Few people will have been happier with the result on Saturday from the FA Cup Fourth Qualifying Tie between Ebbsfleet United and Dartford than I was (For Ebbsfleet, read Gravesend).As soon as the draw was made this tie caught my eye, but of course being on a Saturday I was loyal to my own club Lewes and enjoyed a pint of Harvey’s (just like Her Majesty did this week) on the terraces as we beat Margate. As the news filtered through that the North Kent derby had ended all-square my Tuesday night’s entertainment was sorted.
The game had been seen by nearly 2,900 fans, more than the combined average attendance for both clubs and had provided its fair share of drama as Ebbsfleet missed an early penalty after the Dartford keeper had hauled down Cook. Red card? A split opinion based on which set of fans you listen to. Instead, Alan Julian stayed on the pitch and Ben May put the ball high over the bar. Dartford then took the lead against the run of play, and the reverse happened in the second half when Anthony Cook equalised. All’s fair in love, war and local derbies. 72 hours later the action moved five miles down the A2 to Princes Park, a world away from Ebbsfleet’s Stonebridge Road. Not that there is anything wrong with either ground – they are simply at the end of the non-league ground spectrum.
I grew up equidistant between the two towns and have an affinity for both towns. I went to school in Gravesend, played football and rugby on the pitches around the town and spent my formative and most impressionable years in the pubs and clubs of Windmill Hill. Come summertime and we headed to play cricket in and around Dartford, often ending our nights, bat in hand, box in pants at Zens, also know as the kidney donor factory. When I wasn’t a young tear-away at Upton Park or Priestfield then I would head up to Watling Street to watch Dartford. As a teenager, the old Dartford ground was the best place in the world. You could hide under the main stand, as long as you avoided the legendary Monkey Alan who lived in the catacombs of the ground, browse for hours in the programme shop or simply watch the tear-ups on the terraces which were relatively frequent. On occasions even the players got involved, hoping over the barrier and joining in the fun.
Those halcyon days vanished for the Darts when they were made homeless from Watling Street in a tale of tears, tantrums and treachery. They became nomads, rising through the leagues as they called Cray Wanderers, Erith & Belvedere, Thurrock and finally Stonebridge Road home. Slowly but surely they worked their back up the leagues. As success arrived on the pitch then the local council started to take the club more seriously, finally agreeing to the funding of a new ground barely a mile from Watling Street. In November 2006 they were finally given the keys to Princes Park, the greenish, most ecological football stadium in Europe. Dartford fans would be able to stand under a roof made of sustainable material which rainwater being recycled and being held up by an 18 feet wooden man.
Back down the A2 time seems to have stood still at Stonebridge Road. The name may have changed to a more “European” Ebbsfleet, but it’s still Gravesend and Northfleet to me. The rickety old main stand where when the ball lands on it you get showered with “stuff”. The toilets, where if you position yourself correctly you can still watch the game “hands free” and the slowest refreshment bar in the world, where Cynical Dave once bought a frozen chicken pie and was then questioned when he returned it if he wanted it heated. Do the Ebbsfleet fans crave grass rather than moss growing on the roof of the stands? Do they want a wooden man rather than scaffolding holding up their roof? Do they want a stadium surrounded by trees or one by industry? Progress is great but sometimes the comforts of familiarity are all football fans crave.
I had the day off. Not through any other reason than I needed to use up my annual leave so I was going to make a day of it. Where better to start than an afternoon at Crayford Dogs. The place was packed, with free admission tempting the full spectrum of North Kent’s population. Nothing better than a bit of dog racing, even if it’s the same 6 dogs running in each race, simply changing the lane jackets. Six winners put a spring in my step and some cash in my pocket. Next stop the Magic of the FA Cup.
Dartford 1 Ebbsfleet United 0 – Princes Park – Tuesday 29th October 2013
If you were writing a book on the 180 minutes (plus injury time) these two teams played out this week, it would have to be titled “Three Kicks”. It would also be a pretty long, dull book. The reason why Dartford won this tie and Ebbsfleet lost in its simplest terms boiled down to the ability to take a penalty. In the two games Ebbsfleet were awarded two and missed both, whilst Dartford scored the one they were awarded. Ebbsfleet fans will argue, and quite justifiably, that the Dartford keeper should’ve been sent off in the first game (and thus subsequently banned for the replay if the result would have stayed the same) and they can feel aggrieved that in this game he was the difference between a place in the 1st Round of the FA Cup and a short disconsolate walk back down the A2.
The Ebbsfleet fans were in fine voice as they walked to the ground. It is amazing how adaptable football chants are these days. One terrace favourite still advocates the use of firearms to commit Grievous Bodily Harm and was sung with lust by the group as they marched along the suburban streets of Dartford. No one liked them, they told everyone who was listening as they made room on the pavement for an old lady coming the other way and despite them telling everyone that “Dartford was shit” they spoke about the post match plan after the game to go to Breathe, Dartford’s “premier” night club. Inside the ground the away fans took up a position at one end, singing a chorus about Dartford having a “shit ground and no fans”. Just as a reminder, the Darts do average over 300 more fans than The Fleet. In all seriousness, the Ebbsfleet fans created an atmosphere that is probably rarely seen from away fans in these parts and certainly got behind their team from the first minute.
I was joined by the edge of the pitch by a Dartford-supporting groundhopper. He was a tad deaf, meaning he shouted at me despite our proximity. He had given up watching Dartford, he told me, because all they did was play “long ball rubbish”. ”We only score from set pieces” he told me, bemoaning the lack of creativity in the team. ”Watch our number 7, Hayes. He’s a bottler” he shouted, loud enough for the player himself to hear and immediately go to jelly. Sure enough, every time there was a 50/50 ball, Hayes would jump out of the way. ”Watch the full back Burns. Great at getting forward, but takes ages to track back”. Sure enough, with Burns out of position, Ebbsfleet created the first good chance of the game which the Dartford keeper had to tip over. Impressed with this perceptive view of the game I asked him for his final score prediction. ”Oh we will win, probably from a set-piece”.
The first half was goal less and with the Dartford fans positioned next to the Ebbsfleet ones there was a fair amount of “banter” between the two sets. But then at half time the Dartford fans went and took up position at the other end and all of a sudden that extra special cup atmosphere disappeared.
Ten minutes into the second period and Lee Noble was brought down in the Ebbsfleet box by Osborn. A clear penalty despite some limp protests. However, Bradbrook stepped up and made no mistake. Ebbsfleet responded and pressed forward, their fans raising the volume to a new level. The away side soon had a chance to draw level when Rance was brought down in the box. May shook his head, passing responsibility to Cook but his effort was saved by the Dartford keeper. The ball fell loose and a powerful Ebbsfleet strike was blocked by the chest of Dartford’s captain Bradbrook. ”Handball” went the collective shout from players and fans alike, although the fact Bradbrook ended the night in hospital with suspected fractured ribs from the block is probably enough proof for most the referee got it right!
Despite all of their efforts Ebbsfleet simply couldn’t find a way through the Dartford defence. Six minutes of injury time were added and despite the most ludicrous booking for time-wasting I have seen in a long time from the Dartford keeper (he really should have been sent off for two yellows for the same offence in less than a minute) the game ended 1-0. Dartford’s prize was an away trip to Salisbury City in the next round – hardly one to set the pulses racing but there is always the hope of a better tie in the next round.
Fans of both sides made their way out of the ground and into the night without any animosity. There hasn’t been many opportunities to play each other in recent years, and many fans (and players) will not remember the days in the 1970′s and 80′s when things were a bit more volatile. In fact most of the post-match chat was of Arsenal, Chelsea, Manchester United and even VCD Athletic. Old rivalries never die but they certainly mellow over the years.