Football Friends Online – When 90 Mins Is Not EnoughEbbsfleet United - Football Friends Online - When 90 Mins Is Not Enough Ebbsfleet United - Football Friends Online - When 90 Mins Is Not Enough

Ebbsfleet United

Back in the summer of 2008, things were looking good for Conference National side Ebbsfleet United. February saw a revolutionary takeover by the internet group (MyFC) – a move that staved off the potential of administration. Things looked rosy on the field too; in May the club defeated Torquay United 1-0 in front of a crowd of 40,186 at Wembley, to win the FA Trophy for the first time. Fast forward two years and Ebbsfleet now languish in the Blue Square South and face an uncertain future. But this is nothing new to fans of the Fleet – they are used to false dawns. 

Prior to 2007, the Fleet were known as Gravesend & Northfleet FC, born from the merger between Gravesend United and Northfleet United in April 1946. The newly-formed club moved to Northfleet’s Stonebridge Road home and remain there to this day. Gravesend & Northfleet’s first competitive match resulted in a 3-0 success over Hereford United, although the club had to wait over a decade for their first league success. That arrived in the 1957-58 season, as Lionel Smith’s prolific side topped the Southern League, netting a total of 135 league and cup goals. 

Financial worries and boardroom upheaval curtailed the Fleet’s progress for much of the next two decades. Besides a marathon FA Cup run in 1963 which saw Gravesend & Northfleet reach the fourth round, the next decade was a painful time. This continued into the Seventies until Tony Sitford’s appointment in 1974, which immediately yielded the Southern Division title. It didn’t take long for the Fleet to challenge in the Southern Premier in 1977, but they had to settle for the Southern League Cup instead, overcoming Weymouth in the final.   

This success saw the club qualify for the newly-formed Alliance Premier League (the Conference), finishing fifth in the inaugural campaign. But once more off-field problems returned to derail the club’s momentum and quick-fire relegations in 1981 and 1986 meant the Fleet were back where they started in the Southern League. Besides briefly yo-yoing between the leagues at the turn of the decade, it took the Fleet until the 1994-94 season to win the Southern League, which they did in style fuelled by the goals of Steve Portway.  

With travel costs proving to be a mounting concern, the club transferred to the Ryman Premier League in 1997. The switch made little difference at first, as a run of mid-table finishes ensued. Although during this time the fans at the Stonebridge were treated to the performances of a young Jimmy Bullard, before the big-haired midfielder joined Premier League West Ham in 1999, in a £30,000 deal. 

The 2001-02 campaign saw the Fleet return to the top-flight of non-league football, after pipping Canvey Island to win the Ryman Premier Division, following a nervy end of season title race. Subsequently, Gravesend & Northfleet became a fully professional outfit, and after a few years of consolidation in the Conference, they finished a very respectable seventh in 2006-07, under the guidance of former Cambridge, Birmingham and Coventry defender Liam Daish.    

2007-08 was the most important year in the history of the Kent-based club, starting with the name change to Ebbsfleet United. Then in November, Ebbsfleet became a footballing experiment, as it was announced that the website – – would be taking over the club. For £35 per year, fans would be able to have the final say on transfer deals, major club decisions and, most notably, tactics and starting line-ups. The deal was ratified in February 2008, as 27,278 members paid their fees resulting in 75% ownership and weeks later the club won the FA Trophy, swelling membership to over 30,000. 

Expectations were high for the following season, especially as MyFC members had voted on a highest-ever playing budget. But, a 14th place finish was disappointing and the Fleet lost to Stevenage Borough in the semi-finals of the FA Trophy – membership figures began to dip as a result. 

The unique-selling point of the fans being in charge of team selection didn’t materialise, as members always voted to side with Daish, who has remained throughout. The manager has remained fairly open-minded to the project, although the interaction hoped for by the scheme was sparse. Daish said: “I don’t have time to sit and write blogs and podcasts or whatever they are. I have a lot on my plate. I’m not going to be sitting in front of my computer six hours a day, answering everyone’s emails.” 

Last season’s relegation, by just a point, has seen membership figures drop to just 3,500 and an increase to £50 for membership fees. Ebbsfleet are currently positioned mid-table in the Blue Square South, but with a new-look side including much-travelled ex-Fulham striker Calum Willock and former England Youth midfielder Craig Easton, the play-offs will be the target, despite the off-field confusion. 

One thing is for certain though; this rollercoaster does not look like ending any time soon for English football’s guinea pig. 

James Riley

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