“It’s about this time,” said Steve as the train passed through Dartford, “that I can feel my soul being sucked out of the window.”
You could see the reason for his anguish. The South Eastern service from Charing Cross into Kent hardly passes through aesthetically pleasing parts of South East London but, in comparison to Northfleet, Lewisham is closer to the Lake District.
Northfleet is meant to be an up-and-coming area: desirable due to the newly opened Eurostar terminal nearby along with a massive regeneration scheme for the area. For the time being, the area currently opens new chapters on the words grim and depressing in the dictionary.
Northfleet is also home to curious football ownership experiment that is MyFootballClub.co.uk, the fansite that raised enough cash to buy Ebbsfleet United and now votes on most aspects of team business, including selecting the line-up. Quite what the Premiership and foreign fans who’ve invested their thirty-five quid in the club would make of the area when they step is the train is a moot point.
Any MyFC member who hails from South Wales will probably recognise the some design principles that lay behind such delights as Port Talbot and Milford Haven: industrial estates, sparsely used land around estuaries, and the occasional bleak house and pub. The shrimp seller en route to Stonebridge Road is one of the few bits of local colour. Even the brilliant sunshine couldn’t do anything for the area. As Dr. Dave, a veteran of Northfleet away travel, commented, the concrete works look just the same in the sun as they do in the rain.
Thankfully house hunting in Northfleet wasn’t the order of the day: even the grimmest parts of Britain can be lit up by the beautiful game, hence my presence on a sunny February day in Kent: Ebbsfleet United v Exeter City.
[Ebbsfleet is not the same as Northfleet, although the two are close. Ebbsfleet, until recently, didn’t exist until the new Eurostar terminal opened. It’s soon to be joined by an Angel of the South statue. A 30ft lump of concrete would accurately reflect the area. Ebbsfleet United were, until recently, Gravesend and Northfleet but the name was changed to, apparently, tap into the potential growth of the area. Judging by the crowds, they may have some time to go until that vision is realised.]
The game promised to be an intriguing one. Both terms were on a good run of league form with Ebbsfleet winning their last four and Exeter unbeaten in the same number and both had recently seen off teams with title aspirations (Nigel Clough’s Burton Albion and Stevenage Borough respectively). The stage was set for a classic encounter. Shame neither side were keen on playing classic football or, for large chunks of the game, any kind of football at all.
This isn’t to say either side were committed to breaking up the match with consistent fouling to disrupt the opposition’s rhythm. More than the ball very rarely made contact with the foot in the first half, with head tennis the order of the day, and Ebbsfleet 40-love up on points, as the tactic was largely their own doing.
Fleet manager Liam Daish has a side that not play pretty football but, as Jade Goody or Jodie Marsh will tell you, lacking aesthetics is in no way a hindrance to success. Indeed, previous Conference champions have employed a very direct, physical approach, with a touch of skill. Playing like Brazil won’t necessarily get you out of the league.
A shame, then, that Exeter play best as a neat passing side with ball to feet and got quickly sucked into an aerial battle that they had little chance of winning. Fleet are a tall, physical side and were winning much of the headers in the centre of the park, while Akinde was having plenty of success against Rob Edwards at left-back, often drawing the centre-back out of position as well and exposing holes in Exeter’s rearguard.
After nearly twenty minutes of hoof and head (with a bit of running), and Exeter getting very little of the ball, Ebbsfleet’s tactics paid off when Akinde lured City centre-half Danny Seaborne into making a lunge in the area. No mistake from McPhee and Fleet were one up from the spot.
But for Andy Marriott in the Exeter goal, Ebbsfleet could have been three-up by half time. And that’s about the only other comment you could make of the first half: a dire spectacle but one with Ebbsfleet very much on top. Any MyFC fan wanting good football would have been disappointed, but impressed nonetheless at the efficiency of the home side.
Proceedings picked up in the second half when Exeter manager Paul Tisdale rang the changes, moving Edwards to a deep-sitting central midfielder, bringing on teenager George Friend at left-back and removing striker Steve Basham to go 4-1-4-1.
What seemed to many like a defensive switch had the opposite effect, with Edwards on hand to mop up the second ball, something Exeter were badly lacking in the first half. Suddenly the away side were on the ascendancy and were back on level terms after a sustained period of pressure saw Matt Gill strike a sweet low shot from outside the area into the bottom right-hand corner.
Soon after Ebbsfleet started to work out how best to cope with the new formation and the game slowed down again, albeit in a far more open fashion than the first half. Both sides had chances to win it with Akinde rounding the keeper before deciding to take an extra twenty touches and contrive to blast over from five yards, while at the other end Exeter’s Wayne Carlisle was denied an almost certain goal by a superb last-ditch tackle from Fleet left-back, and purveyor of a dodgy mullet, Sacha Opinel to leave it honours even.
If the first half was to football what Northfleet is to architecture then the second half was akin to the Eurostar terminal: pretty but not a lot going on beneath the surface, although impressive in places.
Both sides look well primed to steal a play-off spot and with teams above them faltering this match could well be repeated as a play-off semi, or even final, in which case MyFC fans may fancy running a campaign to get Liam Daish installed as the ‘Angel of the South’. Assuming he stays, that is, and doesn’t resent having his team picked by people playing a glorified Championship Manager game.
Waiting for the train back to civilization, the Eurostar terminal was visible from the less glamorous surroundings. On one hand, it had done its best to blend into the surroundings with a large, empty car park. On the other, the sleek new building seemed somewhat incongruous with the sparse industrial estates.
And therein lies the same for Ebbsfleet United FC. The long ball football is as attractive as the area its played in, but its effectiveness is closer to a high-speed Eurostar train (albeit one that requires you to spend vast portions of the journey looking up into the sky). And just as Northfleet is looking to evolve as an area, so is the fan-owned club, although we won’t know for some time if either can be called a success.