Fleet in 2017 equalled their stunning start to last season as victory over St Albans City took Daryl McMahon’s side’s record to won 10, drawn one, lost none. The manager will have been delighted with his side’s clinical first-half display and robust rearguard as another clean sheet saw the home side shut out.
Three goals in 10 first-half minutes, similar to the three-goal blitz Fleet recorded against the same opposition at Stonebridge Road in September, meant a seventh win in the last eight games at Clarence Park.
With one enforced change, Mark Phillips replacing the injured Dave Winfield, Fleet also named recalled loan pair Jon Miles and Reiss Greenidge on the bench. Luckless City handed debuts to loan pair Lewis Freestone and Joe Robinson in defence and Freestone in particular was given a harsh welcome to non-league football by the busy Sam Deering.
Fleet looked hungry from the first whistle and forced a corner in the opening minute. Jack Powell’s delivery was a good one and as Danny Kedwell shaped to shoot he appeared to be bundled to the ground but despite vociferous appeals from the Fleet skipper, the referee was unmoved.
But the home side managed to stem the flow and started to create chances of their own. With winger Shaun Lucien overlapping on the right, he got behind to deliver for Ben Herd who diverted the ball just over the bar.
Deering slammed a Kedwell cross well over on 12 minutes before City enjoyed a good 10 minutes on the front foot. Kenny Clark did well to shepherd Charlie Walker aside as the striker dropped a shoulder and threatened to get goal side of him and Nathan Ashmore had to be alert to punch clear as a cushioned Andy Drury header put him in trouble on the edge of his box.
Fleet were lacking a little fluidity but they kept St Albans at bay and Anthony Cook floated a useful effort just past the upright on 20 minutes. Seven minutes later, the visitors had their noses in front. Bradley Bubb went close with a shot that Kedwell had another stab at but City failed to clear their lines from a throw-in and as Kedwell held the ball up on the edge of the box, Deering swept on to it, advanced and tucked a shot out of James Russell’s reach from 10 yards.
Deering’s persistence, with him picking up so much second ball, was creating plenty of forward opportunities for the Fleet and on 31 minutes he charged down a poor Freestone clearance and supplied Bubb whose shot was only parried by Russell and Deering, who was following up his own delivery, slipped under pressure with the goal at his mercy.
But that miss was brushed aside on 34 minutes when Powell sized up a direct free-kick and deployed his trademark set piece, curling the ball over the wall and into the top corner out of Russell’s reach. Fleet fans barely had time to celebrate the second goal before a third was gift-wrapped for them. Joe Robinson made a hash of a routine clearance, handing Kedwell the opportunity to burst through on goal and the veteran striker kept his head to slot past Russell for 3-0.
Fleet could and probably should have been 4-0 up five minutes before the break when Bubb pulled back a ball from the byline and Cook slipped in to divert it beyond Russell but a harsh offside flag cut short the celebrations. City were then unfortunate a minute from the break when they slipped a low cross along the six-yard box that both Clark and Jack Connors watched skip past them but Walker was unable to pounce.
The second half was a much more laid-back affair with Fleet almost on auto-pilot and they surrendered some possession to the home side but with Walker ploughing a lone furrow for them up front, there was little damage inflicted. Fleet’s passing was a little ragged early on but Andy Drury wasn’t far off with a deft lob on 53 minutes.
But the same player went down on the hour mark as he and Cook attempted to stop Herd in his tracks, looking as if he caught his foot in the challenge and after a lengthy spell of treatment, his long slow limp off the pitch was a concern for all those in red.
With Deering pushed into the middle and Sean Shields coming on out wide, the jolt to Fleet’s shape took a time to recover and City tried to take advantage, with Lucien and David Noble creating a couple of half chances.
Substitute Tshikala for St Albans showed a good turn of pace and within a minute of coming on, he slipped the offside trap and went down as Phillips clipped his heels. It wasn’t particularly malicious, but with Phillips having picked up a yellow card earlier in the half, it was a hearts-in-mouth moment for Fleet fans who were convinced they were about to lose another centre half – but the referee contented himself with just a talking-to. McMahon, however, had seen enough of that confrontation and moments later brought Yado Mambo on in Phillips’ place.
Fleet picked up the pace in the last 15 minutes and could have got that fourth goal as Cook saw his shot from Shields’ cross blocked by the goalkeeper. Russell earned his corn moments later when he then saved twice from Shields and Kedwell, before Deering fired the loose ball wide with a third effort.
Then, with seven minutes left, McQueen hared upfield on the counterattack, lobbed Russell though his effort was off-centre and fell to Cook who hooked a shot goalwards towards the corner upright but the goalkeeper had backtracked and was relieved to see the ball drop into his hands instead of over the line.
A couple of corners were won to see the game out but Fleet rarely looked in any danger of seeing their 2017 record damaged and they march on to two home games as the title run-in becomes ever more tense.
EUFC: Ashmore, Cook, Connors, McCoy, Phillips (Mambo 74), Clark, Powell, Drury (Shields 62), Kedwell, Bubb (McQueen 57), Deering. Subs: Miles, Greenidge
SACFC: Russell, Herd, Freestone, Robinson, Gardiner (Kerr 83), Saville, Lucien (Swales 79), Thomas, Walker, Merson (Tshikala 72), Noble. Subs. Casey, Iwediuno