Something had to give as the two clubs with 100% records and two clean sheets met at Bulpitt Lane – and it was both those statistics that fell by the wayside for both sides.
Fleet’s first-ever visit to Hungerford was a sunny, humid affair that the visitors may have felt they should have won on the balance of chances but they found the Crusaders a resolute and well-organised unit on their own pitch.
With Danny Kedwell injured, Daryl McMahon was at least able to give Charlie Sheringham his first start since late March and the boss also handed Marvin McCoy his debut in place of Matt Fish.
Kicking down the slope, Fleet looked to get in behind Hungerford before their hosts could settle and Sean Shields delivered a well-aimed cross into the box inside the first minute that Cook met but headed wide.
Shields was pulling the Hungerford defence wide on several occasions but the home team soon settled into what appeared to be a well-established pattern and held the Fleet attacks at arm’s length. Indeed they then produced two of the best chances in quick succession. On 20 minutes Harry Goodger rifled a low shot through a crowded box that must have left Nathan Ashmore unsighted and he was glad to see it slide wide of his far post.
Goodger was on hand again a minute later and went even closer this time, meeting a free-kick into the box with an effort that bounced off the post and Ashmore had to be quick to pounce on the rebound with two white shirts looming.
That was the warning Fleet needed to pick up their game and they increased the tempo, playing it around well in midfield and forcing Hungerford on to the back foot. Again Shields was proving to be something of a torment on the right wing but for all their possession Fleet couldn’t seem to find a way through.
That was until a minute before half-time when a ball wide was picked up by Shields who deftly got away from the full-back and sent over a soaring cross to the far post where Sheringham met it from close range to head beyond on-loan Reading goalkeeper George Legg.
If Hungerford felt sore at conceding that one, they got over it quickly enough. The second half was only three minutes old when Ian Herring’s snapshot down the middle was parried by Ashmore but only into the space in front of him and former Basingstoke and Sutton striker Nichols Bignall was first on to it to scoop it into the empty net.
Five minutes later Nat Jarvis controlled a downwards header and spun around McCoy to fire an effort just wide as Fleet briefly looked unsettled. But the visitors gathered themselves and resumed their attacks, not least on 54 minutes when John Paul Kissock sent a delightful weighted pass over the Hungerford back line. Anthony Cook’s reaction was electric and he raced past the last defender but lifted his shot too high as Legg came out to meet him.
The game got a little niggly with some hefty challenges abounding thereafter and both sides looked to ping balls in from wide with McCoy’s long throws into the box almost as troublesome for the defence as his opposite number Scott Rees who delivered even longer ones into the Fleet box.
McMahon threw on Sam Deering and Stuart Lewis for the last 20 minutes and they provided more impetus up front, with Sheringham working hard to create space and provide a target for crosses. Cook caused consternation in the box with three crosses in succession and Deering supplied a good delivery for Kissock but he lashed it over the bar.
More chances came and went, Kenny Clark sending another Deering cross too high and Legg producing a top-drawer save from a powerful Dave Winfield header on 81 minutes. Hungerford weren’t lying down, however, and Mike Jones’ header saw Fleet hastily scramble the ball clear with Bignall looming.
With the game petering out to what appeared to be its foregone conclusion, Fleet had two last chances to win it. Another Deering delivery curled to the far post where Sheringham awaited it but he sent the header over the crossbar. The same two players were involved in an even better chance in time added on when Deering battled well to create a run on goal for himself. He seemed certain to tuck it away himself but instead squared it to Sheringham as Legg advanced and the Fleet striker, perhaps not expecting the pass, saw the goalkeeper make a very well-executed block.
EUFC: Ashmore, McCoy, Connors, Kissock, Winfield, Clark, Rance, Shields (Deering 67), Sheringham, Cook, Powell (Lewis 67). Subs not used: Miles, Greenidge, McQueen
HTFC: Legg, Rees, Tyler Jones, Day, Williams, Clark, Herring, Jarvis (Brown 76), Bignall, Goodger (Preen 76). Subs not used: Rusby, Boardman, John