Trepidation and hope filled the air at Stonebridge Road last Saturday, as Ebbsfleet faced another date with destiny. Having lost play-off finals in 2014 and 2016, many fans would be forgiven for being apprehensive ahead of their clash with Chelmsford. This represented another chance for Daryl McMahon to take his side into the National League and make good on the investments of Dr Abdullah Al-Humaidi, who was part of the 3,134-strong crowd.
It was a testament to the quality of league champions Maidstone, and more specifically the mercurial Dave Tarpey, that Ebbsfleet were in the play-offs at all. Ebbsfleet recorded 96 points in the regular season (12 points more than last year, when they also finished 2nd), finishing the campaign with just four defeats and the league’s best goal difference. Tarpey bagged 44 goals for Maidstone, a league record, and together with Sean Marks, they contributed 64.5% of the club’s goal tally. Had they not been there, or had Tarpey moved on in January, it could well have been a different story for the Fleet, who ended up going on a 23-match unbeaten run following the turn of the year.
Ebbsfleet recruited well last summer and during this campaign, bringing in former Peterborough striker Aaron McLean to complement their frontline options. McLean scored the winner in the play-off semi-final first leg against Hampton & Richmond Borough, with Ebbsfleet winning 4-2 on aggregate.
The club had six days preparation but all their plans went awry in the opening period, with neither side able to establish a firm foothold. Anthony Cook’s red card left Ebbsfleet with an even greater task, something made worse by Chelmsford scoring the game’s opener 10 minutes after the interval. Fleet were resilient all season though and they duly got on the board with 72 minutes gone, former Wycombe defender Dave Winfield heading in, before season top-scorer Darren McQueen scored another four minutes later. Another 15 minutes of nail-biting slowly passed before referee Richard Hulme blew his whistle for the last time – Fleet were promoted!
This result was a deserved outcome for a club who have come so close to promotion in the last four years and have a squad more than capable of competing at a higher level. Whilst the investment from Dr Al-Humaidi has drawn criticism from the other clubs in the league, Ebbsfleet have been sensible. They haven’t just thrown money at anyone and everyone, instead making astute purchases within their own division and picking up free agents from tiers above. An example of the former is Sam Deering, who starred in midfield for Whitehawk last season, whilst Winfield and striker Danny Kedwell are excellent examples of the latter.
Indeed, a lot of Al-Humaidi’s investment has been focused on redeveloping Stonebridge Road. The project, outlined in 2015, is a £3.5m plan that will see the old Liam Daish stand taken down and replaced with a new main stand, giving the club 6,000 capacity, including 2,000 seats. This would be amongst the biggest in the National League (well, unless more clubs like Leyton Orient and Hartlepool get relegated) and would help the club continue their development sustainably.
The players, four of whom were in the Vanarama team of the season, and the coaching staff can now enjoy a well-earned rest. However, their honeymoon will be brief because football doesn’t stand still and they have a first campaign in the National League to prepare for. With that in mind, what are their prospects looking like?
Well, if this season taught us anything it was that the National League’s quality continues to improve. Neither of the two relegated sides got immediate promotion back to the Football League, with Dagenham falling in the play-offs and York being consigned to consecutive relegations. With the addition of Hartlepool and Leyton Orient from the tier above and a hungry Tranmere side desperate for success after their play-off final defeat against Forest Green Rovers, the promotion race next season will be very tight.
I’m not saying Ebbsfleet cannot challenge for promotion, we still have the entire transfer window to come, but I doubt that will be the priority for Daryl McMahon and his charges. They have a very strong squad at this point and they should be looking at a comfortable mid-table finish next season if they can hold onto the majority of those players. Nathan Ashmore is one of the best goalkeepers outside of the Football League in my opinion, whilst Sam Deering, Dean Rance and Andy Drury formed one of the NLS’ most effective midfields. Fleet lacked someone this season that could go out and get 20+ goals a season, but if they can hold onto McLean and make the most of McQueen, Kedwell and Bradley Bubb, they will have too much for a lot of teams.
Non-League football crowds are consistently increasing, and with more fans increasingly disillusioned with the amount of money in the game, it is a great way for fans to get involved. For someone like me who takes more than a passing interest because of family support of the club, this was a great season for Ebbsfleet and next season promises even more. This year for Ebbsfleet it really was a case of third time lucky.