Ebbsfleet United finished their Blue Square Bet South promotion campaign where they had arguably kick-started it – with their first and last wins of the season both coming at Farnborough’s Rushmoor Stadium.
And it was a game that will live long in the memory for Fleet fans as their side bounced back to reclaim their place in the Blue Square Premier Division just one season after being relegated from it. The fans from Kent travelled in numbers and soon reclaimed the entire length of the MRE Stand after stewards upped Fleet supporters’ allocation as kick-off was delayed by 15 minutes.
With Preston Edwards back in goal, the Fleet began kicking towards the home supporters and soon established a fluid rhythm that allowed their opponents little to exploit. If it wasn’t quite as smooth and swift as the start in Chelmsford, it wasn’t far off it, and Michael West tested goalkeeper Michael Jordan early on with a free-kick in a series of set pieces for the Fleet. Industrious in midfield, Giannoulis Fakinos buzzed and harried and won a free-kick on the edge of the box and then played Ricky Shakes through but Farnborough hacked it clear.
The home side attempted to utilise their flanks but got little joy and their best chance came through the middle when Dale Binns broke upfield and supplied Kezie Ibe but he was denied by a superb Paul Lorraine tackle. Growing in confidence, the Fleet seemed to have an outlet every time they broke upfield, be it Shakes on the right or a combination of West and Joe Howe – a late replacement for Derek Duncan – out left.
Calum Willock, too, held the ball up well, bringing his attacking midfielders into play, and it was the big Fleet striker who set up his side on 28 minutes. From a throw, Willock nodded the ball into the box and West, with his back to goal, executed a text-book bicycle kick that flew past Jordan.
Fleet’s by-now-customary play-off confidence grew and they went at the home side, Phipp, West and Howe in particular producing some sublime overlapping football as Howe took advantage of Bradley Bubb’s lack of threat to venture forward. Farnborough’s best chance was a curling free-kick from the influential Daryl McMahon but Edwards held it well and the visitors saw the game out to half-time in control.
Farnborough had to come out in the second half offering more but the Fleet simply refused to give their opponents’ gameplan any quarter whatsoever. McMahon produced a thumping drive from distance that had Edwards flying across goal but it was off-target and with it went Farnborough’s chance to equalise. On 52 minutes, West came driving forward and lifted a wonderful diagonal pass into Shakes’ path and the Fleet winger unloaded an equally wonderful lob over Jordan to send the packed ranks of Fleet fans into raptures.
Farnborough’s heads were down and Fleet could feel the final turning their way. West and Shakes looked to kill things off as they continually carved a path to goal and on the rare occasions the home side burst forward, the Fleet always had a route to goal on the break. And on 73 minutes they looked to have sealed promotion in fine style. Phipp and Howe combined well out wide and when a high cross floated towards the far post, West rose highest to flash a header over the goalkeeper for his sixth goal of the play-offs.
The Fleet were cantering towards promotion and Willock almost made it 4-0 from close range, played in by Shakes, and then headed just over the bar from a deft Fakinos pass. Farnborough seemed to lack any ideas going forward, so much so that even when they registered on the scoresheet three minutes from time, Fleet fans barely gave it much thought, McMahon rifling home a shot from distance as the supporters in yellow streamed out of their ground.
But indifference gave way to incredulity two minutes later when ex-Fleet Farnborough substitute Paul Booth tapped home a second and suddenly the home side, from nowhere, looked a real threat. With five minutes of time added and the Fleet all of a sudden looking like a side with their backs to the wall, Binns almost grabbed the equaliser when his volley weaved and bobbed on its way into the arms of a grateful Edwards. And Binns it was again who shot just wide as he took it upon himself to give the Fleet defence an almighty scare.
Just as it looked like the Fleet might, unbelievably, cave in, they broke upfield and Fakinos struck a low ball from the edge of the box that escaped Jordan’s outstretched arms, allowing Willock to break the Shakes-West hold on play-off goals glory by stabbing the ball over the line to the utter jubilation of the red army. It was a scene reminiscent of the Trophy semi-final at Aldershot, with Fleet defending for their lives and then breaking upfield to seal things in the dying seconds.
It was no more than the Fleet deserved in a game where a 4-0 scoreline would not have flattered them. Liam Daish deservedly took the plaudits as Paul Lorraine held aloft the curiously FA Cup-styled Blue Square trophy.
The Fleet were back where they belonged. And well ahead of schedule…
TEAM: Edwards, Stone, Howe (Pooley 88), Fakinos, Easton, Lorraine, West, Marwa, Willock, Shakes, Phipp. Subs not used: Hawkes, G Williams, Erskine, Ginty
Vote for your man of the final here. Giannoulis Fakinos walked away with the award from the Chelmsford home game.