What’s happened to Ebbsfleet? 12-months ago they led the National League South by a landslide. Ten victories from their opening eleven fixtures and even then their only blemish was a draw.
Preview: Ebbsfleet v Wealdstone
But life is different this season for the team that contrived to throw away a promotion that looked nailed on. The wheels started to come off at the turn of the year when Fleet went on a run of just five wins from 16 outings; hardly the form of Champions. Such a torrid run of results allowed south Londoners Sutton United to quietly creep up behind their much-championed Kent challengers before usurping them for the title and effectively ending Fleet’s challenge by beating them 2-0 in April.
Even then, it looked like the bookies’ fancied side would sneak up via the play-offs. And maybe they should have done. After seeing off Whitehawk on penalties in the semi-final they were seconds away from heading back to the National Premier only to be denied by a last minute extra time equaliser from Maidstone’s Dumebi Dumaka – a goal which sent the tie to a shootout and this time Fleet lost. Meanwhile Maidstone are still gloating…
And Ebbsfleet have not been the same since. After losing on Monday night to Chelmsford, their second defeat in a row, the pre-season favourite a 5/2 thoroughbred is now sitting lame in mid-table with Daryl McMahon under mounting pressure with speculation in some quarters that former Premier League star and ex-Ebbsfleet manager, Liam Daish, might be on his way back. Some say a bad result against Wealdstone could seal McMahon’s fate.
Does the manager feel it? Of course he does.
“We’re under a bit of pressure. I’m under a bit of pressure but I won’t be shirking anything. I never do and I never will” said McMahon who also berated his side’s luck, or lack of it, following Billy Bricknell’s late winner for Chelmsford.
One win in seven National South matches, the stats don’t lie, and like every football team the supporters are divided over McMahon’s suitability for the job.
“Sack this clown now… How many more times does he want to get his team selection wrong and chop and change about. He is giving you zero value for your money” just one of the more forthright views on the Fleet forum.
Whilst another says “This forum is like the Labour party at the moment. A lot of hyperbole, bluster and very little else“… and in the midst of managerial uncertainty a new thread appears entitled new manager with posters keen to speculate on a replacement “Don’t worry, Richard Hill [ex-Eastleigh manager] is already lined up” and “Might as well have given the job to Jimmy Bullard! At least we’d get some media attention.”
If McMahon is looking for answers under pressure, he might not find a better confidant than his opposite number on Saturday; Gordon Bartlett.
12-months ago Bartlett’s Wealdstone were finding life a struggle for the second season running and, despite recording their first league victory against Bishop’s Stortford, the then under-fire Stones gaffer spoke candidly about his own pressure. “If you’re losing, everyone chips in: ‘Something’s wrong’. We’re fully aware of that but what we need to do is get through the next game and can we start solving the problems that we know are there.”
Perhaps Bartlett is an example of why football clubs should exercise patience.
Something that Wealdstone are currently reaping the rewards of after well-documented changes at board room level took place this Summer.
This season’s new-look Wealdstone have enjoyed a good start to life at the Vale having lost just once in nine matches. You can hardly blame Stones fans for getting more than a little excited with four league wins already; staggeringly that’s a better win return than the club’s aggregated total of the opening 11 & 10 games from the last two season’s respectively.
That little snippet alone highlights the turnaround for a side now priced at 20/1 for the title (in from 50/1). The realists will tell you that’s unlikely, but the club are cashing in on the feel good factor at the moment with 1,003 – a best league attendance in two and a half years – enjoying the entertainment on show in last weekend’s 2-2 draw with Poole Town.
That draw served as a check on Wealdstone’s progress and reminded supporters that an achilles heel still blighting Wealdstone is the club’s indifferent home form. Bartlett’s side have mustered just 13 home league wins over the past three campaigns (inclusive of this one), a statistic that needs to be addressed if the club are serious play-off contenders or just run of the mill mid-tablers.
Remarkably, as indifferent as Wealdstone have been over the past two seasons, Stonebridge Road is a ground where the blues have performed minor miracles. After an impressive 0-0 draw two seasons ago (yes, I did call a 0-0 impressive), the Stones followed up with last season’s historic 3-2 victory in a game that was marked by a magnificent debut double for Matty Harriott before Jefferson Louis netted a glorious winner (okay, a tap-in at the far post).
Stones were enjoying a mini-revival and this was their seventh consecutive victory (league & cup) marking their best winning streak for five seasons with supporters revering this as ideal preparation for the FA Cup Round One clash with League One Colchester United, and BBC Football Focus, just a week later. For Ebbsfleet, meanwhile, defeat to Wealdstone tainted their pre-match run of six victories from eight and prevented them opening up a 12-point lead at the top of the National South over their nearest challengers Oxford City.
Forget history, this game is finely balanced and therefore inevitably hard to call. For Wealdstone, victory would really rubber-stamp the belief that this side could be equipped to challenge for the playoffs, whilst defeat would serve as a dose of realism.
Ebbsfleet, on the other hand, must win. And if they don’t, it could be the end of Daryl McMahon’s two year stint as boss. The home side can be encouraged by their defence with just seven goals conceded in nine games they boast a record only bettered by leaders Maidenhead (3).
That defence will be well tested come Saturday when the name on everyone’s lips looks to extend his already impressive goals to games ratio. Elliot Benyon, signed from neighbours Hayes & Yeading in the Summer, has netted seven in nine – it’s the fourth best strike rate in the division and the striker’s fine performances have him nailed as Wealdstone’s favoured talisman.
1,121 watched the Stones upset the apple cart last October but the atmosphere in the ground is likely to be a little cosier this time round with ground works taking place on a reported new £5 million main stand; a result of the football club completing its purchase of the freehold title from Gravesham council in May, a deal which club director Stuart Butler-Gallie acknowledged as “a key stage in securing the future of this club.”
Oh how Wealdstone would love to be in that position.
Fleet to check the Stones good run and begin a revival the rest of the league are hoping never happens. Tight contest, settled by one goal. 1-0.
P.S. As per last season, due to an archaic Ebbsfleet ruling banning the use of camera phones and/or filming equipment, there will be no match-day goals (from me at least… I’m away in any case).
Photo of Daryl McMahon courtesy of Alan Palmer.