As Spring arrived in the South East I set out to my Saturday game with a slight sense of guilt. It wasn’t because I'd turned down the chance to watch two games in one day, and it wasn’t because I’d eaten a whole Easter egg before leaving the house. The real reason for my guilt was that I was once a shareholder in the club I was going to visit, and I jumped ship.
More about that later. I was up early to visit my first ever televised non-league game, the lunchtime kick-off in the National League. My trip was a relatively short one on the high-speed rail link from St Pancras to Ebbsfleet International. My match? Ebbsfleet United against league leaders Macclesfield Town.
Competition: National League
Refreshments: £1.80 (soft drink)
Star man: Corey Whitlely
Who are ya, Ebbsfleet United?
The Fleet, as they are known, were founded in 1946 and took the names of the two clubs that merged to form them, Gravesend & Northfleet. They began life in the Southern League and were champions in 1958. 21 years later they became founding members of the Alliance Premier Football League. This was the original version of the current National League and was formed by the leading clubs from the Southern League and the Northern Premier League. The Fleet finished fifth in its first season, their highest ever position in the pyramid.
After three seasons in the Alliance Premier the Fleet were relegated back into the Southern League and bounced between the Premier and South Divisions before switching to the Isthmian League in 1997. In 2002 they were champions of the Isthmian League and won promotion to the Football Conference, a return to the top flight of non-league football. In 2007 the club changed its name to Ebbsfleet United in what was about to become an eventful year for the Fleet.
The club was then taken over by the MyFootballClub online group where members, including myself, paid £35 for a stake in the club and the chance to vote on transfers, player selection and other major decisions. It was successful initially but many members, again including me, failed to renew membership after the first year. The Fleet began to struggle and were relegated into the Conference South. They returned to step one at the first time of asking but were relegated again in 2013. The club was taken over by Kuwaiti owners that year and eventually returned to the National League this season after a play-off victory against Chelmsford City.
A great article on the whole MyFootballClub story can be found on The Guardian website.
- Ebbsfleet won the FA Trophy in the first season being run by the MyFootballClub online group. They defeated Torquay United 1-0 at Wembley.
- The Fleet knocked my beloved Cinderford Town out of the FA Cup second round in 1995 after a replay, denying the Foresters the chance to play Aston Villa in the Third Round.
Ebbsfleet were in ninth position prior to kick off, five points off the play-off positions with two games in hand. The Fleet were unbeaten in their last seven games with five wins and two draws. Their last outing was a 2-1 over local rivals, and fellow promotion hopefuls, Dover Athletic at Stonebridge Road.
Macclesfield were top of the league with a nine point advantage over second place Sutton having played a game more. The Silkmen had won eight out of their last ten games. Their only defeat during that run came away at Dover. Their last game was a 1-0 win against Chester and the Silkmen beat Ebbsfleet 1-0 in the two sides previous meeting in October.
The Ebbsfleet United experience
Train: Stonebridge Road, also known as the Kuflink Stadium, is a five minute walk from Gravesend Station and Ebbsfleet International which can be reached from St Pancras. Exit the station into car park C, walk to the bottom of the car park and under the bridge. You’ll see the stadium in front of you.
Car: The ground can be reached easily from the Dartford Crossing. Exit for the A226 London Road and follow until you reach the stadium. There isn’t too much parking around the ground, but you can park in car park C at Ebbsfleet International for a couple of quid.
The car park of Ebbsfleet International seems like a popular parking spot for the Fleet faithful. I quickly blended in with scores of fans in red and white as I walked up to the Kuflink Stadium. The ground was soon visible in front of a backdrop of shipping cranes and scrapyards. There is one main entrance for home fans and a separate one for away visitors. A few stewards and police kept an eye on things as there had been reports of a few scuffles after Easter’s local derby with Dover.
Entry to the ground takes you to the rear of the Plough end. This is the end that’s occupied by the loudest section of the home fans, so spirits were jubilant as many gathered in the courtyard at the back of the stand. From the yard you can head round to the main stand or the modern 'new main' stand. The traditional main stand is a classic non-league affair that still has the original dug-outs in front of it. The new main stand has fewer seats that are positioned in front of brickwork adorned with club logos and sponsorship.
Entry to the ground, best value I’ve seen so far at step one, allows you access to any part of the ground. I chose the end of the new stand closest to the away fans in the hope the visitors may provide some atmosphere. A mass of slightly more surly home fans stood diagonally opposite me on a small terrace in between the Plough End and the original main stand. They are quieter but equally impressive as the group of vocal fans behind the goal.
The atmosphere was great for the majority of the game bar a brief period in the second half when the visitors were 2-0 ahead. The Fleet faithful sang throughout and gave the impression that the attendance was significantly larger than 1500. There is a clear sense of optimism that the club is gradually building towards a potential promotion push, even if the club programme suggests it may not be this year. There was a detailed article on potential away trips for next season focusing on teams coming up from step two and down from the Football League. It could still, however, be the Fleet that join a new division.
The Fleet fight back to share the spoils with the Silkmen
Ebbsfleet started the game well and got at the visitors in wide areas. Whitely caused a moment of panic for Macclesfield straight from the kick off as he outpaced the full back but his cross was unable to find a teammate. The Ebbsfleet forward was at the heart of most of the home side’s brightest moments in the early exchanges. They were unable, however, to break down the Silkmen, and the visitors began to get a foothold in the game.
Blissett, the Macclesfield forward and top scorer, was becomming a factor in the game and engaged in several physical battles with Winfield. Pilkington and Hancox started to control the game for the visitors and chances began to come. A well timed last ditch tackle from Winfield saved the home side once, but a tenacious run by Burgess led to a loose ball falling to Blissett in the box, and the striker gave the Silkmen the lead.
Ebbsfleet hoped to come back into the game in the second half, but the visitors were beginning to show why they were top of the table. They soon added a second as Marsh headed in off the underside of the bar from a corner. It looked like game over but a Kedwell flick-on fell to Winfield in the box and he was brought down by the Macclesfield keeper. Kedwell put the penalty away.
The Fleet now had the bit between their teeth and their efforts were helped a few minutes later by a couple of moments of madness. Firstly, Winfield reacted to another physical battle with Blissett and tried to impede the striker's run. He came off worse, however, and was cut. The ref seeing the blood and knowing he was on live TV had a cursory chat with the fourth official and sent off Blissett. It was an unlucky moment for the visitors. A few minutes later Whitely’s pass found Rance who drove in a superb equaliser. Ebbsfleet were level and an eventual game finished all square.
Perhaps one visit to Stonebridge Road is not enough to fully ease the guilt of only lasting one season as a part owner of the club. I'll be sure to visit again as it's a great place to watch a game of football. The all-access tickets that allow people to move around and congregate with like minded fans really adds to the atmosphere.
They may still make the playoffs this season, but if they keep hold of their current squad they should be able to make a strong promotion push next season even if they fall short this May. The last few games of the season promise to bring further excitement for the Kent club, who have fully moved on from the MyFootballClub days.