowd of 2014.
Steve Brown made just one change, Ben May coming in for Michael Thalassitis, as he sought to stop a Staines side that had won five of their last six matches and lost only two at home all season. And Fleet did just that as they forced Staines onto the back foot immediately, rarely sacrificing territory as the home side struggled to get into the game.
As he did against Tonbridge the previous week, Anthony Cook was the Fleet’s best outlet in the first few minutes, marauding down the right wing and firing over several crosses but to no avail. The first chance for the men in white came courtesy of Billy Bricknell turning on the penalty spot and loosing off a low shot that goalkeeper Jack Turner pushed away.
Staines had few moments where they worried the Fleet back line, though on 21 minutes Joe Howe’s inch-perfect tackle on Stephane Ngamvoulou inside the penalty area was a vital challenge as the towering Staines midfielder threatened to cut inside and put pressure on the Fleet goal.
The home side began to thread a few more passes together but Fleet snuffed out their mini-revival on the half-hour mark with a well-crafted strike. Bricknell nodded on a throw into the penalty area and May controlled it, deftly lifted it over Max Worsfold’s head and slammed it past Turner as it descended to give his side the lead.
With Fleet content to see out time until the break, Staines grew frustrated and Sanchez Ming entered the referee’s book for a challenge while Ngamvoulou squared up to Cook as the Fleet winger also became involved in exchanges with his own bench. That brief spat continued after the half-time whistle and the niggly end to the first-half continued into the second.
Staines, with former Fleet hero Calum Willock introduced after the restart, showed a little more adventure after the break. Michael Corcoran was harshly penalised for a foul on Ngamvoulou on 49 minutes and McMahon followed him 13 minutes later with a rather more robust challenge on Ming.
The home side, meanwhile, made an early double substitution, their impact player Bajram Pashaj offering their midfield a little more creativity and Brown was imploring his midfielders to get tighter as Staines started to enjoy more possession. But it was still the Fleet who largely controlled matters and had the first of three penalty shouts on 65 minutes when Osei Sankofa hit the deck from a set piece.
That was perhaps the weakest of the three penalty claims but there were vociferous appeals from the Fleet ranks minutes later when Jerel Ifil appeared to control a ball in with his arm. Those incidents aside, Fleet’s best chance of the second half came on 77 minutes when Sankofa’s delivery was knocked down by Anthony Acheampong to the feet of Bricknell who was well placed but perhaps surprised and could only flash the ball over the bar from five yards.
As the game entered its final 10 minutes, tempers again boiled over. Rance saw yellow as he bundled into Dan Brown, who in turn picked up a caution for flattening Corcoran on the touchline. With home boss Marcus Gayle exhorting his men to play higher up the pitch, Staines almost grabbed an equaliser on 82 minutes when Pashaj embarked on a mazy run from the centre circle, past three Fleet defenders, but Edwards kept his shot out at the foot of the post. Substitute Thalassitis then had a run at goal as Fleet cleared upfield but he could only roll a shot off target as the defenders attempted to crowd him out.
And a minute later Thalassitis was in the thick of things again as he was dumped to the ground on the edge of the box. The referee decided it was outside the box, Fleet fans and players were sure it was inside. But the end result saw Cook fire the ball high over the bar.
That looked to be that as the game entered four minutes of time added on. But with Staines pushing players forward, Worsfold whipped in a cross at such pace that Corcoran, in an attempt to steer the ball out of danger, instead diverted it into his own net to the obvious delight of the home side.
Slip-ups for some of Fleet’s play-off rivals made the single point even more disappointing, though in truth it wasn’t a bad result against an in-form side who are notoriously difficult to beat on their own patch. Fleet now have an eight-point gap to sixth place with just five games remaining.
TEAM: Edwards, Howe, Palmer, McMahon, Acheampong, Sankofa, Corcoran, Rance, May (Thalassitis 74), Bricknell (Osborn 90), Cook. Subs not used: Hall, Huke, Sessegnon