If one photo this year summed up the incongruous nature of football amidst the coronavirus, it was Josh Payne shaking hands with gas-mask-sporting Fleet supporter Jon Wood as the club’s last game at FC Halifax Town became the final match in Western Europe to kick-off before a continental shutdown.
Payne may have inadvertently become the poster boy of football’s lockdown, with the picture spread far and wide in the Daily Mail, Non-League Paper and other syndicated publications worldwide, but now he’s focusing on grabbing headlines more locally as another season with the Fleet beckons.
“I couldn’t believe that picture,” Payne recalled. “I’d just gone over to thank the fans for making the trip up. I just wanted to share that with them because it was a special moment for the club the way things were at that time. Since then it’s been a tricky time for a lot of people with players out of contract and the whole financial side of things for individuals.
“So definitely for me it was really important to get somewhere secured – and for it to be somewhere I know and somewhere I’ve enjoyed, it’s just a bonus on top of everything else. I loved my football with Ebbsfleet and it’s great to get another season locked in. I can’t wait to get my teeth into it. There were conversations at the tail end of the season and now it’s a new chapter at the club so I’ve been keen to get back in, get the work going and start the season.”
The fallout from last season has probably been felt more keenly at the Kuflink Stadium than anywhere else in the country given the margins involved in the final positions but Payne is echoing the message of the club to look ahead to the forthcoming campaign.
“You can look at it a few ways,” said Payne. “Of course we were struggling for the main part of the season but the timing of the lockdown was tricky for us because we’d found our place, we had a good thing going on and the atmosphere within the squad was great. There was an energy there. It was a shame it was cut short because I had a strong belief we were well on our way to getting out of it.
“With points per game not everybody was going to be happy with the outcome but that’s gone, we’ve got a big job to do. I’m looking forward to seeing how the staff wants us to play, what the style of play is and just enjoying myself out there on the pitch.”
Payne can renew midfield ties with his new car-share partner Adam Mekki and he’s enjoying watching the other new recruits be announced.
“I’ve worked with Meks before, not just last season. We were at Aldershot together years ago so we’ve got a good relationship,” he said. “We’re both just keeping an eye out now for the other signings, what sort of team we’re going to have and we’ll be keen to meet the other players and build the relationships on and off the pitch that we need for a successful season.
“The conversations I’ve had, it’s clear the management want leaders out there on the pitch and I’m happy to be one of those.”
At 29, Payne will be one of the older members of the squad and certainly – having played in every division at National League level and above – one of the most experienced. But he knows the drop to the South shouldn’t be taken lightly.
“I’ve had a couple of friends I played with in the League who have just been promoted with Wealdstone and they’ve said what a tough league it is. It’s a huge job, it’s going to be no different to any other match I’ve been in. Come Saturday or Tuesday, you have to expect a tough game every time. Yes, it’s a league down but it’s not going to be plain sailing and that’s how we have to approach it.”
Having been signed on loan last October, Payne will also be one of the longest-serving members of the Fleet’s new squad after Alfie Egan and Jordan Holmes. His two special goals for the Fleet, which followed an equally eye-catching effort just before he left Crawley Town, were the subject of some household banter at home and the former Oxford United and Woking midfielder admitted he enjoys scoring those types.
“I have a bit of a running joke with my wife and she says I never score,” he said. “So when I do get one it’s often a half-decent effort. A goal is a goal for me but it’s lovely when you get a good one. I’d be lying if I said I haven’t watched that Notts County one back a few times.”
We doubt he’s alone in that at Ebbsfleet…