A pre-season campaign starting at the end of August is definitely a first for football but it was a memorable first for Dennis Kutrieb nonetheless as his new-look squad earned an excellent 8-2 win over neighbours Punjab United.
More than five months have elapsed since an Ebbsfleet squad last pulled the red shirt over their heads and while the wait goes on for fans, for players at least this first game of the ‘Covid era’ was a welcome return to a sense of normality.
There was little normality in the traditionally sedate start to pre-season, however, as Kutrieb’s men ran up a 4-0 lead in no time at all. With several trialists in the squad, the Fleet boss opted to start with an 11 made up entirely of his first-team signings, Lee Martin captaining the side and leading the line.
Punjab, of the SCEFL Premier Division, made a bright start and dug in for the opening eight minutes but the home side got into gear quickly and had two quickfire penalties to thank for getting them off the mark.
The first arrived on eight minutes, Ben Chapman finding Adam Mekki from midfield. His deft touch into Martin saw the Exeter signing bundled over in the box and he dusted himself down to despatch the penalty.
A second spot-kick followed just three minutes later. Mekki’s corner was returned to the taker and as he weaved a path into the box he was brought down. Josh Payne was the man with the penalty this time and he made no mistake either for 2-0.
Mekki made it a hat-trick of assists in the 14th minute when he delivered following a run down the left wing, a half-clearance falling for Chapman 18 yards out and he fired home at the second attempt after his initial effort was blocked.
Punjab forced a couple of set pieces but Jordan Holmes only had one effort of note to save. Fleet enjoyed plenty of neat build-up from the back with Ben Frempah and Sefa Kahraman willing to run with the ball from defence.
Michael West and Martin both saw shots charged down but Martin was on hand to make it 4-0 on 23 minutes. Alex Eirich delivered from the right, his ball skipped through to Mekki whose shot appeared to hit a hand as it was blocked but Martin followed in to scoop the ball home for his second and Fleet’s fourth.
Bobby-Joe Taylor made way on 27 minutes to be replaced by James Dobson and the score remained at 4-0, Punjab’s defence tightening up after the shellshock of the opening period.
Fleet continued to carve out chances and when Kahraman, Martin and Payne exchanged passes in a neat, speedy move on 36 minutes, Martin fired just wide.
Half-time heralded the standard pre-season raft of changes but it didn’t halt the Fleet’s flow despite only Dobson having played much of the first period.
Dobson was joined by Tom Hadler, Alfie Egan and Jake Goodman – taking over the skipper’s armband – as well as seven trialists for the second 45 minutes and the home side soon increased their lead.
It was 5-0 on 54 minutes after a period of Fleet pressure, Dobson’s run taking him into the box. His shot was blocked but he steered it wide to Trialist G who fired an accurate effort into the bottom corner from 16 yards.
The roles were reversed on 62 minutes. Egan’s pass from midfield wide to Trialist G saw him gain ground on the Punjab left-back. He beat him to the ball, skipped clear and squared a simple ball back into the six-yard box for Dobson to rifle home first-time.
The visitors kept plugging away, however, and enjoyed moments of getting at the Fleet back line. They scored a consolation on 68 minutes, good vision from the halfway line setting their No.12 free. He was crowded out by the Fleet defence but play switched to the far post where the Punjab No.5 was able to shoot into an empty net.
Fleet didn’t wait long to right that wrong and it was 7-1 two minutes later. A run down the left resulted in an overhit cross but it was picked up by Trialist F who found Egan. His low delivery was met by Trialist G eight yards out who turned and picked his spot in the corner for his second of the night.
Fleet could have added more but Punjab’s second arrived courtesy of the third penalty of the night on 83 minutes, a mazy run ended by Trialist D clipping the heels of the visiting player and Hadler was sent the wrong way by the resulting spot-kick.
Kutrieb’s side rounded off the night by restoring their six-goal lead, the eighth coming three minutes from the end. And it was a hat-trick for Trialist G as right-back Trialist B threaded a fine ball upfield and ‘G’ slipped his marker to run in on goal and finish past the Punjab keeper.
The opening pre-season game may well typically serve as a ‘useful minutes’ exercise and Fleet will surely build on this throughout forthcoming warm-up games but there was plenty for the new management team to enjoy already in the passing, movement and flood of goals from this opener.
EUFC 1st half: Holmes, Adebayo-Rowling, Taylor (Dobson 27), Frempah, Kahraman, Chapman, Mekki, Payne, Eirich (Trialist A, 37), West, Martin.
EUFC 2nd half: Hadler, Trialist B, Trialist C, Trialist D, Goodman, Egan, Trialist A, Trialist E, Dobson, Trialist F, Trialist G.
Highlights will follow on our YouTube channel.