The upturn in Ebbsfleet United’s league fortunes could reach its zenith at Longmead this weekend as Steve Brown’s charges aim to fill a play-off place for the first time this season – but this being a Kent derby means Tonbridge Angels are likely to provide a far more formidable obstacle than their own league position suggests.
“I’m good friends with [Angels manager] Tommy Warrilow (pictured),” Brown said, looking forward to the match. “He’ll want to turn around the result from earlier in the season in the Kent Senior Cup. It’s on their patch where they’re always dangerous and they had a great result last week against Whitehawk. But we’re pushing onwards and upwards. With the way things are going, we go there with a confidence about us.”
Last Saturday’s 4-0 win over Concord Rangers suggested that Fleet’s early-season problems in finding the back of the net – while not perhaps consigned entirely to history – are certainly not the psychological barrier they once were considered. Andy Pugh’s first goal, and one for Michael Thalassitis after a lengthy period out of first-team action, will keep Brown’s forward line on their toes as starting places up front become increasingly competitive.
And with Joe Howe’s return to full fitness, even the sparsely-populated defence has some competition, with Chris Sessegnon having turned in a decent shift at right back over the last few games. Indeed, general knocks aside, and having had all week off after training fell victim to wet weather, Brown is likely only to have make a fitness call on Preston Edwards, with Brandon Hall on alert for his first league start. The midfield, of course, is one man light with Tom Phipp having joined Maidstone United on a month’s loan.
Tonbridge might be glad Phipp is absent, being as he has already savoured a goal against them in the Fleet’s 3-0 Kent Senior Cup win at Stonebridge Road. But while that match is fresh in the memory, the two clubs haven’t met in a league clash at Longmead in exactly 20 years. It was November 6, 1993, when Fleet managed a 3-1 win – with goals from Steve Portway, Lee Graves and Simon Ullathorne – on their way to the Beazer Homes League Southern Division championship.
It is somewhat ironic that the man who lifted the championship shield for the Fleet at the end of that season was none other than Tonbridge’s current manager Tommy Warrilow, who skippered the side in a memorable season that saw them narrowly edged out by Leyton Orient in the FA Cup and lose only four league games.
The 20-year gap between league meetings is the longest absence in Fleet-Tonbridge history, with the two clubs being regular foes before that, clocking up more than 80 clashes down the years, Fleet having won almost twice as many as their opponents.
Players used to flow quite regularly between the clubs and the current Tonbridge side has – in addition to Warrilow – a few old Fleet faces. Goalkeeper Clark Masters and striker Mark Lovell both had trials at Stonebridge Road, the latter being the son of ex-Fleet boss Steve Lovell. Another father-son link is striker Luke Blewden, whose dad Colin was an exceptional talent at Fleet, part of the 1989 promotion side in his first spell and a veteran of the Aston Villa game in his second.
Perhaps the best-known old boy in recent times is Nathaniel Pinney, the former Crystal Palace striker who had a decent loan spell at the Fleet in 2011-12, netting 12 goals in 25 games and then maintaining his hit rate in a season with Carshalton Athletic. He has three goals to his name in his fledgling Tonbridge career thus far, making him the club’s top scorer.
That fact alone suggests the Angels need to improve their strike rate if they want to escape the Skrill South trap door. Third from bottom currently, Warrilow’s side have won three matches this season, two of them at home. The latest was a decent 3-1 victory over much-fancied Whitehawk, while they have also held high-flying Sutton and Staines to draws at Longmead.
Defensively, Tonbridge have plenty of experience, with one-time Fleet target and skipper Gary Elphick a veteran of Conference Premier football with Eastbourne and St Albans. His partner in the back line is Gary Borrowdale who played League football for Crystal Palace, Coventry, QPR and Charlton amongst others. He also played international football with Stacy Long at various levels for England U16s through to U20s.
Elsewhere, other players with experience at a higher level are midfielder Chris Piper (Farnborough, Dagenham & Redbridge), Phil Appiah (Hayes & Yeading), Clark Masters (Brentford, Hayes & Yeading, Barrow) and Ryan Watts (Braintree). But the chief threat from the Angels could come in the form of loan star Shamir Goodwin who has scored twice in two games since arriving from Brighton – including the opening goal last week against the team of the moment, Bishop’s Stortford.
After that defeat, Warrilow saw his side slip into the relegation zone and declared himself unhappy with their midfield performance. But he is adamant that the Angels need just a slice of luck and aren’t “a million miles away” from embarking on a run that would lift them clear of danger. Having achieved 9th place in his first campaign in Conference South, and 16th last season with a Kent Senior Cup Final thrown in, Warrilow knows the club he took over in 2007-08 is constantly battling against bigger budgets at this level. But their 2-1 defeat of the Fleet in last season’s Kent Senior Cup semi-final, with seven survivors remaining from that game, means they’re perfectly capable of upsetting the odds.
Fleet v Tonbridge head-to-head
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