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FOOTBALL'S FRONT LINES

Fan-voted transfers and the threat of ‘Disneyland England’ — what’s the truth about Ebbsfleet United?

Football's Front Lines: "We’re still the Fleet, that hasn’t changed. If anything, it’s given fans another song to sing: ‘one-nil to the train station!’"

Back in 2007, thousands of Ebbsfleet United fans were given the chance to choose their team’s starting XI.

Naturally, this approach made them famous as fans from all corners of the country, from Non-League to Premier League, wondered how their club would fair under a similar regime.

In search of how the club got to such a point, and where they’ve gone since, l ventured to Stonebridge Road on a rainy Saturday to get under the skin of a club who have been through a lot in recent times.

Ebbsfleet’s new Stonebridge Road stand looks stunning from the outside

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Ebbsfleet’s new Stonebridge Road stand looks stunning from the outside

Ebbsfleet were taken over by revolutionary website MyFootballClub in 2007.

27,000 members signed up via MyFootballClub to provide the £700,000 takeover fund that essentially saved the club from financial ruin.

Members were responsible for running the football club, including voting on the starting line-up for each fixture, sanctioning transfers, and kit design.

Supporters’ Trust members Sharon Stockley and Katie Burgess were both on the board at the time, and explained to me how the venture saved the club from disappearing and made it recognisable to fans all over the world.

“MyFC took over just before we won the FA Trophy [in 2007],” said Katie. “Of course, everyone got terribly excited when that happened.”

However, level heads prevailed as the members voted in favour of manager Liam Daish picking the team for every game.

Dr Abdulla Al-Humaidi and former manager Daryl McMahon

Phil Shephard-Lewis - The Times
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Dr Abdulla Al-Humaidi and former manager Daryl McMahon

“Ultimately,” continued Katie, “being bought by MyFC saved the club from debt.

“It only went wrong because nobody really thought about how it would sustain that kind of money.

“We wouldn’t have Dr. Al-Humaidi if it wasn’t for MyFC. We wouldn’t have survived long enough to get to where we are now. He might’ve picked someone else.

“A lot of the people who originally signed up for MyFC are still involved in the club now.

“I know people from all over the world who still follow Ebbsfleet thanks to MyFC.”

The Fleet were up against Barnet after seven-games unbeaten

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The Fleet were up against Barnet after seven-games unbeaten

Given all that’s happened in recent times, with rumours of unpaid wages rife, I was surprised by the resoundingly optimistic atmosphere present for my trip to Stonebridge Road.

The club’s new manager – the experienced Garry Hill – had overseen an upturn of results since taking over in early November, with the Fleet (as they’re affectionately known) going into this match unbeaten in their last seven league games.

At the turnstiles, I met Alan Woods, a Fleet fan for decades and a writer for the publication Groundtastic, a quarterly magazine that specialises on football grounds across the country and beyond.

We got chatting about the brilliant work Dr Abdulla Al-Humaidi had done for the club since arriving in 2013, and Alan was particularly passionate about the redevelopment of the stadium.

“He’s done a lot of good things,” Alan told me. “When he arrived, the club was close to bankruptcy, but he came in and stabilised the club, he’s put a lot of money into re-roofing the stands.

“He’s always said he wants the club to become self-sufficient, so this season he’s been trying to re-balance the financial side.”

All four sides of the Fleet’s ground will be redeveloped

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All four sides of the Fleet’s ground will be redeveloped

Many fans believe the club’s success last season was a case of too much, too soon.

Having won promotion to the National League in the previous campaign, Ebbsfleet reached the play-offs last term but lost out to eventual promotion-winners Tranmere in the semi-final.

The dream of reaching the Football League would have to wait.

Alan told me that the club’s straight-out-of-the-blocks success in the last campaign somewhat unbalanced the fans’ expectations and made McMahon’s job trickier this season.

“McMahon did a good job getting us up,” he said. “But he had too many backroom boys.

Now Garry Hill’s come in, he’s fabulously experienced, got rid of some of the surplus players and has got us winning again.”

The view of the pitch two hours before kick-off

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The view of the pitch two hours before kick-off

It began to rain an hour before kick-off, but I was lucky enough to be invited into the clubhouse owned by the Fleet Supporters’ Trust.

It was warm and dry inside, and there was the distinct feeling of togetherness among the Trust’s members.

With a cup of tea in hand, I spoke to John Burgess, the Chairman of Supporters’ Trust, and I began to ask him about the current season and the situation with the owner.

“You’d struggle to find a fan who has anything negative to say about him,” John said.

“There’s no doubt that had he not come in, this football club would’ve folded.

“It is what it is, obviously the man at the top has decided he wants to reduce the squad size and the wage bill.

“Bottom line is, he’s trying to reduce the size of the squad which is too large for this level.”

The Fleet Supporters’ Trust clubhouse

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The Fleet Supporters’ Trust clubhouse

John Burgess, chairman of the Supporters’ Trust

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John Burgess, chairman of the Supporters’ Trust

I asked about the proposed theme park, dubbed ‘Disneyland England’ by some cynics, that’s being built nearby in Swanscombe.

Announced in October 2012, the project is being bankrolled by Al-Humaidi’s holding company and many feared the future of the club lies in whether the plans went ahead.

But John isn’t concerned, telling me: “The only link between the theme park and the club is Dr. Al-Humaidi. The future of the football club certainly doesn’t depend on it.

“It’s taking longer to go through than they planned, but these things happen, of course. He’s invested in the area, not just in the club and the theme park.”

The location of the proposed ‘London Resort’ theme park

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The location of the proposed ‘London Resort’ theme park

Early concept art of the theme park

Paramount
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Early concept art of the theme park

Around this time, the club changed its name from Gravesend & Northfleet to Ebbsfleet United in a bid to promote the newly established Ebbsfleet Valley area and the Ebbsfleet International station, situated within a mile of the ground.

“Eurostar came in, they gave the club a lot of money and helped sustain the club in the following four years. It’s a historic thing, you’re never going to get over that,” John told me.

Many fans were outraged at the time, but for others it was just one of those things.

Katie said: “You still get people walking around with shirts and scarves that say ‘Gravesend & Northfleet’.

“In some ways it was quite a smart move early on, it’s put Ebbsfleet on the map. People know where we are.

“And we’re still the Fleet, that hasn’t changed. That’s always been our nickname. If anything, it’s given fans another song to sing: ‘one-nil to the train station!’”

Opened in 2007, Ebbsfleet International station offers high-speed and Eurostar rail services

Jack Hill - The Times
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Opened in 2007, Ebbsfleet International station offers high-speed and Eurostar rail services

Eurostar was Ebbsfleet’s shirt sponsor between 2007 and 2011

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Eurostar was Ebbsfleet’s shirt sponsor between 2007 and 2011

This little club has certainly been through a lot over the last few years, but fans seems content with their current situation and are looking forward to the future.

I stuck around for the game and watched them beat Barnet – thanks to a late strike from star striker Danny Kedwell – to keep them within touching distance of the play-off places.

A place in the Football League is on the horizon.

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