Three points and win number four in succession takes Fleet to 55 points this season, one more already than the 54 total of 2011/12. Were Daryl McMahon’s side to bag three points next weekend, Fleet would already have the largest points haul at this level for 10 years with two months of the season left.
Next weekend is seven days away, however, and the 98 Fleet fans who travelled 270 miles to Hartlepool will be savouring today’s victory, handed to them by Dean Rance’s first goal of the season on his 198th appearance.
McMahon understandably named an unchanged side and bench given Fleet’s creditable performance at home to Woking in midweek and the red shirts continued from where they left off as they harried Hartlepool from the off.
With just over a minute on the clock, Corey Whitely sped on to a ball to work himself into 10 yards of space as he raced into the box, striking a shot off the base of the post. The start was no fluke and Fleet continued to boss proceedings, with the Pools’ defence looking incredibly shaky.
Luke Coulson had the next good chance on four minutes, finding an opening from the left and despatching a fine shot that goalkeeper Scott Loach had to tip over his crossbar. Coulson had the Hartlepool defence on alert from the off and with Jack Connors behind him, the home side were stretched and Devante Rodney earned a yellow card after fouling Connors as early as the 7th minute.
A minute after that and Fleet were on the front foot again, Whitely receiving a Connors throw into the box and turning smartly to get a shot on target that Loach again had to stop. The game was 10 minutes old before Hartlepool mustered an attack and though the build-up was good, Michael Woods rather wasted the chance with a weak execution that Nathan Ashmore was able to scoop into his arms.
In blustery conditions, Fleet continued to enjoy the largely one-way traffic of the first-half and they got the goal their rapid start warranted on 16 minutes. Coulson was the architect with another sweep from the left flank and he delivered a cross to the far post where Rance, who has threatened in advanced positions in recent weeks, was able to steer the ball home with a header.
What Hartlepool did throw at the Fleet wasn’t unduly troubling and Ashmore blocked a Blair Adams cross while a couple of corners were dealt with. Fleet were soon back on the attack and Andy Drury drove through midfield, finding Coulson who forced Loach into a save before the ball was struck too high off target as Whitely sought to capitalise.
Whitely should really have made it 2-0 on 22 minutes when Danny Kedwell landed an excellent ball at his feet, completely outfoxing the Pools defence and though Whitely went one on one with Loach, he succeeded only in sending his shot the wrong side of the post. Coulson continued to pick away at the stretched Luke George and saw another chance saved by Loach before he supplied another cross that Whitely sent over.
In defence, Connors had to deny Rhys Oates and Hartlepool’s top scorer Woods fired well over from 12 yards after a corner landed well for him, Ashmore grateful to watch that one sail over his crossbar.
Whitely had two more efforts before half-time, one saved by Loach, one clearing the bar, while Kedwell also tried his luck from distance, and when the whistle went for half-time, Fleet might almost have been dejected to only be a goal to the good.
The visitors couldn’t quite maintain that tempo in the second-half as the wind continued to buffet Victoria Park but they dug in to deny Hartlepool a foothold in the game. A somewhat less frantic second-half at least saw the home side gather their composure a little better. However, when Whitely found Kedwell for the Fleet top scorer to skip through the challenge of three defenders, the home fans’ angst reached a higher level of volume.
But Pools had the bit between their teeth for a while and were inches from an equaliser on 57 minutes when Ashmore made a series of brave stops as Jake Cassidy created confusion with a shot from inside the box, which Magnay and Woods both then tried to force past the Fleet goalkeeper to no avail, his last save in particular catching the eye as he pushed the ball away and off the line while falling.
Ashmore had to be alert again when a long throw-in was met by substitute Conor Newton whose header was only just held on the line by the Fleet keeper. Hartlepool enjoyed their fair share of possession in the final 20 minutes but Ashmore marshalled his back line and his box well whenever the ball approached and he dealt with Pools’ remaining corners with confidence.
This was a win that showed both sides of McMahon’s squad – creative and flowing in the first-half, tough, composed and gritty in the second and they’ll need all of those qualities when Wrexham come to town on Saturday.
EUFC: Ashmore, Magri, Connors, Winfield, Clark, Rance, Payne, Drury, Coulson (Shields 73), Kedwell, Whitely (Weston 89). Subs not used: Powell, Bush, Miles
HUFC: Loach, Magnay, Harrison, Laing, Adams, Featherstone, George (Hawkins 75), Woods, Rodney (Newton 61), Cassidy, Oates. Subs not used: Catterick, Hawkes, Owen