Tamworth 3 Fleet 4

Fleet win 4-3 courtesy of a Scott Ginty double but surrender national league status after eight years…

The sun was out, it was the end of the season and Fleet fans were on the move in large numbers. It conjured up images of the must-win victory at Bedford in April 2002 when the Fleet’s latest journey at the top level of non-league football began – but the consequences of this game meant that journey had come full circle.

However, in truth, the real consequences were elsewhere, at Gateshead and Eastbourne, wins for both these sides rendering the Fleet’s win at Tamworth something of an afterthought.

Not that the 300-strong travelling army the Fleet brought with them felt that way at kick-off. With an almost carnival atmosphere prevailing, even the news that striker Moses Ashikodi was out injured couldn’t dampen the fans’ infectious optimism mixed with gallows humour.

In Ashikodi’s place, Liam Daish recalled Ricky Shakes to the starting line-up and the Fleet set about their task at once, immediately looking speedier and sturdier against a shaky Tamworth defence. Magno Vieira was causing problems straight away and he almost pounced on a misplaced back pass on six minutes, squeezing between two defenders and firing off a low shot when he might have been better served by taking another touch.

The first of a litany of handball appeals followed when a shot seemed to catch a Tamworth defender on the upper arm, but the referee indicated it touched his chest and indeed didn’t seem too interested in much intervention throughout the game.

With the Fleet causing most of the problems, the away fans’ mood was soured by news that Gateshead had taken the lead against AFC Wimbledon. That mood worsened on 11 minutes when a ball over the Fleet defence from Richard Tait caught Leon Crooks flat-footed and Iyseden Christie outpaced him, dragged the ball wide of Lance Cronin and fired into the empty net.

Any thoughts that the Fleet were going to bow out in a powder-puff fashion were dispelled little more than a minute later when Vieira rose at the near post to plant Michael West’s inswinging corner past Danny Alcock. The Brazilian continued to pick at half chances as the Fleet regrouped and they restricted the Lambs to the one chance when Cronin was forced to clear with his head after a long ball bounced outside the box with Christie bearing down on goal.

And on 38 minutes, the Fleet fans allowed themselves to dream when Chris Smith’s pass back towards his goalkeeper was well short on pace. The same couldn’t be said of Shakes who reacted quickest and sped into the box to fire a low shot past Alcock.

But back came Tamworth two minutes later to bang another nail in Fleet’s coffin, Neil Mackenzie’s corner not dealt with and the rangy Michael Wylde was able to finish with a header.

Hoping for an early siege of the Tamworth goal in the second period, Fleet fans were sorely disappointed as their side seemed incapable of mounting the sort of last-gasp all-out attack they craved. Tamworth killed the game well in midfield, with Bradley Pritchard in particular pulling the strings and Fleet looking unimaginative up front.

And indeed it all looked over when Pritchard converted on 58 minutes, rasping the ball into the top left corner of the goal from the edge of the box with an acrobatic swing that gave Cronin no chance. But once again in this topsy-turvy season, looking dead and buried, the Fleet still had the legs to prolong their stay in the Conference, albeit briefly. Super sub Scott Ginty certainly lived up to his title when 13 minutes from time he converted a rebound after Shakes had surged into the box and seen his shot blocked. But Ginty, pumping his fists and exhorting the Fleet fans to new levels, had only just begun.

There were further handball appeals and at the other end Christie thought he’d won a penalty after a tackle from Dean Pooley but he went to ground all too easily. And nine minutes from time Ginty doubled his tally, sprinting on to a bouncing ball after Stefan Bailey had hoisted a pass into the box and the young striker did brilliantly to lob the advancing Alcock.

Again, Fleet fans allowed their minds to turn to Gateshead and Eastbourne. But with little happening in either game for the previous 80 minutes, the news that Eastbourne had netted a penalty filtered through and with it went the visitors’ hopes. The away fans tried to muster a response to their opposite numbers’ chants of “going down” and at the final whistle, this remarkable comeback and victory felt like anything but.

Daish called his players into the middle for a brief huddle before they wearily applauded the yellow and red shirts behind the goal.

And there went eight years of top-flight Conference football. Somehow it felt hard to believe and harder to take but to look around at the youthfulness of many Fleet fans, there is a feeling that we will be a better-supported club than we were last time we played at a lower level.

There is a future and a new beginning.

Down perhaps.

But not out.

TEAM: Cronin, Salmon, Charles, Pooley, Crooks, Stavrinou, Holmes, West (Ginty 62), Bailey, Shakes, Vieira. Subs not used: Hagan, Wills, Heeroo, Read.
Att: 1,694


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