Fleet travel to the Kent coast knowing the final stages of the FA Trophy are well within reach as they take on an in-form Whitstable side who have already broken their own personal best by reaching Round 2 of the competition.
With Shane Huke an absentee thanks to his long-term injury, and Tom Phipp – recently returned from his successful loan spell at Maidstone where he scored three goals in six games – cup tied, Fleet have an otherwise full squad to choose from including Ben May.
And Fleet boss Steve Brown was once again at pains to impress upon his squad the importance of preparation and mindset ahead of the clash against a side 18th in the Ryman League Division South. “We have prepared the team as best as we can,” Brown told FleetOnline, “and every player is acutely aware there is a last 16 spot up for grabs for the winning team. Having faced Tunbridge Wells and Sittingbourne from the Ryman South this season we are fully aware of the capabilities of teams in that league.
“We have fared very well in the cup competitions so far this season and we have attacked all the games wherever they have been with the right attitude and commitment and the players will be fired up and raring to go come kick-off time on Saturday.”
And in passing reference to his club’s Operation Oyster initiative, Brown said, “Let’s hope our supporters can make the journey down to Whitstable in numbers and make it a real cup tie atmosphere.”
In-form Fleet are looking to claim their eighth victory in succession as they seek a club record of nine in a row against Sutton the following week.
And Kent Senior Cup games aside, this meeting is only the second in anger between the clubs, Fleet having beaten Whitstable 3-0 in the FA Cup in 1957.
Whitstable Town have already over-achieved in this season’s Trophy, having beaten by some distance their previous best in the competition – a second qualifying round spot in 1970-71 and again last season – and they are the lowest-ranked side left in the draw.
Yet this season the Oystermen have dispatched Sittingbourne (5-1 away), Potters Bar, Hythe Town, Carshalton Athletic and Hendon in the Trophy, not to mention a win over Maidstone in the Kent Senior Cup that has set up another clash with the Fleet in February – and earned £17,000 in the process.
They expect a further bonus on that haul with a big crowd expected at the Belmont Ground tomorrow, one that is likely to dwarf Whitstable’s highest of the season to date – 445 against Herne Bay back in August.
The Oystermen are managed by former Gillingham midfielder Nicky Southall – who also played for Hartlepool, Bolton, Nottingham Forest and Dover, one of the few men to play in all four levels of the Football League system. Now 41, Southall played semi-regularly for Whitstable last season but now prefers to take his position on the touchline for the most part.
Best known among the Whitstable squad are veteran campaigners defender John Guest (ex-Thurrock, Dartford, Sittingbourne and Cray), striker Steve Hafner (once of Gillingham, Dartford, Welling and Chatham) and their only injury doubt for Saturday, the crucial figure of defender Ian Cox who played league football for Crystal Palace, Gillingham, Burnley and Bournemouth as well as winning 16 caps for Trinidad & Tobago.
Town are not short of options up front, with the aforementioned Hafner joined by eight-goal Craig Thompson who has scored in all but one of Whitstable’s Trophy rounds this season, Charlie Smith (seven goals) and Ashley Baverstock (six), while defender Joe Kane has also bagged five goals.
The Oystermen have consolidated in the Ryman League since their promotion from the Kent League in 2007, though they haven’t finished higher than 14th in six seasons. A similar position looks on the cards this season, too, with Whitstable currently 18th, but with games in hand on their rivals they will certainly be pushing for a best-ever league finish this time around.
Their most recent result was a 3-1 reverse against second-place Peacehaven & Telscombe, but that was a first defeat in 10 games, so they are certainly a side playing with an air of confidence. Indeed, until that defeat, Whistable had enjoyed a run of seven victories, much like their opponents this weekend.
Recent form (all competitions)