Fleet just keep on ticking over as another vintage “2017 performance” lifted Daryl McMahon’s side to the National South summit against a dogged Whitehawk who couldn’t quite keep their visitors at bay.
Key to the Fleet’s recent successes has clearly been a solid shape and consistent personnel and the boss was able to name an unchanged side for the third match in succession.
With Fleet opting to kick down the slope in the first half, as they had in the play-off semi-finals, the game opened up at a fair pace with both sides eager to get forward. Whitehawk target man Danny Mills set off like an express train and should really have fired his side in front in the first minute when he controlled a weighted pass and let fly with an effort that ran just wide.
Fleet responded by winning a couple of corners but it was the Hawks, with new signing Ibby Akanbi linking up well with Mills, who looked more potent initially. On 7 minutes Mills broke clear and appeared to have the pace to get beyond Kenny Clark but the Fleet defender did well to marshall him wide and the chance was gone.
Mills continued to play a very direct game and Dave Winfield had his hands full as the pair opted for a physical face-off. Up to the 20th minute, Whitehawk kept Fleet penned into their own half and some sloppy distribution out of defence wasn’t helping the visitors’ cause. Nathan Ashmore had to punch an Akanbi effort out of the box and Jimmy Shepherd, one of two debutants in the home side, lacked power in his shot when well-placed.
Having resisted that spell of pressure, however, Fleet began to assert themselves. Drury’s wonderful cross-field pass into Bradley Bubb in the 21st minute opened up the Hawks back line but goalkeeper Tom Stewart was able to divert the shot into the side netting.
Back came Whitehawk in a real end-to-end battle and a very patient build-up saw the ball worked well across the Fleet box before Shepherd again tested Ashmore. From the kick-out, it was Fleet’s turn once again and Shields cut into the box, seeing his cross-cum-shot delivered to safety.
On the half hour, the Hawks again had reason to rue their luck when Mills managed to dig a pass out from under Clark, who slipped as he battled for the ball, and a low pass into the six-yard box caused consternation before the cross was eventually hacked away from the toes of Akanbi.
But as has so often been the case in recent weeks, Fleet were able to unlock the defence with a deft passage of play to get their noses in front. It came courtesy of Shields on 34 minutes when the winger performed his trademark twist and turn to outfox Shepherd, found some space to deliver a low ball along the six-yard line that ran clear to Danny Kedwell and he rifled a shot into the roof of the net.
Five minutes before the break, Jack Connors switched play with a superb pass outside to Shields on the flank and another cross from the foot of the No.2 was met by Bubb in a similar position to Kedwell’s earlier goal but this one went high over the bar.
Sam Deering almost celebrated a measure of good fortune when some sloppy play from Howlett-Mundle saw the ball bounce in no-man’s land and as Deering went to capitalise, he ran into Dan Harding who was most unfortunate to get a booking.
The home side began the second-half well but Mills was increasingly peripheral in front of a disjointed midfield clearly lacking the guile of the injured Sergio Torres and Fleet surrendered a little possession but weren’t unduly troubled.
Two minutes in, Bubb managed to carve out an opportunity from nothing with a clever chip over Stewart but as he rounded the keeper, Harding was on hand to smash the ball clear.
On 54 minutes, Favarel sent a lob over Winfield and Clark that landed in the box and it was lucky it ran away from Mills who would have been in on goal with a better run of the ball.
After that, the game became rather scrappy and marooned in midfield, which suited the Fleet who were happy to see Whitehawk struggle for chances. However, the visitors’ penchant for creating goalscoring chances from passages of barren play came to the fore again 20 minutes from the end. A ball from defence was headed aside by Kedwell with his back to goal. Drury ran on to it and swept a pass to the corner of the box for Shields and he was able to take advantage of the space afforded him by finishing well past Stewart for 2-0.
That seemed to knock the last vestiges of resistance out of Whitehawk and Fleet were able to pass the ball around and wind the clock down. Dean Rance could have made it 3-0 with a bullet header from close range but Stewart pulled off an excellent reaction save.
Whitehawk weren’t quite finished, however, and Alex Osborn sent a fizzing shot on target that Ashmore saved well and the Fleet goalkeeper had to do the same when Akanbi sent another crashing in towards the end of the match.
Fleet had the final say, though, as the game entered time added on. Drury supplied the killer ball from a position to the right of the box and with defenders flapping, Kedwell stood lurking on the 12-yard spot and the skipper made no mistake to draw himself alongside Darren McQueen and Jack Powell at the top of the Fleet’s league goalscorers’ chart.
That late goal took Fleet to the top of the league for the first time since the opening day of the season to finally close the gap that previously runaway leaders Maidenhead had enjoyed until now.
EUFC: Ashmore, Shields (Cook 78), Connors, McCoy, Winfield, Clark, Rance, Drury, Kedwell, Bubb (McQueen 71), Deering. Subs not used: Miles, Mambo, Powell
WFC: Stewart, Shepherd, Harding, Favarel, Marimon, Howlett-Mundle (Hamilton 74), Scales, Southam (West 79), Mills, Akanbi, Osborn (Abdulla 85). Subs not used: Covolan, Rodrigues