ONE moment of quality in a tight game was enough to decide yet another painful afternoon at Plainmoor and this was a sickening result.
United were the better side, the side playing with a higher tempo and bigger desire, but one threaded pass from Fleetwood substitute Jon Parkin released Jamille Matt to score the only goal 17 minutes from time.
It was heartbreaking for the Gulls, who finished the day nine points from safety, and that situation will only change when decent play is converted into goals.
United manager Chris Hargreaves made four changes from the side defeated at Hartlepool last weekend and the first big decision came in goal, where Martin Rice was preferred to Michael Poke.
A sore shoulder relegated Anthony O’Connor to the bench and he was replaced at right-back by Dale Tonge. There was a recall to midfield for fit-again captain Lee Mansell ahead of Ben Harding and a training ground injury for Shamir Goodwin presented Karl Hawley with a start alongside Elliot Benyon and Enoch Showunmi in a three-pronged attack.
Fleetwood boss Graham Alexander kept faith with the side that battled to a 0-0 draw at Newport in midweek. The one change for the visitors came on the bench, where Matty Blair came in for Alex Marrow.
A sedate start to the game in beautiful spring sunshine allowed both teams to settle, although Fleetwood ‘keeper Chris Maxwell flapped somewhat at a lofted ball from Kevin Nicholson and the loose ball only just evaded the prowling Hawley.
The Gulls looked a more determined unit in the early stages and Showunmi soon showed his physical presence to climb highest from a Tonge cross, but the header was well wide.
United then went to sleep from a quick free-kick by Fleetwood and Gareth Evans sneaked in behind a static Yellow defence, who were grateful to Rice and Tonge for mopping up the danger.
After 20 minutes of attritional football, Aaron Downes raised the roof with an incredible 40-yard shot that shaved the bar after battling work from Showunmi and Hawley around the penalty area. It was a stunning effort and a crunching tackle from Mansell moments later raised the temperature even further.
The scrappy pattern soon returned and United were grateful to an excellent defensive header from Downes to thwart a darting run to the near-post by the otherwise quiet Matt.
Despite the stodgy nature of proceedings, the better tempo was coming from those in Yellow and the lack of a genuine goal-threat from the visitors merely added to growing belief in United ranks.
A free-kick 25 yards from goal and in a central area enabled Joss Labadie to fire in a low shot but it was easy meat for Maxwell. United’s next attack had real promise, as Mansell shifted the ball wide to Benyon on the right, only for the final cross to float harmlessly over the bar.
The half ended with the Gulls content to be level and a burst down the right from Benyon resulted in a free-kick seconds after the restart. The angle was difficult for Nicholson but his swinging drive still had Maxwell diving full length to smother the ball.
A slip from Alan Goodall allowed Benyon another run to the touchline but Fleetwood recovered to clear. The visitors then found Matt creeping in behind Downes and Rice needed his first serious save of the afternoon to maintain parity.
Fleetwood then turned to the bench, removing Evans for the powerful Parkin. The big striker had barely seen the ball when a deep cross from Nicholson found Mansell, who had his first two shots well blocked before the final effort was deflected wide by the head of Damon Lathrope.
Suddenly, the game was far more open and Plainmoor breathed a huge sigh of relief when a bobbling shot scuttled past Rice and clipped the outside of the far post. Back up the other end, and the strength of Showunmi conjured another opening for Mansell, but the skipper’s radar was off target.
Hargreaves turned to his bench on the hour, introducing Courtney Cameron for Hawley to give the Gulls a different option from the left wing, as the game entered a critical phase. Fleetwood responded with a double change, removing Alan Goodall and Stewart Murdoch for Matt Hughes and Josh Morris.
The changing season continued with Benyon and Mansell coming off for Jordan Chapell and Jayden Stockley. It was also a switch to the conventional 4-4-2 and both managers had used their quota of replacements with 20 minutes still remaining.
It was a game that one goal written all over it and a wonderfully deft pass between the centre-backs from Parkin presented Matt with the big opportunity of the day, and he kept his cool to slot past the stranded Rice.
Now or never for United, and the ball was soon shifted forward for Showunmi to compete and Stockley’s snapshot prompted a decent low save from the alert Maxwell. A whipped corner from Nicholson soon after was expertly cleared by Parkin.
The Gulls created a clear opening with the next launch forward, as a cushioned header from Showunmi picked out a surging break by Labadie, but United were denied by either a superb goal-saving tackle, or a foul, from Nathan Pond.
To their eternal credit, United were having a real go and thoroughly deserved an equaliser, but every cross pumped into the box was somehow scrambled clear, as the ball refused to fall for a clear chance.
Yellow spirit never wavered and the players can take heart from their relentless endeavour, but the goals refuse to come, despite Labadie forcing one final block from Maxwell in the dying seconds.
United [4-3-3]: 13 Martin Rice; 2 Dale Tonge, 5 Krystian Pearce, 4 Aaron Downes, 3 Kevin Nicholson; 7 Lee Mansell [capt] (12 Jordan Chapell 71), 6 Damon Lathrope, 18 Joss Labadie; 9 Karl Hawley (11 Courtney Cameron 63), 25 Enoch Showunmi, 26 Elliot Benyon (19 Jayden Stockley 71). Substitutes [not used]: 1 Michael Poke [GK], 8 Ben Harding, 23 Danny Stevens, 29 Anthony O’Connor.
Fleetwood [3-5-2]: 28 Chris Maxwell; 5 Mark Roberts [capt], 6 Nathan Pond, 13 Alan Goodall (22 Matt Hughes 66); 15 Conor McLaughlin, 4 Stewart Murdoch (24 Josh Morris 66), 18 Antoni Sarcevic, 8 Steven Schumacher, 20 Charlie Taylor; 7 Gareth Evans (9 Jon Parkin 53), 10 Jamille Matt. Substitutes [not used]: 1 Scott Davies [GK], 17 Matty Blair, 22 Matt Hughes, 25 Stephen Jordan, 34 Mikael Mandron.
Booked:McLaughlin 80, Hughes 84, Pond 90
Referee: Steven Rushton
Attendance:2,245 (79 away).