Ebbsfleet ended Hungerford Town’s unbeaten run with a wonderful Andy Drury goal in a sublime first-half but were pushed all the way as the visitors rallied in the second only to be denied by an excellent save in stoppage time from Nathan Ashmore.
The fact of the day in the matchday programme was that the referee had presided over three 1-0 wins in his last four Fleet matches and he was able to add another one to that tally thanks largely to two sets of stubborn defences.
Daryl McMahon had warned of a battle and his unchanged side certainly got that in the first half with a number of late challenges from the visitors being the order of the day. The first was a crumpling challenge on Dean Rance only four minutes in courtesy of striker Nat Jarvis that saw tempers flare on both sides. Jarvis received a caution for that one but teammate Garyn Preen got away with a similarly crunching effort on Sam Deering not long after.
In between, Dave Winfield twice went close, his first on target and saved by George Legg, his second headed over the bar after a long throw from Marvin McCoy. Fleet were largely in control of proceedings though Jon Boardman’s 14th-minute shot that was deflected into space on the left of the box caused problems and the home side were glad to see it out after a period of pressure.
But within five minutes of that, Fleet were in front with an absolute gem of a goal. A high ball was brilliantly controlled and steered into space by Bradley Bubb despite the attentions of two Hungerford players. He found Drury who exchanged a delightful one-two with Jack Connors to clear the defender and Drury delayed his shot long enough to commit Legg and then fired past him into the far corner.
From that point, Fleet grew in confidence and with Drury sliding passes left to right, Hungerford struggled to live with the home side. Rance and Drury combined well on 24 minutes to open the defence up again but the eventual cross didn’t connect with a Fleet shirt and Drury was then instrumental in releasing Sean Shields whose excellent first-time cross was put over the bar by Bubb.
The Fleet striker was upended by another tough tackle from Crusaders skipper Matt Day while Preen was again fortunate to get away with little more than a word for sliding in on Danny Kedwell.
The red shirts continued to dominate with Rance beating three players but the move sadly breaking down before a final ball could be played, while just before half-time Bubb got goal-side of his marker but saw his shot blocked by Legg.
Hungerford posted a couple of warnings themselves late on, Ashmore claiming Day’s low header with ease but then having to work a little harder to deny Warren Bentley with a brave block in the six-yard box.
Hungerford gave Preen only a few minutes in the second half before replacing him with former Newcastle midfielder Alan O’Brien and the wide left substitute was very influential in stretching Fleet as the game wore on. Two more Hungerford substitutions weren’t long in coming, Jarvis perhaps taken before being sent off after leaving his leg in on Ashmore while on a yellow card.
One of those replacements, former Fleet loanee Louie Soares, wasn’t far off with a header just wide while Fleet’s only opportunity was another Bubb effort after he latched on to a great Drury pass only to see that one, too, clear the bar.
Looking to liven it up, McMahon brought on Anthony Cook and Darren McQueen and moments later, a Drury free-kick was headed into the side netting by Winfield. And on 66 minutes, Fleet were almost 2-0 up when Deering trapped a diagonal cross from Connors, cut inside Rhys Tyler and unleashed a decent drive that just curled away from the target.
But the visitors still fancied their chances and a corner that flew along the six-yard line was crying out for just a touch to force an equaliser. Hungerford were enjoying a few too many corners and crosses, with O’Brien gaining ground down the left, and their set pieces all flashed dangerously close to Ashmore’s line.
Winfield came to the rescue 10 minutes from time to thwart another O’Brien incursion though as Hungerford pressed they left some gaps that McQueen almost exploited, his shot blocked by Legg who also managed to get in the way of substitute Jack Powell’s follow-up.
Fleet managed to see the clock tick down in a manner that illustrated their confidence in defence after so many clean sheets but there was one more last-gasp effort from Hungerford. In time added on, another attack was repelled only to fall to O’Brien and he had time to pick a spot, driving a ball goalwards that Ashmore managed to push one-handed, his back arched, high across goal where it fell the right side of the post as far as Fleet were concerned.
It was late drama but it extended the Fleet goalkeeper’s personal record of consecutive clean sheets in league games and preserved the three points and the lead at the top of the table.
EUFC: Ashmore, Shields (Cook 63), Connors, McCoy, Winfield, Clark, Rance, Drury, Kedwell, Bubb (McQueen 63), Deering (Powell 75). Subs not used: Miles, Mambo
HTFC: Legg, Rees, Tyler, Boardman, Day, Williams, Clark (Soares 56), Herring, Jarvis (Goodger 56), Bentley, Preen (O’Brien 47). Subs not used: Jones, Thomas