Ebbsfleet United will be hoping that the pre-match billing of this game as a play-off ‘dress rehearsal’ proves to be exactly that – but first Fleet have to step up a gear and clinch that play-off spot following a Sutton fightback that all but ensured their own interest in the end-of-season lottery.
Steve Brown was forced into a change in midfield due to an injury to Dean Rance, so Alex Osborn started but that was the only change from the side that drew at Staines. And Fleet looked confident and positive in the first-half, their initial verve suggesting it was Sutton who were the more nervous.
Fleet’s first chance came when Ben May’s ball inside found Billy Bricknell and he jinked around his marker and fired off a shot too high of the upright.
But better was to come shortly after that when a long Preston Edwards goal-kick saw Daryl McMahon tee up the incoming Anthony Cook whose low shot from 15 yards was parried along the six-yard box by goalkeeper Jason Brown.
Sutton weren’t without their chances, however, and a long throw towards the six-yard box saw the well-positioned Jamie Taylor swing wildly at the bouncing ball and he skewed it over the bar. A free kick from the right flank then curled out of Edwards’ reach and towards the top corner and Louis John was not far away from connecting with it but Joe Howe did enough to put him off.
But the best chance of the match came Fleet’s way courtesy of May’s exquisite turn and deft lob which put Bricknell through inside the box. Bricknell’s shot looked like it might squeeze through Brown’s legs but the goalkeeper managed to block it to keep the scores level going in at half-time.
The second half began very well for the Fleet: May again found Bricknell who outpaced two defenders and fired off a powerful first-time shot that was again beaten away by Brown. But just as Brown’s form threatened to demoralise the Fleet front line, he let Daryl McMahon’s 48th-minute free-kick through his grasp after the Fleet midfielder had fired it through the Sutton wall following a foul on Bricknell, and Fleet suddenly had the upper hand.
But the danger signs were there almost from the resulting kick-off as Sutton had a series of low-key attacks, driven mainly by substitute Craig Dundas whose drive unbalanced the Fleet midfield. Fleet were defending well but too often for comfortable viewing and Sutton’s persistence seemed bound to pay off.
It did so in the 67th minute when Kane Haysman picked out Taylor’s run into the box and he slotted a shot between Osei Sankofa and Edwards and into the bottom corner for the equaliser. Worse was to come for the visitors four minutes later as they failed to clear a series of high balls and eventually Lee Sawyer was found in space out wide. His ball in created confusion in the six-yard box allowing Simon Downer to stab it home, though there was some good fortune as it fell kindly for him.
Fleet just couldn’t get back in the game, despite a double substitution to introduce Chris Sessegnon and Michael Thalassitis and they succumbed to a third Sutton goal four minutes from the end. Downer drove upfield, and found Haysman – who hit the bar with his previous effort – and his shot came back off the foot off the post but only as far as Taylor who had the simplest of tasks to nod it home from four yards.
Fleet’s schedule gets no easier with a Tuesday trip to Concord whose own play-off ambitions can be further enhanced were they to win what a month or two ago would have seemed a very unlikely looking six-pointer.
TEAM: Edwards, Howe, Palmer, McMahon, Acheampong, Sankofa, Corocran, Osborn, May (Thalassitis 72), Bricknell, Cook (Sessegnon 72). Subs not used: Hall, Huke, Lorraine.