Ebbsfleet United left it late, very late, to book their place in the FA Trophy Third Round, but Michael Thalassitis’ last-minute winner secured a win after a hard-fought game which saw both sides create numerous chances.
Two divisions lower than their Skrill South opponents, Whitstable can feel aggrieved they are not facing a trip to Stonebridge Road on Tuesday, or even their own passage through to the next round, after taking an early lead and then causing several heart-stopping moments for the Fleet in the second half.
Steve Brown named an unchanged side, though was left to make do with four substitutes after Michael Corcoran, named on the bench, was forced to withdraw late on. And on a very sticky pitch, Fleet applied the earliest pressure with Whitstable taking time to settle and figure out their opponents’ strengths and weaknesses.
With tackles flying in early on, Aiden Palmer was fortunate he came out of one challenge with Oliver Brown intact as he initially went down clutching an ankle. It took a quarter of an hour for either side to see any action inside the box, however, but Thalassitis headed wide. Fleet were left to rue that missed opportunity inside four minutes when the impressive Jake McKenzie crossed from the left byline and Dan Keyte struck a low shot from the edge of the box that eluded the dive of Preston Edwards to give the home side the lead.
Fleet struggled to get to grips with the heavy pitch as passes tended to either stick or run long depending on where they landed and both Paul Lorraine and Osei Sankofa were put under pressure whenever they tried to meet a bouncing ball. Anthony Cook was Fleet’s chief threat and he forced Luke Watkins into a good stop with his legs before treating both Ross Webb and Dan Wells to his turn of pace, resulting in quickfire bookings for both defenders.
From one such cross on 32 minutes, Billy Bricknell fired wide from a great position as Fleet saw their best chance go begging. Nine minutes later, Bricknell had another effort clear the bar as the men in white grew visibly frustrated at their failure to unlock the home defence. At the other end, Whitstable continued to make the most of the bobbling pitch, Craig Thompson and McKenzie in particular taking any opportunity to harass an uncomfortable Fleet defence.
But with the fourth official toying with his board ready to announce time added on, Fleet grabbed a lifeline. Cook, who had threatened to expose the Whitstable defence on several occasions, poked the ball past Webb who, having been booked, was mindful not to jump into a challenge. It was all the encouragement Cook needed and he sprinted past the defender, cut inside and fired a low shot away from Watkins and into the bottom corner.
Any thoughts that Fleet might have encountered all Whitstable had to offer were dispelled early in the second half when Lorraine had to make a superb challenge inside the box to deny Scott Heard. From that Whitstable attack, Edwards launched a long ball forward that caught the home defence unaware and Bricknell was on to it in a flash but didn’t connect properly and the shot rather rolled towards safety.
The visitors were struggling to clear their lines from set pieces and a Whitstable corner was hacked out of the six-yard box by a Fleet leg on 55 minutes. And with the tempo of the game increasing rather than getting slower, both sides had chances to score, Fleet’s turn coming on 61 minutes, Daryl McMahon’s trickery creating him space on the byline to fire in a cross that eventually fell for Dean Rance whose shot went too high.
Two minutes after that, Cook’s vicious shot from the right flank was superbly tipped over by Watkins and Whitstable broke through Heard, Palmer forced to perform heroics inside the box to stop that attack. It was end-to-end stuff and a combination of Cook and Thalassitis then saw another Fleet shot scrambled clear inside the home box.
Fleet made two substitutions in quick succession, Ben May for Bricknell and Joe Howe for Palmer, with Steve Brown perhaps mindful that all Whitstable’s attacks seemed to be coming down the right flank through the lively Heard. Still both sides went for it, Watkins somehow parrying Cook’s free kick onto the bar and then watching as the loose ball rolled along the line until hastily belted clear. But the home side refused to be cowed and Heard again found space on the right to whip in a shot that Edwards seemed to see at the last moment and almost punched into his own net as he got a hand in the way.
With the game seemingly heading for a replay at Stonebridge Road, Fleet won it in somewhat bizarre fashion, Thalassitis delivering what appeared to be a mishit shot that somehow caught the wind and looped over Watkins and under the bar. All credit to Nicky Southall’s largely youthful underdogs as still they harried the Fleet back line, substitute Ashley Baverstock forcing one final save from Edwards before the full-time whistle.
So only three ties from Wembley for the Fleet following their eighth straight win but if they do get as far as the national stadium, they’ll know this game was one of their harder battles en route.
TEAM: Edwards, Sessegnon, Palmer (Howe 72), McMahon, Lorraine, Sankofa, Osborn, Rance, Thalassitis, Bricknell (May 69), Cook. Subs not used: Hall, Long