Non-League Football

Calling in on…Ebbsfleet United – High speed to the national league

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I always thought that Ebbsfleet was a manufactured name conjured-up by chin-stroking marketing people with a bunch of tiles left over from a game of Scrabble. Not so – the Ebbsfleet Valley is a big redevelopment area in the Kent hinterland and it’s named after the river Ebbsfleet. This in itself is a manufactured moniker, invented by beard-tugging 17th century antiquaries. It does sound like someone’s idea of a post-WW2 social project of a new town.

Somebody decided that it was a good idea to change the local football team’s name from Gravesend & Northfleet to Ebbsfleet to align the club to the exciting plans in place for the area. Everyone – who doesn’t come from this part of Kent – likes to think that Gravesend is so-called because it is linked with death, plague and pestilence. Actually, one of the theories is that during the great plague it was where the “graves ended”. There are other, less interesting, less damning stories, but it suits the macabre in us to attach brimstone and sulphur to the name of the town.

In 2007, then, the club’s name was changed from Gravesend & Northfleet to Ebbsfleet and with the building of a Eurostar station, suddenly the area seemed to have acquired international importance. Today, you can pick up a very fast train from London St. Pancras and 17 minutes later, you have by-passed East London, Thurrock and Dartford and you’re in Gravesend…sorry, Northfleet, apologies, Ebbsfleet. What a service. Now, I don’t want to be controversial, but if this is HS1, then bring on HS2!

And what of the football club? I recall that in 2007, it ventured into fan ownership through the MyFootballClub experiment. I am all for fan representation and trusts that act as holding companies, but consensus-led football clubs? No, it doesn’t work. We cannot run a football club like a coalition. Whatever next, coalition governments?

So MyFootballClub started with 27,000 “owners”, peaked at 32,000 and by 2010 there were just 3,500. Ebbsfleet, in 2011, announced that they needed £ 50,000 to stay alive, and two years later, the remaining members of MyFootballClub voted to hand two thirds of the shares to the “Fleet Trust” and one third to one of the club’s majority shareholders. The club is now Kuwaiti-owned and has big plans, including the construction of a new stand on Stonebridge Road.

With the overall development of the club’s ground, it will surely spell the end of one of the most atmospheric, but dated, stands in non-league football. Look around Ebbsfleet’s home and you see a ground that represents a classic stadium design of the early post-war years. A main stand – all struts, pillars and supports – where you have to walk up wooden steps to claim your seat, a long covered barn of a standing area, big open terrace at one end, and a covered area behind the other goal that is now seated. It’s all in reasonable condition and the red and white paintwork gives it a marvellously classic look. But we are talking about a club that changed its name to attach itself to regeneration, cross-channel travel and urban growth. “Build it and they will come,” said the headline in the programme. You can see where they’re coming from.

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It’s a club that wants to return to the top level in non-league football, and given that Kent is massively under-represented at Football League level, they will obviously be looking to have a crack at League Two. This is their second season in Conference South after relegation from the Conference Premier in 2013. They lost in the play-offs in 2013-14 but this season, they haven’t been consistent enough to trouble the front-runners. In November, following a 0-3 home defeat at the hands of Gosport, manager Steve Brown was sacked after just 18 months in charge. Brown had succeeded Liam Daish, who did well enough to have a stand named after him at Stonebridge Road.

Brown’s successor was Jamie Day, who took Welling United to the Conference South title in 2013. Day dropped down a division to take the job, fully aware that expectations at Ebbsfleet, under Dr. Abdulla Al Humaidi’s chairmanship, are high. Ebbsfleet were fourth when he joined but there’s been many changes since December and it has taken time for Day’s team to gel. When Ebbsfleet faced Boreham Wood on April 11, only three players started from Day’s first game in the dugout – goalkeeper Brandon Hall, centre back Anthony Acheampong and winger Matt Godden. In January 2015, Ebbsfleet signed full back Matt Fish, midfielders Stuart Lewis and Theo Lewis and two strikers, the much-travelled Adam Cunnington and Gillingham’s Danny Kedwell. And another recent acquisition was Luke Rooney, formerly with Luton Town.

Boreham Wood travelled to Stonebridge Road as Conference South leaders. But their top spot was very fragile. Bromley were level on points with Wood but had a game in hand. The league table was looking very congested, with Basingstoke Town and Havant & Waterlooville also both chasing the leaders. Boreham Wood’s manager, Ian Allinson, is well known to me. I regularly reported on local games when he was in charge with Baldock Town and Stotfold. I always enjoyed the amount of energy, wit and passion that he and his number two, Ian Donnelly, put into games. One game in particular at Stotfold and Steve Evans was his opposite number at Stamford. The management teams spent the entire 90 minutes egging each other one, racing up and down the touchline protesting, accusing and finger-pointing. After the game, Allinson, Donnelly and Evans sat having a beer, joking over their antics. Life was never dull at Stotfold when Allinson and Donnelly were in office.

Boreham Wood, though, are a well-run outfit and have been for some years. The tragedy of it is the local population just don’t give them the support they deserve. Their average crowd is just over 300, a third of what Ebbsfleet can pull in.

With Ebbsfleet hanging on to very slim play-off hopes and Boreham Wood needing to win to put some space between them and the pack, this was an important game for both clubs. But it was not a great spectator event. The crowd was quite subdued and the noisiest aspect of the game was Boreham Wood assistant manager Luke Garrard, who constantly barked instructions to the team and engaged in “banter” with the assistant referee and the opposition bench.

P1070118 (141x250)After a tense, bad-tempered and eventless first half hour, Ebbsfleet took the lead just before half-time. It was a classic move, a swift counter-attack, a knock-on by Cunnington (left) and a cross from Godden that landed nicely on the big centre-forward’s head and was duly nodded home. Cunnington is a curious player. At Hitchin earlier in his career he looked raw and lacking in technique, but he has made a living out of football and is a much-coveted striker, long-limbed and difficult to handle.

In the second half, Ebbsfleet should have consolidated their gains, but in the last 20 minutes, Allinson made some tactical changes and Boreham Wood started to stream forward. With eight minutes remaining, substitute Charlie Walker was upended in the area and Ben Nunn scored from the penalty spot.

In the closing stages, Boreham Wood went for the jugular, aware that Bromley were winning. Junior Morais was denied after a strong burst into the area and in the final seconds, Walker missed a sitter. A 1-1 draw was not enough for Allinson’s side and it confirmed that Ebbsfleet would not have an extended season.

“You have to fancy Bromley now,” Allinson told me. “But if we go into the play-offs, we will do so with confidence. We’ve been playing well, but it was the recent defeat at Bromley that has effectively settled this. We could have nicked it in the final minutes.”

Day, who expects to come under severe pressure next season to get things right at Ebbsfleet, was encouraged by what he saw from his team. “We were the better side for much of the game and it was only late on that we lost our shape and conceded a sloppy penalty. But overall, the last few weeks have been promising and this bodes well for next season.”

Back at Ebbsfleet International, the temptation was there to have supper in Paris. We resisted it and headed back to St. Pancras for coffee at Pret. Seventeen minutes later, we were mingling with downcast Tottenham fans travelling to Welwyn Garden City or Stevenage. How that train chugged north. HS 1 Great Northern 0…..

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