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Fleet featured in Times article

Ebbsfleet United’s ‘back from the brink’ story is featured online at The Times today, written by journalist Gary Jacob and headlined ‘Hard work the key as Ebbsfleet begin long journey to league football’. The article is reproduced below:

It sounded like the ultimate Championship Manager when Ebbsfleet United was bought by a website whose members made team selections, transfers and decisions via online polls.

At its peak about 30,000 people from 70 countries paid £35 for the privilege of owning a say in a club but the experiment failed as numbers dwindled to below a 1,000, Liam Daish, the manager, was unhappy with polling results and the wheels very nearly came off totally after six years of the ownership model in May.

The Conference South side were issued with a winding-up order for unpaid rent and the club were saved at the eleventh hour by a Kuwaiti investor. That seemed no less fanciful an outcome to the story of a club effectively being renamed after a train station and having its roots in Northfleet United, dating back to 1890. Roy Hodgson, the England manager, made 59 appearances for the club between 1969 to 1971 when it was called Gravesend and Northfleet.

Ebbsfleet have departed on another unlikely journey which they hope will arrive in the Football League. The team were relegated from the Conference Premier last season, amid protests against the website owners, and getting the club back up and rejuvenating local interest is the first stop.

Stonebridge Road was a pretty uninviting place last season. When the ball hit the tin-pot roof, paint flakes would fall like snow on the 900 or so fans. The ground is being radically upgraded but a discussion has already begun on redeveloping the stadium or moving. The area in North Kent is being opened up for development and a £2bn theme park is planned by Paramount Pictures for about five years time.

If the estimates are right that about more than 10 million people visit the park each year, Ebbsfleet is 17 minutes on the train from St Pancras International – then some people might take in a football game too. Barry Hearn had a similar idea when he wanted to move Leyton Orient,
his club, to the Olympic hockey stadium after the Games last summer to take advantage of the people flooding into the east London on a weekend.

In the short-term, Ebbsfleet are spending about £100,000 on improving the basic facilities at the ground: a new roof, painting the stands, changing the colour of the grey dressing rooms and a new pitch as Steve Brown, the new manager and a former Charlton Athletic defender, wants to play a passing game. That money is part of an overall £750,000 investment from Dr Abdulla Al Humaidi, the chairman of KEH Sports Limited which has healthcare and property interests. The Kuwaiti investor employs Peter Varney, the former chief executive of Charlton who helped the club into the top-flight in 1998 and 2000.

KEH say they have spent £54,000 on paying staff money owed, are close to buying the training ground, and ticket prices will be cut from £15 to £10 and anyone under 12 will be free. When Varney was handed the keys to the ground in May, he found people taking pictures for posterity. “They told me, ‘it was all over, gone’,” Varney said. “My dream is to have League football here. At Charlton it was European football.”

His model is to repeat the success of Crawley Town and Stevenage Borough, who have made it from non-league. You can see the logic with the overall plan. Ebbsfleet is changing. About 160,000 new homes are planned to be built in the Thames estuary and, together with the possible theme park, more scope for people on the club’s doorstep.

KEH will not throw money at promotion and Varney knows the perils of people getting carried away from his days at Charlton, whose fans came to regret what they once wished for. He estimates that about four teams will have a bigger budget next season and Welling were promoted from the Conference South with a weekly total wage bill of £5,200 last season.

Things had seemed to be going well after MyFootballClub.co.uk took control in 2008. The club lifted the FA Trophy that year, defeating Torquay United 1–0 in their first trip to Wembley. Will Brooks, the founder of the website, said that they needed a minimum 15,000 subscribers to make the concept work but two years into the project and the numbers had fallen to 3,500. A third of the members lived outside the UK including Vietnam, Belize, Jordan, Madagascar and Pakistan. They were promised a say in team selection, but later voted to leave that to the manager. The most significant vote was in August 2008 when 7,400 members voted in favour of striker John Akinde being sold to Bristol City in a £150,000 deal which could rise to £275,000 with a 20 per cent sell-on clause. Power resting with the people turned into near-disaster. The reality  project nearly killed the club.

Nearly all of the 640 who voted from the website approved selling the club to KEH in May. The company published comprehensive details, including to guarantee a minimum playing squad budget of £8,000, as well as a £100,000 transfer kitty.

“The club is looking forward to the future with optimism, progress will be managed in a financially responsible manner and, if hard work counts for anything, we will achieve our goals,” Varney said.

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