This part of the world is one that I am fairly familiar with. My mum’s cousin lives in Gravesend and we used to stay down there for a week every summer so that we could explore the South East. This of course was before I was totally obsessed with football and barely batted an eyelid at the local football club. I did travel past the ground around 2005 when we stopped for fuel at the neighbouring petrol station and all I could think about was the ground appeared similar to Leigh RMI’s ground.
Ebbsfleet has been one of the more interesting non-league sides to follow in recent seasons with a name change and ownership decisions which at one stage looked to revolutionise how clubs would be run in the future. Before we get to all of that though, I started my adventure from my base for the week which was at the Olympic Park in Stratford. It was a toss up between a trip to Bath City v Havant & Waterlooville or Ebbsfleet United v Wealdstone. As much as I wanted to visit Twerton Park, I didn’t see the point in travelling all that way when I could travel six minutes on the train and get dropped off a stones throw from Stonebridge Road.
The HS1 rail line has stops at Stratford International and Ebbsfleet International. I was staying literally 20 metres away from the station at Stratford meaning this journey was as easy as going to Daisy Hill for me… if you’re familiar with the train line between Manchester and Wigan you’ll know what I mean. Upon arriving at Ebbsfleet International, the station reminded me of a Spanish airport terminal building. Clean, white and completely empty with no sign of human life apart from on the platform where the Eurostar service to Paris was due to depart imminently.
The Wealdstone right back (I knew it was a Wealdstone player due to his tracksuit and recognised him later on) had caught the same train and set off down the road, looking a bit lost. I opted to walk through the large car park which went on as far as the eye could see. It was raining, and my socks were already wet due to my unsuitable choice of footwear, I could tell already that it was going to be a long afternoon. Not being one to moan though I pressed on and soon reached the barriers which led out of the train station car park. From there, I crossed one roundabout and travelled underneath a tunnel from where I could see the football ground already.
It took less than five minutes to arrive at the ground and there were a couple of Ebbsfleet fans knocking around outside. I had arranged with Fleet fan Joe Glidewell that I would meet him in a local pub for a couple of pints before heading back to the ground to enjoy what promised to be an entertaining encounter. Unfortunately, it transpired that the only competitive sport that was played came in the pub where the Ebbsfleet fans were playing pool.
I arrived at the Edinburgh Castle pub after walking past a strange looking site called The Hive. No, it wasn’t Barnet’s brand new ground, but instead was some sort of housing development with a shopping quadrant. It looked a bit like Salford Shopping City, but in a more concentrated and intimidating style. I was fearing the worst heading to the pub, but once I was there I was pleasantly surprised.
A group of around 20 Ebbsfleet fans were in there, drinking and watching Sky Sports News. The beer was relatively cheap and so was the jukebox, meaning the locals could put together a fantastic pre match playlist. The likes of Dolly Parton and Amy Winehouse were chosen, before I said to Joe that these fans wouldn’t last a minute in Wigan with such suggestions. ‘Eric Clapton – Cocaine’ was the next to be selected, at which stage I texted my Dad as I remember him telling me that he went to watch him once in Manchester and he had kicked off the set with this song.
With an hour to go until kick off, Fleet fan Jeff challenged me to a game of pool. I usually perform better, but in front of a vociferous away crowd and with a cue that was quite sticky, I struggled. At one stage, I had potted none and Jeff was on the black… but somehow I managed to get it back to two balls to pot. I said to Jeff that he was being far too kind letting me have a chance, but he maintained that I was good. I failed to believe him, but thanks for the match Jeff!
It was still raining when we left the pub and walked down the hill to the ground. The poor programme seller was sheltered in an unopened turnstile. I felt so sorry for her that when purchasing my programme I handed over my wallet by accident! She said she’d gladly accept it, but there was no money in there. The only positives from taking my wallet would have been cut price admission to NWCFL matches and 12p off her next shop at Sainsbury’s.
My first impressions of Stonebridge Road were positive, in fact, it won me over immediately when I walked past the toilets on the left hand side. All too often you’ll go to a match and miss a goal when you need to go for a wee, this isn’t an issue at Ebbsfleet as there are windows from which you can view the action. Unfortunately, I wasn’t big enough. Think of that what you like.
The first stand you see when walking into the ground is the large covered terrace called the Liam Daish Stand. Originally named the Stonebridge Road terrace, it was renamed in 2012 to recognise the service of then manager Liam Daish who had become the club’s longest serving manager. There has been a terrace on this side of the ground since the 1920’s when a small seated construction was erected. This was extended in 1953 to make it the same length as the Main Stand which stands opposite, and the current roof was put on in 1957.
At the entrance to the ground is the Plough End which is named after the former pub that was situated just behind it. This was once a terrace, but has since been converted into a seated area. However, the transformation has left the back half of the stand closed due to ground grading rules.
Opposite the Plough End is the Swanscombe End which is a large open terrace. This stand definitely reminds me of the old Hilton Park in Leigh. It was while scaling this end of the ground that I was approached by a steward who shouted at me for taking photographs… that’s right, I was shouted at for taking photographs of a terrace which had nobody else on it.
Gravesend & Northfleet FC was founded in 1946 after the Second World War. It came when Gravesend United and Northfleet United merged, opting to use Northfleet’s Stonebridge Road home as their ground.
A name change came in 2007 when they reached a lucrative sponsorship deal with Eurostar who had started using the new Ebbsfleet station as one of their main stations.
In November 2007, a controversial takeover of the club was completed by a website called MyFootballClub. Approximately 27,000 football fans each paid £35 to fund the takeover and gain a share in the club. Once you had paid your £35 you were then allowed to vote on the major decisions at the club, such as transfers and player selections.
After just one year of this style of ownership, figures dropped from a peak of 32,000 to 9,000. It had been stated that 15,000 supporters were needed to make this model work. In September 2010, figures had fallen to just 3,500.
On the pitch, the club won promotion to the Conference in 2011, before news came out months later that the club needed to raise £50,000 or face going out of business. An end to the ownership came in April 2013, when the remaining members opted to hand two thirds of the club over to the Fleet trust (the supporters) and the remainder to a club shareholder.
A month later and the club had new owners in KEH (Kuwaiti European Holdings) Sports Ltd from Kuwait. They settled the clubs debts and a new management team was installed, with long serving manager Liam Daish leaving the club. I had been told by some of the locals that this ownership is thought to be long term as they hope to capitalise on the development of the local area when the proposed Paramount London theme park is built just down the road. Think of it as a Universal Studios setting up shop just a few minutes from this football club.
The fans seemed fairly happy with their current owners and were quietly confident that they may gain a promotion back to the Conference within the next few seasons. However, based on this showing it will take a long time despite being one of the favourites to go up this season.
As the Ebbsfleet mascot – Hooky – walked around the pitch sheltering under an umbrella which looked as if it had been borrowed from a fan, the two sides reluctantly made their way on to the pitch.
Wealdstone had brought a large number of fans, but unfortunately the infamous Wealdstone Raider (look it up on Google or YouTube if you don’t know) wasn’t in attendance. Their fans claimed that he’s a glory hunter and only shows his face for “the bigger matches”. They came into the match having drawn three of their opening four matches, losing the other. Meanwhile, Ebbsfleet had won two and lost one having played a game less than the other clubs in the division. This came after the expulsion of Salisbury City from the Conference South, leaving Ebbsfleet matchless on the opening day of the season.
There was only one change for Ebbsfleet, with Joe Howe coming in for Aiden Palmer. Wealdstone made a couple of changes following their 2-1 home defeat to Farnborough two days previously. In came Joe Turner for Michael Malcolm and Wes Parker replaced the injured Tom Hamblin.
Driving rain made for poor playing conditions, but ultimately both sides were poor going forward and it was a game that will be remembered for some fantastic defensive work. Nearly every single challenge that went in was timed to perfection and both sides got on with it without moaning, which was refreshing to see.
The first real chance of the match came on 21 minutes when Ebbsfleet won a succession of corners. It all became fairly tedious and thankfully Matt Godden was kind enough to fire wide when goalkeeper Jonathan North misjudged a cross.
A few moments later and Anthony Cook worked the ball well down the wing. He crossed in for Charlie Sheringham who couldn’t quite reach it, seemingly incapable of reading any passage of play all afternoon. If he would have moved a bit quicker at the back post it would have been an easy tap in to hand Ebbsfleet a 1-0 lead.
On 36 minutes Ebbsfleet were reduced to ten men when captain Daryl McMahon went in two footed on Watford loanee Luke O’Nien. It was a 50/50 ball, but McMahon caught O’Nien in the knee and the referee brandished a red card immediately.
Wealdstone had hardly threatened and an Ebbsfleet lead at half time would have been fair. A few minutes before half time Fleet had the chance to take the lead from the penalty spot. Anthony Cook stormed into the penalty area where we was tripped by O’Nien. Matt Godden and Charlie Sheringham then argued over who should take the spot kick, with Godden succeeding in this battle. It was almost inevitable that the effort would be saved and Jonathan North kept the ball out with a good dive down to his right.
Both sides were poor in the first half, and it got even worse in the second with football hardly threatening to break out. Wealdstone were unable to capitalise on their man advantage as the rain thankfully subsided. The pitch markings had now disappeared and the hardcore Ebbsfleet fans who opted to stand on the open terrace in the first half were still in the clubhouse trying to dry themselves off.
Wealdstone’s best chance of the second half came and went on 58 minutes. Joe Turner burst down the wing using his pace to get clear of his marker. He crossed low into Scott McGleish who was sliding in at the back post, but his effort went centimetres wide going into the side netting. I was stood right behind the net as a breathless referee said “I can’t believe you made me run all that way and you missed!”. It certainly made my miserable afternoon a bit brighter as I waddled off to seek refuge in the Liam Daish Stand.
Now standing at the back of the stand, it was a bit hard to see over the fans who were congregated in front. I was with Joe, Jessica and Natalie. We were having a nice discussion about where I come from – no, I am not from near Newcastle – when suddenly a bloke next to us shouted “shoulders!”. I wondered whether this was a brand new chant, where fans of each team shout body parts at each other. It soon transpired that this bloke was offering the girls a piggy back so that they could see the action… but it had turned weird by that stage and the bloke could only apologise after coming across as a pest. To soften the blow I asked him if I could go on his shoulders, but I was informed I was too heavy to lift.
The game was beginning to open up and Joe Turner’s decent effort was well held by Ebbsfleet goalkeeper Preston Edwards. Other than that, there wasn’t much more to report on as I witnessed only my second 0-0 in over 100 matches. Matt Godden, I am not a fan of yours!
As the crowd of 936 filtered out of the ground I wandered across the road (jumping over the puddles) to the petrol station where I’d be picked up by my mum and sister, and my mum’s cousin Finbar. It was then onward to Bluewater where we had some tea before heading back to Stratford on the train.
I really liked my visit to Ebbsfleet. It is a fantastic ground and is really easy to get to on public transport. The only downside is the lack of things to see and/or do in Northfleet, but I knew that before my visit. I didn’t turn up at Ebbsfleet expecting to see Kent’s finest tourist attractions. A big thanks to the locals who were nice to me all afternoon… even if I did find it hard to understand you at times and vice versa!
- DISTANCE TRAVELLED TO GROUND: 237 miles
- ADMISSION: £8 as a student
- PROGRAMME PRICE: £3
Those photos are great, very Stuart Roy Clarke