There wasn’t much of a bounce around Stonebridge Road as summer 1992 approached.
Two long-suffering years at the bottom of the Beazer Homes League Premier – one escape from relegation on a ground technicality and one actual relegation after a second successive season to forget – had dumped the Fleet back in the Southern Division three years after a hard-earned promotion.
Just 39 goals had been scored in 1991/92, the fifth lowest in club history at the time, and even accounting for the lower division Fleet would be playing in, manager Gary Aldous knew his frontline needed an injection of something… anything.
Assistant manager Peter Coffil had been keen on a 24-year-old relative unknown at Barking by the name of Steve Portway who had found the net 36 times the season before, although that was with a mid-table side in the Diadora (Isthmian) First Division and there was no guarantee his form would carry over into a different setup in the Southern League.
Nevertheless, Portway was in demand. Then club secretary Steve Jones recalled that to get the deal over the line, he arranged for Portway to visit the ground in the evening so he could turn on the floodlights and tempt the player by what still – at that level – was a grander sight than most grounds… Stonebridge Road under the lights with its traditional terraces and stands.
It did the trick and with the deal arranged, Portway signed for the club there and then. With the flick of a pen, club history was set in motion.
By the standards he was to set, Portway’s start at the club was slow. Indeed it was local youngster Chris Fordred who found the net with more regularity at the beginning as Fleet lost two of the three opening league games and found themselves dumped out of the FA Cup by lower-league Chertsey Town.
Portway’s first strike in club colours was a penalty at home to Poole Town on the opening day of the season but he suffered from missed chances in the opening weeks, leading Aldous to say after a defeat at Ashford that “People might criticise Steve Portway for missing some chances but if he put away 50 per cent of the chances he makes he would not be playing at this level.”
That was soon to change, however, and it was only by October there was a hint that something special might be happening.
By then, Fleet had clicked into a slick, goalscoring outfit. After some initial teething problems, Aldous began to shape his side. Lee Turner replaced Paul Burnham in goal. Mark Leahy and Paul Lamb were the full backs, young utility player Ian Gibbs came on leaps and bounds alongside skipper Dennis Abboh.
In midfield, local lad Wayne Schweiso provided the bite alongside new signing Dean Wells and Yorkshire winger Simon Ullathorne offered the speed and flair, which left it to strike pair Micky Cotter and Steve Portway to play havoc with opposition defences.
Four or five goals were blasted past Ashford Town, Slade Green, Andover, Braintree Town and Erith & Belvedere – although the latter’s 5-3 win at Stonebridge Road in October fired a warning that there were plenty of sides capable of promotion. There was also the small matter of a 7-0 defeat on a boggy pitch at Witney Town in December to suggest that the young Fleet side wasn’t quite the finished article.
Portway scored his first hat-trick in November and a six-match unbeaten run took the club to the top of the table, five points clear of a chasing pack that included Sudbury Town, Erith, Wealdstone, Sittingbourne, Havant Town and Buckingham Town.
Portway had fired 19 goals in 18 games by November and the local press wrote how he was “in danger of rewriting the record books”. They had no idea…
Fleet scored four against Bury Town, five against Burnham and then in the return fixture at Bury – with the side 2-1 down and 21 minutes left, Portway struck an incredible six times in a 7-2 win to bring his goals tally to 44 by early January.
Fleet remained on top of the table, 10 points clear of Sittingbourne but the big-spending Central Park outfit had an ominous four games in hand. The big clash between the two sides was abandoned in fog with the Fleet leading 2-1 and from that point the season began to unravel a little.
Baldock Town, with future England international Kevin Phillips in their side, nicked a 2-2 draw at the death. Fleet then lost 3-0 in a bad-tempered affair at form side Salisbury and were beaten narrowly 1-0 in the rematch at Sittingbourne in front of 3,074 fans.
Sittingbourne took over the leadership of the division after that but Fleet should still have had enough to take the second promotion spot, 10 points ahead of Salisbury although the Whites had three games in hand.
But then the sky fell in on what had been an amazing season to that point. A poor draw at Andover was followed by a shock 4-3 home reverse to Buckingham Town and four more league defeats in succession after that, with previously prolific Fleet and Portway not scoring in any of them. A 2-0 reverse at Margate saw angry fans confront the manager as Havant moved above the Fleet and Salisbury inched to within a point with four games in hand.
By the time Fleet reversed the poor form with a win at Poole in early April, the promotion dream was fast fading. Portway rediscovered his goalscoring touch in that final month, scoring five as Fleet rattled in 17 goals in the last five games, including a ding-dong 3-3 draw v champions Sittingbourne at Stonebridge Road.
But with a two-week break in Fleet’s schedule, Salisbury sealed the second promotion spot and the club dropped to fourth by the end of the season, nine points shy of runners-up position.
It was a disappointing end to an incredible season of goalscoring exploits. Portway, with 61 goals in all competitions, naturally won the player of the year award and became the first non-Conference man to scoop the Non-League Player of the Year.
Fleet scored 99 league goals in all, the second highest in our history – 10 fewer than the league-winning side of 1958 but more than the 2002 and 2017 promotion-winning squads. Indeed, it was 12 goals more than would be scored in the club winning the title the following season.
In all competitions, there were 118 goals to savour – and even without Portway’s 61 there were decent hauls for Cotter (13), Fordred (9) and Ullathorne (7).
View a two-hour highlights package of the season above, complete with many of Portway’s historic 61 goals.