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|Nationwide Conference||Mike Green reports from Stonebridge Road|
|Gravesend & Northfleet||0|
Something else on their minds?
SO the unbeaten start for new Fleet boss Liam Daish is over, as Halifax Town completed not only the double over Gravesend, but also marched into second place in the Nationwide Conference table.
And in all honesty the Shaymen fully deserved the three points as although there were times that the Fleet seemed to be playing "keep ball", you always thought that the real threat in front of goal came from the visitors all night and in particular Ryan Sugden, who ironically enough had settled the game earlier in the season at the Shay, with a goal 15 seconds after half time!
Sugden worked tirelessly throughout against a makeshift Gravesend defense as manager Daish chose to "rotate" his squad with the FA Trophy at Bishops Stortford just three days away!
With Steve McKimm and Paul McCarthy left on the bench alongside Matt Lovell, and Roy Essendoh, Manny Omoyinmi and Moussa Sidibe all either injured or unavailable, manager Daish took on paper at least what seemed to be a gamble - and proved to be one that back fired.
But it could have been such a different story had the Fleet been able to exploit the fact that Halifax number one keeper Ian Dunbavin pulled a muscle in the pre-match warm up, throwing young Craig Parry literally in at the deep end at the last minute.
Parry had not even been on the bench prior to Dunbavin's mishap, and now the young man was facing 90 Conference minutes!
Not that he had need to worry as within 90 seconds of the start the visitors were in front. A fine through ball from full back Steve Haslam found Craig Midgley who took advantage of the space between Nathan Bunce and Justin Skinner to fire the ball across James Pullen and into the Fleet net.
Not the start the home side wanted and it took the Fleet a while to gain a foothold... but when they did they found young Parry in sparkling form.
On 18 minutes James Pinnock escaped down the right; his cross to the far post superb; even Jimmy Jackson's header was great, but the tip over save from Parry really was straight out of the top draw!
As the visitors defence failed to clear the resulting corner, the ball fell to Pinnock who's shot screwed horribly wide!
Just past the half hour, the Fleet were indebted to keeper Pullen's right boot, as Sugden broke through and drove goalwards. Moments later you could say that the result was put beyond doubt as Halifax scored their second courtesy of a substitutes first touch. Lewis Kileen (on for the injured Darren Mansaram) beat the offside trap again through the inside right channel, and as the Fleet defense struggled woefully to catch him, the substitute coolly drew Pullen before rolling the ball square for Howell to run the ball into the empty net.
It was a cruel blow to the Fleet, but the look on manager Daish's face somehow thought that there may be a few "cruel" words uttered at the break. Indeed as it turned out, Gravesend were indebted to Lee Gledhill that they were only two down at half time, for as in stoppage time, Bunce's slip allowed Haslam the space to sprint down the right. Fortunately for the Fleet's central defender, his partner Gledhill was first to react as Haslam's driven cross ricocheted around the penalty area.
Afterwards, manager Daish ruefully admitted that his side had "showed them too much respect all over the pitch. It was particularly evident in the first half - didn't it show why you cant give a side like Halifax the sort of room we gave them!"
After the break, Halifax were quite happy for the Fleet to have the ball and lets face it - why not? They had the cushion of a two goal lead and it was up to Gravesend to come back into the game. They almost did on 53 minutes as Jean Michel Sigere (who had a quiet night against a fine central defensive pairing of Denny Ingram and Adam Quinn) flicked on Pullen's down field punt.
Jackson was first to react and his lay off found Pinnock who's first time drive was blocked.
Stonebridge Road's lowest Conference gate of the season - just 716 (I suppose the lure of Ronaldhino vs Terry & Lampard vs Deco proved "too much" for many) were encouraged and 64 minutes they almost saw their heroes right back in the game. Lee Protheroe took a left wing corner - keeper Parry completed misjudged the flight of the ball and it smacked off the face of the bar and away to safety.
Try as they might the Fleet couldn't find a way through, although they thought they'd set up a grandstand finish, when Sigere connected with Skinner's through ball but the assistants flag had long since been fluttering in the Northfleet drizzle.
Halifax cemented the points with a third in the last minute (Kileen racing onto another fine through ball from Howell to cap a fine personal nights work), but in truth by then so many of the fans thoughts had turned to the weekend and that FA Trophy Quarter Final at Bishops Stortford.
And I suppose you couldn't really blame them. The Fleet hadn't performed that well against a very good Halifax side.
As Protheroe put it afterwards when asked about the thought of the Trophy; "we know that we've got a heck of a chance of going all the way to Villa Park. I know Stortford will present a big test, but when you're this close, you cant help dreaming, as its something that will live with you for the
rest of your career!"
Lets just hope for everyone concerned, all the way from chairman Brian Killcullen to Albert the kit man, Saturday's Quarter Final (the first time Gravesend have ever played in the last eight of the Trophy incidentally) doesn't turn into a nightmare!
Gravesend & Northfleet: Pullen; Protheroe, Gledhill, Bunce, Skinner; Drury (Lovell 74), Surey, Saunders, Jackson; Sigere, Pinnock. Subs: McKimm, McCarthy, Moore, Wilkerson
Halifax Town: Parry; Haslam, Ingram, Quinn, Young; Midgley (Ross 90), Bushell, Foster, Howell (Blunt 90); Mansaram (Kileen 33), Sugden Subs: Monington, Stoneham