The words “unbeaten” and “draw” are certainly regular features in match report intros these days and while both continued to apply, Fleet can count themselves very unfortunate not to have taken all three points this afternoon. Which is not to say that Eastleigh didn’t cause plenty of problems, especially in the first half, but there was an element of fortune about their first goal and a considerable slice of it for their second after Fleet had taken a 2-1 lead.
Daryl McMahon made one enforced change with Sean Shields coming into the side for his first start of the season after injury to Myles Weston. Dean Rance, meanwhile, made the bench.
Neither side established clear superiority in the opening minutes but Eastleigh, with height and power throughout their side, were quick to get the ball forward. James Constable supplied a cross on to Chris Zebroski’s head after five minutes that Nathan Ashmore cut out with a confident catch while at the other end Shields looked brightest for Fleet, getting the better of Reda Johnson down the right to deliver a cross and then surging through centre midfield to deliver a shot that was blocked in the box.
Eastleigh began to turn the screw from the 15-minute mark and Fleet had a let-off shortly after that when Ashmore was out smartly to block at Zebroski’s feet but the visitors worked the ball back into the box from where Zebroski lifted a shot over the bar from close range.
They weren’t to spurn another opportunity, however, and went in front on 18 minutes. Fleet fans were still raging at the referee about a corner decision when he gave a rather soft free-kick against Marvin McCoy to the right of the box. Mark Yeates’ free-kick was well blocked by Shields but fell ever so kindly for Constable who hooked a shot out of Ashmore’s reach from eight yards.
Fleet responded instantly as Shields fired a full-blooded cross from the right and Danny Kedwell flung himself towards it knowing a touch would take it goalwards but he just couldn’t get anything on the ball.
Darren McQueen tried to squeeze between two defenders on to a well-timed Jack Payne pass and seemed to be pulled back, but with the referee waving that one away as well, the home fans were growing increasingly irate. Fleet continued to buzz around the final third and with Shields able to deliver a cross on most occasions he had the ball on the flank, there were openings. But Eastleigh dealt well with everything thrown at them and with Constable and Zebroski always capable of roughing up the Fleet defenders, the visitors looked dangerous when they came forward.
With McMahon’s former schoolmate Yeates pulling most of the strings in midfield, the visitors looked the more likely to score, however, and they were only denied a second by an offside flag on 36 minutes. Ashmore climbed to reach a cross with Zebroski but dropped it under pressure, and certainly Fleet fans’ roaring for a foul on the goalkeeper had a case, but the ball rolled clear for Constable to stab home. Relief flooded through the home ranks when the flag denied the Eastleigh forward who, not for the only time in the match, gave the officials the benefit of his opinion.
Four minutes before half-time, Yado Mambo reached a Jack Powell free-kick to the far post only to head a firm effort just over, but Powell was just finding his range. On the stroke of half-time, McQueen twisted and turned across the edge of the box and was grounded by Hollands and in the sort of territory that Powell relishes, he didn’t disappoint, curling home the equaliser and his second goal of the season.
McMahon introduced Rance for his first taste of football this season at the start of the second-half, sacrificing Luke Coulson, and it allowed Fleet to get a firmer grip in midfield. Certainly Yeates’ influence, so apparent in the first half, was much less to the fore in the second period and the home side looked much more positive.
Powell ran at the centre-backs but couldn’t get a shot away before Bagasan Graham’s effort was blocked and sent out for a corner. But for all their forward play, Fleet had Ashmore to thank for keeping them in the game on 51 minutes. Yeates pounced on some casual passing in midfield to send a shot in from the left that bent away from Ashmore but he managed to get a hand on it, pushing it into the path of Constable. The Spitfires striker seemed certain to score as the goal gaped but Ashmore did ever so well to react quickly from his first save and get across to push away Constable’s effort.
Mambo and Chris Bush managed two vital interceptions in the box before Fleet stepped things up again. McQueen’s trickery forced the centre-backs to retreat and his ball wide to Graham was lifted towards Kedwell whose header was good but, under pressure, off target. Powell had another free-kick in familiar territory but cannoned that one off the Eastleigh wall before Shields broke quickly on 64 minutes and crossed for McQueen who stooped low to divert past goalkeeper Graham Stack but the offside flag denied the Fleet a second goal.
But four minutes later, Fleet were in front for only the third time this season. It was a well-worked move as Payne skied an effort towards Bush. He slipped a very good pass to former Chelmsford teammate Graham whose excellent cross got stuck under several feet in the Eastleigh six-yard box, where Kedwell did enough to stab the ball past Stack and over the line.
Graham was on the ball again minutes later with another super cross but this time Kedwell couldn’t climb for it and his header went too high as a result.
With Yeates sacrificed by Eastleigh manager Hill, the visitors’ midfield was much less influential than in the first half. But with Ross Stearn and Sam Matthews on, the visitors gradually began to force the Fleet to sit deeper for a period. Just as it looked Fleet had shaken off the brief Eastleigh revival,on 78 minutes Johnson attacked from the left and let fly with a shot that didn’t look likely to trouble the Fleet until it took a huge deflection off substitute Craig McAllister to wrong-foot Ashmore and find the back of the net.
Try as they might, it was too late for the Fleet to respond, although Bush sent in a decent shot that was diverted for a corner but Eastleigh saw that out and the home side had to settle for their sixth draw in a row and seventh of the season.
EUFC: Ashmore, McCoy, Graham, Mambo, Bush, Shields, Payne, Powell, Coulson (Rance 46), Kedwell (Mills 74), McQueen (McLean 85). Subs not used Cook, Miles.
Eastleigh: Stack, Boyce, Howe, Johnson, Wood, Miley, Hollands, Obileye (Stearn 74), Yeates (Matthews 64), Constable, Zebroski (McAllister 65). Subs not used: Green, Strevens