No fairytale ending for the Bromley Boys

“It’s a marathon not a sprint”.

The favourite line of football commentators, players and managers when they lose a game during the season.  The season isn’t won or lost over 90 minutes but over the course of nine months.  Technically that is true, but when it comes to play off time, then the previous efforts go out of the window and it all comes down to ninety or in some cases, one hundred and eighty minutes of football.

7228388842_a8a95e8d49_bThe end of season play offs are the high point of the season.  Two teams essentially fighting like gladiators in the Coliseum.  Only one can walk away a victor, battered and bruised ready for the next opponent, whilst the loser has nothing but memories of a successful league campaign that ultimately led to nothing to console themselves with.  People who say the play-offs are unfair are either a) play-off losers or b) anti-football fans.

Yes they are incredibly harsh sometimes.  Take FC United of Manchester.  In with a shout of the Evostik Premier title until the final day of the season, they finished 16 points above 5th place Ashton United this season, yet in front of nearly 3,000 home fans this week, they lost in extra-time.  Their dream of moving up to the Conference North for the first time in their history was dashed by a 120th minute goal by Ashton’s Jack Higgins.  In the Ryman Premier League, the teams finishing 2nd and 3rd, Bognor Regis Town and Kingstonian respectively, both lost their home play off matches this week.

I can still remember the pain of 2004 in Cardiff when West Ham lost to Crystal Palace in the Championship Play Off final.  Palace had come from nowhere to sneak into the play offs at the last gasp and feeling the injustice of the fact that without the play offs we would have been promoted in third.  The following season it was our turn to sneak in at the last-minute and were promoted after beating Preston North End having finished twelve points behind 3rd placed Ipswich Town.

I’d still like to see a team from the division above thrown into the mix as it used to be the case when the play offs were first introduced into English football back in 1987.  In that season Charlton Athletic had finished third bottom in what was then Division One, and then beat Ipswich Town, fifth in Division Two, to play Leeds United for the place in the top tier.  After two 1-0 wins for the home sides, the game went to a replay which the Addicks won 2-1 after extra-time and thus retained their place in the top division. In the league below the story was slightly different as Sunderland were relegated from Division Two after losing a humdinger of a tie against Gillingham, who finished fifth in the third tier on away goals after a 6-6 aggregate score.

13912890359_f1ae9a728c_bThere can be few things more dispiriting in football than being roundly beaten in the first leg of a play off game.  On Tuesday night, Bromley FC, who had led the Conference South table for the best part of half the season, only relinquishing control for the last time in March traveled down the A2 to face Ebbsfleet United who only secured their play-off spot with two weeks to go.  Bromley would have fancied their chances to have come away from Stonebridge Road with at least a draw, especially as their coach, Hugo Langton is a master of preparation and would have had a game plan nailed on.  However, fate can sometimes be a fickle friend.  Ebbsfleet opened the scoring after just 60 seconds and then less than ten minutes later Bromley’s Ashley Nicholls was sent off for deliberate handball and Ebbsfleet were 2-0 up from the resulting penalty.  Two further goals proved the David Pleat theorists wrong in the perfect storm – i.e “Playing against 10 men is often harder than 11” and “2-0 is the most dangerous scoreline in football”.

But Bromley do at least have a second bit of the cherry.  Miracles do happen in football (just look at the fact Sam Allardyce is still in a job, or that Stoke City now play attractive football) so it was with the hope of a reversal of fortune that I planned my last Saturday of domestic action of the season.  They were desperate to have a shot at the Conference Premier, having never ventured so high in their history.  The excellent book, The Bromley Boys by Dave Roberts (coming to the silver screen soon) highlights the time when, in Roberts’s eyes, they were the worst team in England.  They have got better since those days, and now with one of the finest Non League grounds in England, they had all their ducks in a row to have a crack with the big boys of the Non League.

13913036890_ddcae1e47d_bEbbsfleet on the other hand were past masters of the Conference Premier.  The one consolation they could take if they somehow lost this game was that they would have two local derbies against Dartford to look forward to, after the Darts relegation from the Conference Premier last weekend.  But that would be a small moment of happiness.  They drove up the A2, around the M25 and then followed the A21, making sure to watch the speed camera at the Michelin-starred Chapter One, with more than hope in their hearts.  They could almost smell the final where Sutton United or Dover Athletic would be waiting.

Bromley is only a bus ride away from TBIR Towers so it would be rude not to let such a potential momentous occasion pass by.  The core of the LLF were also en-route, fuelled by Terry’s 50p off beer vouchers for Wetherspoon’s and the prospect of no footballing action in Sussex. The sun was shining so it was undoubtably going to be the best day ever.

Bromley 1 Ebbsfleet United 0 – Hayes Lane – Saturday 3rd May 2014
This wasn’t a thriller to be honest.  Both camps said as much in their post-match comments to the press.  Bromley had to come out of the blocks flying and try to make an immediate impact into the four goal deficit.  They couldn’t.  The very big and strong Ebbsfleet defence held firm, using delaying tactics when they could to take the sting out of the Bromley momentum, whilst every so often using their wide men to push the home team onto the back foot.

13912982527_b78776790c_bWith a quarter of the game gone Ebbsfleet appeared to have taken the lead.  A fifth goal over the tie would have had the fat lady on the pitch singing her heart out but the referee deemed that the scorer, Ben May, had used a hand instead of his head.  Harsh from our angle.  The scare seemed to shock Bromley into life and within two minutes they had taken the lead with a cracking strike from Danny Waldren.  Every long journey starts with one small step – but would this be too little too late in the tie?

Bromley really needed a second before half time to stand any chance of turning the tie around.  Higgins went close with another strike from distance which Fleet keeper Edwards did well to push away but I think the visitors back four have had harder afternoons this season.

The second half saw Ebbsfleet slowly start to press the Bromley midfield and thus back into their own half.  The home side simply could create anything of note bar a Waldren header.  Ebbsfleet could have had a goal themselves when the impressive McMahon fired his shot narrowly wide.  A brief moment of hope appeared with ten minutes to go when Rance was given a straight red for his challenge on Goldberg but the numerical advantage lasted all of three minutes when Bromley’s Holland received a second yellow.

14100063954_fa5a40aa86_bDespite five minutes of injury time being played, Bromley knew the game was up.  It had been a long, hard season where they had fought and won for the most part.  Their fans stayed behind to salute the team, but the feeling of despair was clear to see as they slowly walked off the pitch for the final time this season.  Ebbsfleet would now be hosting Dover Athletic in the Final, who had surprisingly beaten Sutton United 3-0 despite playing for 80 minutes with ten men.

Ebbsfleet suffer at the hands of a wayward Cook

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.

photo (58)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.

photo (59)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.

photo (61)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!

photo (60)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.

Lose your pounds or lose your club!

We all know that Non League football is going through a tough time.  At the top end of the pyramid, clubs like Luton Town, Wrexham and Grimsby Town are operating almost as League clubs still, whilst the “upstarts” of Forest Green Rovers and Newport County have wealthy owners who are gambling on the next step.  The crowds are comparable with their Football League cousins as too are the wage bills.  But even in the top division there exists the “have” and “have-nots”.  This season the Blue Square Bet Premier features ten clubs who have Football League experience in the past.  Most of these still retain a Football League business model.  But at the other end of the spectrum the Conference hosts teams such as Braintree Town, Hyde, Nuneaton, Alfreton and Tamworth.  Clubs who survive on crowds as low as 600 in the case of some of these, competing with full-time outfits.  Even in the Premier League the comparison between the likes of Man City and United and Fulham and Wigan Athletic is not so stark.

8436784684_1952d040f1_bMany clubs reach the Blue Square Bet Premier, but soon slide back down, with the financial burden simply too much.  The season Lewes spent in the top-level of non league football some five years ago almost cost the club its very existence.  Forced to put in additional turnstiles, segregation and other ground-grading criteria, the clubs fail to see additional fans come through the turnstiles to prop up the other side of the balance sheet.  No investment on the pitch soon sees a season long fight against the drop, and with four going down it is hard to escape.  Some clubs are simply too good for the regional Blue Square Bet North/South but not able to compete in the league above.  One such club is Ebbsfleet United.

Last weekend the Chairwomen of the club made a dramatic appeal to the fans:-

“In all seriousness and joking aside, now is the time to stand up and be counted. Whether you are MyFC, Fleet Trust, both or one of our loyal supporters who just enjoys watching the Fleet, please lose your pounds now!

The unfortunate timing of the weather and home fixtures being cancelled has really left the club strapped for cash and the coffers are bare!


The Football Club is asking EVERY MyFootballClub member, EVERY Fleet Trust Member and EVERY Supporter near and far to donate a minimum amount of £30.00 or as much as you can afford to save the club.

Please do not ignore this plea, it is very real and has been decided as a last resort today here at the club.” Continue reading

Christmas comes but twice a year

Why let the pesky weather get in the way of your Christmas?  Well in the case of Lewes FC it doesn’t.  We were all very excited in the extended Fuller household at Christmas to be making the trek down to the Boxing Day game with our Northern cousins (aka Northern Steve and young Liam) for their first ever visit to The Dripping Pan.  But then the weather got in the way and we were forced to watch a complete box set of Glee instead – hardly a fair trade.

The game against Ebbsfleet was duly re-arranged for mid February and 99% of clubs would just have republished the programme with a photocopied insert and be done with it. But this is Lewes we are talking about so we like to be different. And so the directors decided that Christmas would not be cancelled and simply shifted it by nearly two months.  All were welcome, Santa hats certainly obligatory.  The club even went as far as making a promotional video to encourage people to attend.  My only concern was whether the mince pies may have fermented since being kept from Boxing Day?

This was to be my seventh game in just ten days.  Was I bored with football yet?  Not a chance and as I battled my way through the rush hour gridlock on the M25 I thought that this game could be a defining moment in the Rooks season.  A win tonight and it was possible to leapfrog over a number of teams and into safety.  But as we know, “if” and “and” make odd bedfellows (like Eddie Murphy and Scary Spice I always feel).

Lewes 0 Ebbsfleet United 3 – The Dripping Pan – Wednesday 23rd February 2011
Baaah Humbug.  Ebbsfleet became the Grinch that stole Christmas, taking all three points in a game played with swirling mist all around the Christmas decorations.  Three nil flattered them but they took their chances, whilst Lewes didn’t build on the possession they had, especially in the second half.

Lewes faced a bit of an onslaught in the first half and the long ball game employed by Ebbsfleet meant that the Lewes defence had little respite although David Wheeler was a constant thorn in the side of Ebbsfleet’s keeper.  However, despite Lewes’s strong backbone, and attacking flair with Noel and Taylor it was Ebbsfleet who took the lead in route one fashion.  A long punt upfield by keeper and Ashley Carew squeezed between Chris Breach and Sonny Cobbs to slot an angled shot past Chris Winterton.

Humbug, Charlie

It was strange that Lewes attacked the Jungle in the second half, as in all my times of watching them this had never happened.  The crowd on the terrace was swelled with at least one Santa Claus (because kids there is only one, right) and in truth Lewes took the game to the visitors with Ebbsfleet riding their luck during a couple of goal mouth scrambles.  ToSH wanted at least a point so took off Anthony Barness and introduced a more attacking formation.  It had two effects.  Lewes peppered the Ebbsfleet goal mouth but simply could not find a way through, whilst they looked more exposed to the counter attack.

And it was this shortage of numbers that led to two late goals by Ebbsfleet as first Calum Willock took advantage of another route one approach with a fantastic finish and then as the game entered injury time Carew scored again to send Ebbsfleet into 2nd place in the table and to leave the Rooks clearing up the wrapping paper and putting Granny’s jumper back in the draw.

A set back to the fight that is all, no more, no less.  Bring on Woking on Saturday is what I say!

More photos from the evening can be found at our Flickr stream here.

One foot in the Grave…send

That used to be a river

Now if you are reading this it means that for once Easyjet actually managed to fly one of the those airplane things from Copenhagen to London Stansted on time (and if not you have somehow broken my tough password for the admin area of my blog).  That may sound easy but in the last few weeks they have failed to do that on a number of occasions, often simply leaving passengers holding their boarding cards at 1am in a strange airport as they announce the flight is cancelled.  Personally I have voted with my feet, so to speak, changing my weekly commute to BA, but on this occasion as the whole family were flying back from our New Year revelries in Denmark, it was Hobson’s choice.

And of course assuming they did get me back on time it was dependent on our loveable Border Control people at Britain’s least favourite airport, Stansted (I refuse to use the moniker London for an airport two counties away from the capital) realising that they need to have appropriate numbers of staff to cope with the number of airplanes landing.

Oooh – bitter aren’t I, and 2011 is just a few hours old as well.  Once a grumpy old man, always a grumpy old man as my dear Nan used to say.

Guess I made it on time then

So, assuming everything was on time then at 2.30pm I would be walking through the turnstiles of Stonebridge Road, home of Ebbsfleet United ready to watch Lewes try and claw their way out of relegation trouble.  This was always be a game that the Rooks would have marked up as a zero return one.  Ebbsfleet had surprisingly been relegated on the last day of the season from the Conference National last season, and few would have backed against them making an immediate return.  With their games in hand due to the poor weather, the club would have been within a point of Braintree Town at the top of the table, whilst Lewes would have been bottom if Borehamwood and St Albans City would have played all of their games. Continue reading

Go on the Fleet!

This week we turn our attentions to my home town, Gravesend and get an update on how Ebbsfleet are doing from our resident Man of Kent, Glenn Bowie.

So Glenn, nearly a quarter of the season gone, how has the season gone so far for The Fleet?
Not the greatest of starts to be honest with only one win and five draws from our first eleven games. This leaves us sitting just 2 points above the relegation places. Almost the entire first team squad was released last season so it’s nearly a completely new team. However, the team is now starting to gel and we have moved out of the bottom four relegation places so we’re moving in the right direction.

Still Gravesend & Northfleet to me

Still Gravesend & Northfleet to me

What is the situation with Myfootballclub? Last season was the vote to determine whether they would still continue to invest – what happened in the end?
The Myfootball club membership renewal figures reduced from something like 30,000 to 9,000 which really hit us hard in terms of the playing budget for this season. We had to release the majority of last season’s first team squad and had to put a new team together, basically made up of pre-season trialists who had been released by League clubs. It does seem that the 9,000 members that are left in the venture are in it for the long-term and continue to support The Fleet. So for the foreseeable future, Myfc are here to stay.

The club has attracted some big name sponsorship – a kit supplied by Nike and sponsored by Eurostar. Has that given the club a boost?
We attracted alot of big sponsorship deals when the Myfc deal was announced and in addition to Eurostar & Nike we had EA Sports sponsoring the back of our shirts as well. The Nike deal has now ended but we have secured a deal with Vandanel for this season. The Eurostar sponsorship continues which if I’m right is up for renewal at the end of next season.

What’s the best team you’ve seen Ebbsfleet play this season?
So far I’d say Cambridge United. Although we produced a great first half display against them, they really stepped up a gear in the second half and were far too quick and clinical for us on the break and we ended up losing 3-1.

What have the home crowd been like at Stonebridge Road this season?
Given that we haven’t seen the team win at home so far this season, (our only win came away at Eastbourne Borough), the crowd have pretty much backed the team. The performances have been good but we have struggled to score goals. We’ve pretty much matched the teams we have played and really should of had wins instead of draws against Rushden & Diamonds and AFC Wimbledon.

Liam Daish was rumoured to be off to Cambridge a few weeks ago, how did the fans react to that?
With the very minimal finances he is having to work with the season and having to rebuild the team from scratch alot of fans were of the feeling that they wouldn’t blame him if he went. It would have been an offer I don’t think he would of turned down and there was a rumour that he did in fact have an interview for the post before it was offered to Martin Ling.

Almost a second

Almost a second

Do you agree that the Blue Square Premier is an unfair playing field due to the structure of promotion/relegation from the football league? Luton Town, Wrexham, Cambridge United and Oxford United all attract crowds on a par with League Two (and One in some instances) clubs, yet others such as Hayes & Yeading and Gateshead barely get 400 people. Is that right?
I love it when the so-called big ex-League clubs come down to the Blue Square Premier as the majority of their fans have the arrogance that they shouldn’t be here, etc, etc. The majority of the teams that come down don’t usually go straight back up which gives an indication that the Blue Square Premier is a good League. The away following of the ex-league clubs does help the smaller clubs in terms of finances when they visit. We usually get between 900-1,000 but this usually increases to 1,500-2,000 when an ex-League club comes visiting.

What are the best expectations for the season?
Realistically it’s still got to be to finish just above the bottom 4. With the announcement that we have purchased our Ground last week (see here for details), this should give us something to build on for the future of the club and help us achieve our aim of getting into the football league in a few years time…..hopefully!

You can sign one player on a free – who would it be?
Thierry Henry. I’ve had the pleasure to watch, live, many great footballers around the world but he’s one of the best I’ve seen. Maybe more on our level, I would always welcome back Charlie MacDonald from Brentford. Whilst only having Charlie with us for a couple of seasons, he was without doubt a class goalscorer and probably the best finisher in I’ve seen in a Fleet shirt since the great days of our all-time leading goalscorer, Mr Stevie Portway.

Thanks Glenn for the update.  We will be down to Stonebridge Road later in the season for the game versus Luton Town in March next year.  For details of our previous trip, have a read of the post here.

It’s like a Friday Night in Kenny Chow’s

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, 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

How did he miss this one?

How did he miss this one?

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.