So… after nine months / 40 games / 60 hours / 3,600 minutes of football it has come down to this. The Vanarama National League South’s top two going head to head – one to win the title race, one to stay in it. Both clubs’ seasons hinge on 90 minutes at a sold-out York Road, fittingly perhaps the oldest continually used football stadium in the world.
The stakes are arguably not quite as high for the Fleet as they could have been going into this match, with the home side leading by five points and requiring just one more on Saturday to confirm their prize. It could have been so much closer had any one of numerous chances for the Fleet crossed the line at Truro City but, as Daryl McMahon has said, “it is what it is”.
Simply put, Fleet must win to take the title race into the last weekend and then win again, while hoping Margate can gain at least a draw when they host the Magpies on Saturday week.
The fact that it’s even got this far is an achievement in itself for the Fleet. A number of drawn games and four losses up to Boxing Day saw us trail Maidenhead by 11 points at the end of 2016. Fleet’s unbeaten 2017 record ate that gap up quickly as other challengers fell away and, for a time, we returned to the top of the table – albeit with Maidenhead’s game in hand hanging over our brief spell at the summit.
In any other season, 14 wins and three draws in a calendar year would probably have taken the title by now – but Maidenhead have, to their immense credit, brushed off a mini-slump and seemingly returned to the fight stronger. Their game in hand win over Chelmsford and successful negotiation of potentially tricky fixtures such as that at Truro recently have allowed them that extra edge in the final straight – and if they are to wobble before the end, Fleet must be the team to cause it.
In the entire history of the National South, no second-placed side has ever reached 90 points (and it has happened only once in Conference/National North) and indeed you have to go back to 2002/03 to find any feeder league to the top level where two sides topped 90 (Aldershot and Canvey Island in the Ryman League). That shows the level both sides have been performing at this season.
“Yeah we still can do it mathemetically,” McMahon said. “They’ll fancy themselves as favourites coming to Margate to win. We have to go to Maidenhead and put some pressure on that last game of the season if we can. I’ve played and managed in this league for a few years and I can’t remember two teams having over 90 points.
“It’s been brilliant and both sides have had terrific seasons. We’re in a position now where we’ve got everything to gain rather than everything to lose and that’s been the different mindset of this team this season. It’s a mentally stronger team and a better team this year: the points tally and the goals tell you that.”
This time last year, Fleet were in a similar situation with two games to go, having to travel to Sutton to win three points that even then wouldn’t have stopped the eventual champions in their tracks. The same is true on Saturday – a win for the visitors gives us another week, but Maidenhead’s fate remains in their own hands.
For that very reason, talk of pressure being on the Fleet seems wide of the mark – yes, we have to win, but nobody is expecting Maidenhead to sink twice in two weeks so the onus is on them to get at least the draw they need to clinch the title there and then and avoid any last-day pratfalls.
Alan Devonshire’s side top the form table and their current record of nine successive wins has given them the daylight they needed as Fleet had to take draws from two of our last nine. The Magpies’ little wobble in January and February, which saw only four wins from 10 matches, seems to be well and truly behind them.
Danger men Dave Tarpey and Sean Marks need little introduction to Fleet fans – Tarpey’s record-breaking goals return speaks for itself, while Marks’ hat-trick at Stonebridge Road in November could well prove to be three of the most crucial goals he’s ever scored.
Elsewhere, the Magpies squad – much like the Fleet’s – has changed little since August. Winger Harry Pritchard provides a creative force down the left, while James Mulley and James Comley are the engine room. At the back, the experienced Dean Inman and skipper Alan Massey have formed an excellent partnership that has seen the miserly Magpies concede two goals fewer than the Fleet this season. Goalkeeper Carl Pentney has made some crucial spot-kick saves, too, including one last weekend at Truro.
But Daryl McMahon will have drilled into this side that they have stayed more or less toe-to-toe with Maidenhead up till now and have their own weapons to deploy. We may lack a 40-plus goal machine of Tarpey’s ilk, but Fleet’s goals – more of them in the league than Maidenhead – come from all over the park. Given injuries and Fleet’s relatively small available squad, there aren’t too many surprises McMahon can pull in team selection.
Dave Winfield is likely to keep his place, having returned from injury last week, and will captain the side in Danny Kedwell’s absence. The main questions will be whether Jack Powell or Dean Rance is preferred in midfield and who earns the wide berth out of Sean Shields and Anthony Cook – assuming, of course, that Fleet don’t go for a bolder 3-5-2 from the outset.
If Fleet fans are looking for some positives, our record at York Road against Maidenhead is good – and better than our home record against them – with only one defeat there in six matches against the Magpies. Add to that two wins against Hayes at the same venue (our last visit was Matt Godden’s four-goal spree in a 5-0 win) and visiting supporters have some good memories of the ground.
They will be hoping to add one more come 4.45pm on Saturday.