Let’s get one things straight….It’s not Ebbsfleet, it’s Gravesend & Northfleet. Money may be able to alter the future but the past is past and the club now owned by a million people around the globe who sold out so spectacularly last year still represent my home growing up, and the venue of legends for a player in the Gravesend Under 12 league. You see having been poached at such an early age by Milton & Denton I enjoyed years of success through boys and then youth football and the cumulation of most seasons was the Cup Final which was played at Stonebridge Road, home of Gravesend & Northfleet.
The club at the time bounced around the Alliance Premier League as it was called then, playing local derbies against Dartford in front of crowds of 4-5,000. Then football changed and “the fleet” found themselves in the Southern League trying desperately to get back to the big time. It took a bold move in switching divisions to the Rymans Premier League to get them back on track as with non-league legend Steve Portway scoring hatricks for fun in between cashing cheques still for NatWest. In 2002 the club eventually returned to the Conference league after winning the Ryman’s league, holding off a strong challenge from Aldershot Town.
Since 2002 the club have sat firmly in lower middle table, not threatening anyone. And then came three life altering events. In the summer of 2007 Eurostar surprised the footballing world that they had agreed a sponsorship deal with the Fleet in recognition of the opening of the new Ebbsfleet station less than half a mile away from Stonebridge Road. In return for a few first class tickets to Lille at Christmas, the club changed their name at the drop of a hat to Ebbsfleet United.
Six months later the club, with their fancy new name hit the footballing headlines around the world when they became the first ever club to be taken over by Myfootballclub.com, a consortium of football fans around the world who had clubbed together on the internet and raised just over a £1m by paying £35 each in exchange for a say in team affairs. The original plan was to get all 3,000 members to vote on team selection, transfers and tactics but this has not happened, fortunately – the lunatics have not taken over this asylum YET! As if the whole story was being covered by Boys Own Magazine or a story featuring Roy Race the club went onto to reach the FA Trophy Final at Wembley Stadium where they beat Torquay United 1-0.
I’d been a regular visitor in the past but not since the takeover in February 2007. The last time I visited was when Barnet were the opposition, managed by Martin Allen in a 2-2 draw. What amazed me at the time was the poor state of repair of the ground which was without doubt one of the ugliest in the top levels of English football. It must have been one of the only grounds in the country that has power lines draping between two huge pylons across the ground. There was no real main stand, just one covered seating area with 7 rows of seats, but even that nearly lost part of the roof when a ball landed on it.
So with West Ham playing on Sunday this week I took the opportunity of a short drive down to Gravesend to watch the game versus one of the most hated teams in Non-League football still, Rushen & Diamonds. I’m not going into the whole history of Rushden’s formation but safe to say that the excessive investments made by Max Greggs and his Doc Martens company literally bought them the league and their passage into the Football League structure. Promotion to the third tier soon followed, but as soon as Sugar Daddy Greggs pulled the plug on his investment the club slid down the league and two consecutive relegations saw them back in the non-leagues. They may have the best stadium in the non-leagues nowadays but with crowds half of what they saw in the Football League the future for the club is bleak to say the least.
As I parked in the shadow of the new Ebbsfleet Eurostar stadium I was amazed by the fact that the outside of the ground still looked exactly the same as when I used to cycle past on my way up the hill to Swanscombe. Oh, there was a small sign on the side of the roof proclaiming their Wembley victory in May 2008. Paying my £13 took me into the ground and it was as if I was back at the Milton & Denton versus Riverview United in the Under 10’s Cup Final. The small house that had been converted into the toilets were still there, as too was the catering hut, now selling Chilli and Chips and Jacket potatoes as well as the standard football fayre. Nothing had changed. The club shop was stocked to the brim of smart Nike made Ebbsfleet merchandise complete with Eurostar and AustrianAirlines logos but it was still the same old ground. This is your traditional non-league stadium, although it was disappointing to see the Plough End had been converted into seats.
Ebbsfleet United 1 Rushden & Diamonds 0 – Stonebridge Park – Saturday 17th January 2009
Both teams came into the game firmly rooted in mid table in the Conference. The home side needed the win more than the visitors, as they were sailing a little close to the bottom four of the league for the liking of the owners who were due to vote on whether they renewed their £35 per annum subscription in a few weeks time.
You got the impression when the two teams emerged onto the pitch that Rushden weren’t popular. Whether that was because of the past histrionix between the two teams or the simple fact that the way they reached the Football League last time went against all that non-League teams stand for. What was noticable though was that for a club that regularly had crowds of 5,000 plus a few years ago they had brought just 127 fans (I counted them twice to make sure – once in each half). Where had all the fans gone? Football in the south eastern midlands has hardly had a good time in the past few years and it was now a hot bed of Conference rivalries with Kettering, Cambridge and Histon playing local derbies against Diamonds.
The game was hardly a classic as both teams seemed intent on playing the ball long. Ebbsfleet at least tried to pass their way around the pitch with Stacey Long and Luke Moore providing some width at times. The one and only real chance of the half was at least converted as Long managed to beat the Rushden full back and his low cross was turned in by Neil Barratt in the 41st minute.
After the break Ebbsfleet pushed forward to try and get a second and somehow Michael Gash managed to hit the ball straight at the goalkeeper from three yards out in a chance that would have been easier to convert than miss. After Rushen failed to take a few half chances the game exploded in the 83rd minute when Rushden fullback Simon Downer delivered a very late and high challenge on Ebbsfleet’s Simon Moore just in front of the benches. Chaos ensued as the coaches, substitutes and one of the mascots piled onto the pitch to join in. Stweards ran (well waddled) from both ends to try and restore order and it was clear that the referee had completely lost control. He retreated to the centre circle with both linesmen and the fourth official before marching back over to the touchline and sent both coaches plus a couple of substitutes to the stand. Great idea, but as I have already mentioned the Main Stand has all of 7 rows meaning these sinners ended up sitting some 10 yards from where they were previous. Downer was of course red carded in the mayhem and can have no complaints.
Despite seven minutes of injury time played neither team could create a chance and with the wind gathering strength for a night of gales in south eastern England I headed off back to the car. The win was much needed for their league form, but who could rule out a return to Wembley in May again?
About Stonebridge Road
On one side of the ground is an old looking wooden Main Stand. This single tiered covered stand, is all seated and runs for around half the length of the pitch. This stand has a fair number of supporting pillars running along the front of it, although the seating is raised above pitch level. There is also a tiny terrace in front of this stand. Entrance to the seated Main Stand is gained within the ground, on payment of a transfer fee (£2 per adult, £1 per concession). Opposite is a fair sized terrace, which has a simple rusty looking roof which covers the middle portion of it. One end is known as the Plough End, gaining its name from the pub that is situated just behind it. This is a former covered terrace (to the rear), that was made all seated in 2006. The stand looks quite picturesque with a wooded hill just beyond it. The other end, known as the Swanscombe End, is an open terrace, that is dominated by a huge electricity pylon which sits directly behind it. The Club Shop is located inside the ground.
The Club was formed in 1946, following the merger of Northfleet United and Gravesend United. It was renamed Ebbsfleet United in 2007.
*Thanks to Duncan Adams for the above information.
How to get to Stonebridge Road
The nearest station to the ground is Northfleet, which is only a few minutes walk away from the ground. The station is served by trains from London Bridge & Charing Cross. Just come straight out of the station and turn left at the top of the road. The ground can be then seen down on the right.
If you are drving then the A2 is the nearest main road. Take the exit for Ebbsfleet Station which is about a mile after the exit for Bluewater, and 2 miles east from the M25 junction. Follow the signs for the football ground and park in Car Park C at the new Ebbsfleet station which is a 2 minute walk away and costs £3.
How to get a ticket for Stonebridge Road
All ticket games are about as common as a warm afternoon here and it is nearly pay on the gate. Admission is £13 for Adults and £7 for children. For this you can stand anywhere in the ground or in the seats behind the Plough End goal. If you want to sit on the main stand you will need to pay an extra £2 to transfer.