Eastbourne have now failed to beat the Fleet in 17 attempts but for an hour of this match, they looked like they might just spoil the Community Day party at Stonebridge Road before the home side upped the tempo in the second half. As with last year’s Community Day, Fleet had to come from behind to keep their automatic promotion hopes alive and in so doing, they passed 90 league goals in a season for only the fourth time in club history.
Daryl McMahon made three changes, Bradley Bubb coming in for the injured Danny Kedwell, while Dave Winfield and Sean Shields replaced Mark Phillips and Anthony Cook. Eastbourne top scorer Nathaniel Pinney was on the bench for them, but former Fleet duo Craig Stone and Ian Simpemba made the starting lineup.
With Fleet needing to win to keep any effective hopes of the title alive, they started with some neat football in midfield but Bubb and Darren McQueen struggled to see much service. Andy Drury’s quickly taken free-kick saw Jack Powell slide an effort wide before referee Elliott Kaye took centre stage – not for the first time where the Fleet are concerned – on six minutes, denying a penalty when Sam Deering appeared to be pulled back and then bundled to the ground eight yards out.
Fleet had the best of the opening half hour though attacks were sporadic, with Kenny Clark’s header blocked and then Sean Shields’ mazy run halted before he could create any real damage. On 25 minutes, Powell’s quick free-kick almost played Drury in, the Fleet midfielder getting a touch in the six-yard box but the ball deflected wide.
Eastbourne enjoyed a good spell from that point and Nathan Ashmore did well to palm away a curling Craig Stone effort as Reece Connolly stood in the goalkeeper’s way ready to pounce. Jamie Taylor then took advantage of a bounce that wrong-footed Jack Connors, getting clear of the Fleet full-back but pulling a rather wasted cross back along the Fleet box.
On 37 minutes, Dave Winfield and Sam Deering combined with a quick exchange of passes that opened a path in midfield and Deering slipped a great through ball to Bubb, who was just about halted in his tracks by a great tackle from Shaun Hobson.
But from that attack, Eastbourne countered and Gavin McCallum got away through the middle to drive an excellent shot at Ashmore. The Fleet keeper pulled off a fine save but as the ball bounced up, Clark handled as he went to clear and Mr Kaye pointed to the spot. Ryan Worrall, as he had against Dartford last weekend, made no mistake with the penalty to momentarily silence Stonebridge Road.
That last 15 minutes of the first half didn’t make for enjoyable viewing for most of the 2,477 crowd but after a half-time talking-to, Fleet summoned up their passion and spirit in the second half.
They looked eager from the restart and within a minute Marvin McCoy made good ground on the right to deliver a ball in that Powell almost touched beyond Jordan Holmes. Fleet had another penalty shout on 52 minutes when Bubb turned past Hobson and seemed to be held back as he scampered for the ball but again the referee ignored the protests.
But that was forgotten four minutes later as Fleet got themselves back in the game. Deering, growing ever more influential, received a pass on the right and he whipped in a low ball to the near post. McQueen rather overran it but it sat up in Bubb’s path for him to force over the line for the equaliser.
Now there looked only one team capable of winning the game and Fleet played some excellent attacking football. McMahon went 3-5-2, taking Connors off and bringing Cook on and Eastbourne were constantly on the back foot – though McCallum had two chances to put his team back in front when Ashmore saved at his feet and he was pushed wide, firing his second effort into the side netting.
Another penalty shout went begging on 66 minutes when Deering made to jink around Simpemba in the box and had his ankles taken from under him but the referee, in customary pose, firmly waved away yet more protests. Fleet chanelled their anger into goals. Drury hit the post with a shot before the same player picked out a perfect pass on 68 minutes for Cook to zip in from the right and deliver a precise low shot beneath Holmes to make it 2-1.
The home side continued to boss the game but with a one-goal lead they had the odd nervy moment, particularly in the 71st minute when a couple of defensive mishaps saw Jamie Taylor with an opportunity to level but he inexplicably fired wide.
Goalkeeper Holmes had to leave the field after an earlier clash with Bubb and Eastbourne brought on Lewis Carey whose main job was to pick the ball out of the net twice more. Three minutes from the end, substitute Aaron McLean in his first game back for seven months supplied a square pass for Bubb who was nicely positioned in the centre of the box and he smacked the ball high over Carey and into the roof of the net for his second and Fleet’s third goal.
Fleet kept coming. Deering ran through on goal only to see Carey save and the same scenario a minute later saw Deering slip the ball wide to McLean who was only denied by a fingertip stop by the goalkeeper.
But McLean wasn’t to be denied his moment of joy. In time added on, Deering was set free by a ball over the top and as he prodded the ball past the goalkeeper, he was sent flying and finally the referee pointed to the spot.
Bubb could have insisted on the kick to complete a hat-trick but he stepped aside for McLean to power a penalty home and leave the big Stonebridge Road crowd rocking.
EUFC: Ashmore, Shields, Connors (Cook 57), McCoy, Winfield, Clark, Powell (Rance 73), Drury, McQueen (McLean 78), Bubb, Deering. Subs not used: Phillips, Jordan
EBFC: Holmes (Carey 73), Hare, Stone, Hughes, Simpemba, Hobson, McCallum, Worrall (Oxlade-Chamberlain 75), Connolly (Pinney 68), Taylor, Khinda-John. Subs not used: Bosma, Tate