Ebbsfleet United 1-1 Dartford
FA Cup 4th Qualifying Round 2013/14, Att: 2,895
“Northfleet?” asked the guy in the ticket office at Maze Hill station. “What’s going on in Northfleet?” “Football, the FA Cup,” I replied, “Had a few go there already today have you?” “No, you’re the only one”.
As the train swings from Swanscombe into Nortfleet you get your first glimpse of Ebbsfleet United’s Stonebridge Road ground. Red roofs and floodlights backed by a curtain of estuary industry; cranes and warehouses, cement works and wind turbines. If Kent truly is the garden of England, then this is the bit behind the shed.
From the station, brown signs and clumps of men in red shirts direct you down the hill to The Fleet. Wedged between a bus depot and a car showroom, Stonebridge Road has existed for over a century, hosting three incarnations of Ebbsfleet United who played here as Northfleet United until the Second World War, then as Gravesend & Northfleet until 2007. In 1963 over 12,000 people squeezed onto these terraces to see Gravesend & Northfleet hold Sunderland to a 1-1 draw in the FA Cup 4th round. Little appears to have changed in the fifty years since, but common sense and an extra set of seats on the Plough End has reduced capacity these days is a more modest, yet highly specific, 5,011.
Though reaching that figure is unlikely, Ebbsfleet should still get their biggest crowd of the season for today’s game against neighbours Dartford. There is just one division and five miles between the sides, but though this is a keenly contested derby there is no segregation and in the hour before kick-off, fans of both teams mill around the bar at the back of the Plough End. A pensioner sells programmes from a trestle table, bored girls lean on the counter of a terrace snack-bar.
On the covered terrace I stand near a guy in a faded red and white Gravesend & Northfleet scarf and mull over the oddity of a team for two towns that takes its name from neither. Above the pylons and cranes darkened clouds race across the sky, whilst a Skrill League flag twists and turns in the wind. Dartford fans begin to filter along the terrace and with twenty-five minutes still to go before kick-off, one begins hammering on a huge drum just over my left shoulder. It reverberates around the corrugated roof and invades my hangover like a firework in a phone-box.
On the back of the programme the two squads are listed alphabetically, confusing an old fella to my right trying to note down the team line-ups as they crackle through the tannoy. As a presentation takes place in the centre-circle, supporters to my right jump and wave in an effort to photobomb the official snaps. A big foam pirate is asked if he is “Saville in disguise” by the Dartford fans, whilst trying to high-five children with a hook for a hand. A man climbs a ladder to the TV gantry and as the terrace fills with fans it begins to smell like football; cigarette smoke, burgers and Friday night farts.
“We are The Fleet” plays out over the tannoy as the teams come out, but is soon drowned out by the drum. Dartford have squad numbers, a mark of a higher rank, but they begin like they’ve never seen a ball before; two minutes in big centre-half Mat Mitchel-King shanks the mysterious white sphere straight up in the air, and when it eventually drops further fumbling brings a free-kick for United. Daryl McMahon curls it towards the near-post, and via a nominal flick-on it takes a brilliant save from The Darts’ Alan Julian to beat it away. Ebbsfleet play the better football, moving the ball around on the floor, whilst Dartford’s plan of attack seems limited to a hopeful punt into the channels.
Ten minutes in comes the moment on which the rest of the afternoon hangs. An angled ball forward is missed by Dartford’s Lee Burns and Fleet winger, Nathan Cook is in. He beats Julian to the ball, and as he side-steps the keeper, is sent sprawling by his out-stretched foot. The referee points to the spot, but with Dartford players racing back Julian gets away with only a caution, despite Cook seemingly destined to slot it home with his next touch. As hands go to mouths amongst the home fans Ben May steps up to take the penalty, but his driven spot-kick clears the bar and disappears in the direction of a nearby metalworkers.
The Dartford fans are boisterous, but their team are being outplayed, and only The Fleet’s wastefulness – highlighted again as a three-on-one break inexplicably peters out – is keeping the visitors in the tie. Full-back Burns boasts an impressive tan for Thames-side autumn, but is having a torrid afternoon s a footballer. At fault for the penalty, he presents The Fleet with another great chance by way of an awkward back-pass that eventually drops for Alex Osborn, but he slices his shot into the crowd.
It’s midway through the half by the time the visitors have a first shot; a short corner worked around the edge of the area for Ryan Hayes, but he curls his shot beyond the angle of post and bar. Rain drifts in from the capital, hoods and shoulders are hoiked up on the Swanscombe End; “Shit ground, no fans,” sing the Dartford contingent. “Yeah, well no-one’s built any houses on ours yet” shouts a Fleet fan in return.
A corner to The Fleet lands at the feet of centre half Paul Lorrraine. Six yards out with his back to both goal and half the Dartford team, he gestures for help, before dribbling away from goal in the search for a solution. The rain has now gone from spitting to driving and despite a Fleet fan yelling “Give over you softies, it’s just a sharp shower” more Dartford fans break for cover. Two things are keeping their team in this tie; goalkeeper Julian, who is out smartly again to take the ball off the toe of Billy Bricknell, and the home side’s failure to hold the line as a great ball from Cook is wasted by Osborn setting off inexplicably early.
Just as I’m pondering how the half has managed to end goalless Dartford take an undeserved lead. Elliot Bradbrook looks destined to score as the ball finds him at the far post, but Osei Sankofa slides out of nowhere to make a brilliant block, only for Lee Noble to follow-up and drive the ball into the bottom corner. The Dartford half of the covered Stonebridge Road terrace is a blur of swinging arms and elbows; “Who’s that team they call the Dartford?” they sing. “You’ve answered your own question you silly sods” grumbles an older Fleet fan leaning on the crush barrier, chin on fist.
A goal to the good, Dartford are much brighter in the second half. Eighty yards from his own goal Burns looks like a footballer at last and his charge down the right brings a Dartford corner. The ball is swung in dangerously and from a bundle of jostling bodies McMahon just manages to get his head on it and clear to a soundtrack of oohs and appeals. In an increasingly tense match comes a moment of rare slapstick as Shane Huke throws his arm up to wave for a foul, and in doing so inadvertently cracks Hayes in the jaw.
As Dartford’s fans relentlessly sing “We’re the black and white army” the balance of the game shifts once again and The Fleet edge back into the game. The ball is swung out to the left where Aiden Palmer somehow skips a challenge and keeps the ball in play in one movement before driving in a deep cross that comes out to McMahon, but his effort is just wide. The goal thankfully comes soon after, drawing United level with twenty-five minutes to go. Bricknell gets down the right to the by-line and his cut-back finds the feet of Cook who drives it emphatically past Julian to a huge roar of relief from the home crowd.
“Its’ that number eleven again,” sighs a Dartford fan pointing at Cook, “he’s bloody everywhere.” The goal has brought The Fleet, and their supporters, alive and Cook is involved in everything, jinking in from the left to fashion another chance, when less than a minute earlier he’d been winning the ball back by his own corner-flag.
Defender Huke has also impressed for United, calm and composed on the ball and capable of delivering a telling pass, but his game comes to an end ten minutes from time as he wins a fierce challenge on halfway but pulls up as he tries to run on with the ball. The Fleet fans around me, do as always do in this situation, and forget exactly who is in their squad. They are only truly reminded as Chris Sessegnon enters the field, and his name passes round the ground like a Chinese whisper “ahh, Sessegnon,” “Sessegnon,” “it’s Sessegnon”.
The game is almost done and despite The Fleet being in control there is a real chance for Dartford to win in it as a deep cross from the left picks out Hayes arriving at the far post, but perhaps caught out by the rarity of the opportunity he can only glance his header well wide. At the other end comes a chance for a spectacular winner; Cook carries the ball infield, its chipped to the right where Bricknell delivers an excellent first time cross on the volley, but May can’t quite stretch enough to meet it with the diving header that had seemed to be inevitable.
No-one is leaving early as into injury time we nervously tread. From a throw-in on the right Ebbsfleet have one last chance to win it as the ball finds Cook inside the area and in on goal. He takes his time, picks his spot, but somehow Julian gets his right hand to it to turn his shot away, and when it is put back in the box once more, Bricknell’s low driven shot ricochets wide off the unknowing Mitchel-King, still lying prone in the six-yard box following Cook’s initial effort.
That is that. Hands raise to applaud both on the field and off it. Supporters walk briskly to the exit, and onwards up the hill, the tannoy still audible on the breeze as they go. At the top of Hamerton Road someone has turned the signpost for the station around, sending three Dartford fans off down a cul-de-sac. As rain falls again fans from both teams mingle in silence on the Northfleet platforms saving their voices for Tuesday night’s replay.