STEVENAGE BOROUGH 3-2 EBBSFLEET UNITED
Report by Ed Miller
Three hundred and sixty-four days on from the epic semi-final triumph over Aldershot, the Fleet’s fighting spirit kept them in the hunt for Trophy glory after a first-half nightmare was turned on its head by a spirited second-half comeback that sadly didn’t go entirely the visitors’ way. Fleet fans turned out en masse and packed the Buildbase stand in an officially-announced crowd of 2,344 and eyebrows were raised as Liam Daish chose to leave Derek Duncan on the bench and go with Danny Slatter instead.
The Fleet, in red shirts and black shorts, began the game kicking away from their supporters and almost breached a Stevenage rearguard featuring Fleet’s semi-final hero of last season, Michael Bostwick, in the opening minute, as Giuseppe Sole ran on to a through ball but his shot was saved. The visitors settled well enough in the first five minutes but were undone by the first meaningful attack of the game from Stevenage on 7 minutes. A throw-in down the Boro right from Lawrie Wilson caught the defence napping and former Fleet winger Andy Drury eased past Sacha Opinel and had acres of room as he advanced into the penalty area and along the byline to lift a cross over Lance Cronin where top scorer Steve Morison had a simple job to nod the ball into the net.
It was the worst possible start for the Fleet and Boro sensed their discomfort. With Drury unsettling Opinel on the right and Cole having the freedom of the Lamex on the other flank as he twisted and turned inside Mark Ricketts and Slatter, the home side were carving the Fleet open like a knife through butter. Even the usually imperious Darius Charles looked startled though had to be on hand to slice clear another golden opportunity for Boro when Opinel slipped as Morison shaped to fire past Cronin.
Cole continued to torment the Fleet down the Boro left and the visiting midfield had no answer to him as first he crossed for Lee Boylan to poke a shot wide and then got the better of two Fleet defenders to fire his own shot low and at an angle but Cronin managed to turn it round the post. But he appeared to pull up after that shot and faded from the game a little. It allowed the Fleet to regroup on their right-hand side but unfortunately they were second-best to everything in midfield and the defence was still erratic and error-strewn.
This was no better illustrated than in the 32nd minute when the home side scored a catastrophic – for the Fleet – second goal. Darren Murphy found David Bridges and his ball into the box fell between a hesitant Opinel and Cronin, neither of whom took responsibility to clear. When Charles eventually hacked the ball clear, it didn’t go far enough and Cole turned it back to Boylan who took advantage of a statuesque defence to fire home from 12 yards.
As against Wrexham in the quarter-final, the goal was greeted with a stunned silence from Fleet fans and they might well have been heading for the exits six minutes later when the unmistakable blonde head of Mark Roberts connected with a corner that crept over the bar. Boro right back Wilson also found his way through on goal after getting the better of Opinel but Cronin saved the day with a good save.
Getting to half-time only two goals down almost seemed like a victory in itself after a torrid opening period and the talk among fans at the break was whether to take 2-0 and run with it at Stonebridge Road before it got any worse. But Daish’s men had other ideas and the Fleet boss shuffled his pack for the second half, removing Slatter and bringing Duncan on in his place. But before the former Wycombe player could bring his influence to bear, Stevenage really should have extended their lead when Morison beat Leon Crooks to a lofted ball and Boylan hit a left-foot volley wide of the post with the goal gaping.
But that signalled the end of Boro’s attacking impetus and Duncan’s presence seemed to give the Fleet some steel and vision in midfield as he, Stacy Long and Neil Barrett began to assert themselves, thereby keeping Drury and Cole much quieter. Luke Moore’s jinking runs started to pay dividends as they unsettled Boro’s previously unruffled back four, while Michael Gash was beginning to stretch Roberts in an aerial battle. Duncan was making inroads down the Fleet left that Bostwick, standing in at centre back for the suspended Ronnie Henry, had no answer to.
There was little penetration into the box with any of these attacks, however, and Daish changed his line-up again, taking off Sole who hadn’t had much luck all afternoon and bringing on Ricky Shakes. The speedy winger immediately added more life to the Fleet midfield and on 62 minutes he found Gash who crossed into the middle of the box where Barrett leaped in ahead of his marker and the ball flew in beyond goalkeeper Chris Day. As the Fleet fans celebrated, Barrett was left prone on the ground – having connected either with a boot or the pitch and he was eventually stretchered off with a suspected broken jaw, his face covered in blood.
That meant another enforced change and James Smith slotted into the centre of defence, Ricketts went into midfield and Leon Crooks moved across to right back. Boro stepped up a gear again as the Fleet struggled to get used to their new formation and Morison almost got the better of Smith but the Fleet substitute recovered to play his way out of danger. Up front, however, the Fleet still looked dangerous and Moore and Gash could twice have exploited gaps, the first time Moore playing it wide even though Gash was clear in the middle and the second time Gash’s knock-on just eluding Moore and allowing Roberts to clear.
Yet cometh the hour, cometh Stacy Long and on 71 minutes, Moore’s endeavour paid off on the edge of the box and a high ball found Long lurking 20 yards out. With great technique he lofted it over the defence and the despairing leap of Day where it plopped into the corner of the net and the Fleet end erupted. With a sniff of unlikely victory in the air and Boro looking momentarily rattled, the visitors continued to advance but the sting was taken out of the game by a bizarre series of interventions by the referee when he got crucial throw-in and corner decisions completely wrong for both sides. And he missed a tussle in the Boro box between Roberts and Opinel that resulted in a minor scuffle and the bookings of Roberts and Crooks as a consequence.
But Stevenage are not 20 games unbeaten for no reason and they silenced the Fleet fans nine minutes from the end – their 14th goal this season in the last 10 minutes. Drury’s corner was floated in high and dangerous and Bridges arrived ahead of Smith and Charles to power a header into the back of the net. Their lead restored, Boro set about putting the tie beyond all doubt and forced another corner that Smith cleared. Daish was sent to the stands for kicking a water bottle onto the pitch and a flare lobbed indiscriminately into the playing area from outside the ground disrupted events further.
Eight minutes of injury time produced no further action and both sides were applauded off, Boro happy to have their advantage restored and to go into the second leg with their noses in front, the Fleet pleased to have averted catastrophe with a decent second-half display, though disappointed at the final result. So it is all to play for at a no-doubt buzzing Stonebridge Road next week. The Fleet go into the second leg a goal down but who would bet against a side that just refuses to lie down and let this Trophy slip from their grasp?
Team: Cronin, Ricketts, Opinel, Crooks, Charles, Slatter (Duncan 46), Long, Sole (Shakes 57), Barrett (Smith 63), Gash, Moore. Subs Not Used: Mott, Judge.