Talk about saving the best for last – travelling Fleet fans witnessed one of the best displays of the year at the close of 2015 as their side put in a gutsy, dominant performance to come away from The Enclosed Ground with three points for the first time.
There was even the luxury of a missed penalty in a second half that Fleet controlled from start to finish, with the Hawks late shot against the post the sum total of their efforts.
Daryl McMahon reverted to a back four against a speedy, powerful Whitehawk front line so that meant Dean Pooley started his first league game of the season at left back, with Anthony Cook dropping to the bench.
And Fleet were bright and purposeful from the first whistle with Danny Haynes getting free down the left to fire a low shot that Craig Ross turned round the post for the first of six corners for the visitors in the opening half. Haynes had acres of space early on but a heavy pitch that saw both himself and Danny Kedwell slip on the surface meant Fleet could make little headway down the flank.
Matt Godden found his way through on nine minutes courtesy of a deft pass from Jordan Parkes but his shot was well saved by Ross. Fleet were much the better side but Whitehawk looked dangerous on occasion, with Sam Deering sending in a couple of crosses from out wide on the right. Indeed Brandon Hall had to make an excellent save on 11 minutes to tip Jake Robinson’s dipping effort over the bar and he showed great judgement to pluck a cross from Dave Martin out of a sea of bodies.
Haynes got some space down the left to deliver with Parkes and Kedwell lurking but the pitch rather slowed down the pace of his cross. Anthony Acheampong then planted a header at Ross after Parkes hoisted a corner clear of the Whitehawk defence, while his former defensive partner Chris Sessegnon denied Parkes on 20 minutes after a clever one-two with Godden saw Fleet break into the box.
There was little let up from the Fleet for the first half hour, but Whitehawk began to press in the final 15 minutes of the half. Acheampong and Stuart Lewis received cautions for fouls on Sergio Torres and Danny Mills twice went close from eight yards, the first a shot he drove at Hall, the second a header over the bar as the Hawks won a couple of free-kicks from dangerous angles.
Fleet closed the half with another chance, with Haynes able to break down the middle from defence but he seemed in two minds as to whether to go for goal or play in Godden; he opted for the latter but Dean Leacock intercepted.
If Fleet were solid and intelligent in the first half, they were exuberant and remorseless in the second. Straight from the kick-off, Haynes battled clear of the last man and drove in from the left but Ross got a hand to his shot.
Godden and Kedwell gave the Hawks defence a torrid time and the home side’s sloppy approach to clearing their lines saw them lose possession and simply invite Fleet’s pressure back on them. Yet it wasn’t just sloppy defending that worried Whitehawk. Time and again Kedwell and Godden won the ball and if they failed, there was a solid line of Parkes, Lewis and Dean Rance – skippering the side on his 100th club appearance – just waiting to set the strikers free again.
Fleet had their best opportunity on 56 minutes when Godden whisked a ball from out under the feet of two Hawks defenders and played in Kedwell who only had the goalkeeper to beat but the pace of the ball was quick and he couldn’t quite direct it on target. A Parkes cross then found Lewis lurking at the far post but Ross was a head taller and got there first.
McMahon changed things on the hour mark, swapping Haynes for Cook, and it took the new Fleet signing only three minutes to make his mark. Another Fleet attack saw plenty of bodies battling for the ball and Cook was bundled over in the six-yard box by Jordan Rose. After heated remonstrations, Kedwell stepped up but his usual powered effort was slightly lacking in pace and Ross stopped it on the line.
The miss only roused the Fleet fans behind the goal to louder levels of support and the game really opened up as the visitors kept pressing. Whitehawk had their first attack of note since the break on 70 minutes but Hall gathered well with Mills and Robinson ready to take seconds from Scott Neilson’s shot on target.
At the other end, Ross snatched at a goal kick which only reached Godden and he homed in on goal, sliding a shot agonisingly wide of the post. Godden wasn’t to be denied for long, however. On 75 minutes, he found himself through on goal once more; this time he had a little ground on Ross and cleared the goalkeeper with a lob but as Fleet fans celebrated it bounced back off the post. Godden was first to react, however, with the goalkeeper stranded and he blasted the ball into the open goal.
Still Godden wasn’t finished and he broke through again, only to be denied by a block, as the Hawks defence simply couldn’t live with Fleet’s continued forward momentum. The home side were probably relieved when Godden was replaced by Alex Osborn, though they failed to shackle Cook who ran across the box and hit a shot that Ross saved down low.
The home side started to advance in the closing stages and Kenny Clark had to scuff an attack clear of his goalmouth, before Rose then saw an effort hit the post that would have been a real sickener if it had been two inches to the right.
Fleet had the last effort, Osborn breaking through and testing Ross again and that set the seal on 2015 – to send Fleet fans into the night in fine voice. Roll on 2016!
EUFC: Hall, Fish, Pooley, Lewis, Clark, Acheampong, Rance, Parkes, Kedwell, Godden (Osborn 89), Haynes (Cook 59). Subs not used: Miles, Sheringham, Kissock.