The odds on the Fleet being paired with Dagenham & Redbridge an hour after the announcement that Kenny Clark had signed for the Essex club would have been fairly long, but such is football, and knockout competitions in particular, that such a scenario presents itself this Saturday. Add to that a reunion between the Fleet’s new manager and the club where he enjoyed extensive success in cup competitions and you have more ingredients than the First Round of the Buildbase FA Trophy usually throws up.
Garry Hill will come up against his former Dagenham assistant for so many years, Terry Harris, who left Boreham Wood in the summer to work alongside Daggers boss Peter Taylor. “I still talk to Terry from time to time,” Hill told eufc.co.uk. “They’re good football people there. It’s no secret I’ve had many great occasions there. I’ve got a lot of friends there and it was a place that meant a lot to me but that goes to the side Saturday. They know that, that’s football. They’re good football people at Ebbsfleet too and since we’ve come in, we’ve been made very welcome.It’s about now, not the past, and we very much want to win this tie.”
Both sides go into the game firing on all cylinders. Hill’s Fleet have now gone eight league games unbeaten and the manager was able to get a full week’s training without worrying about further player departures this week.
“We couldn’t afford anyone else to go out, otherwise me and Ian Hendon might be playing!” Hill said. “In all seriousness though, we’ve conceded one goal in the last six games and things have gone very well in a short space of time. The boys are sensible, rounded and level-headed about that fact. They know what we’re working with in terms of numbers – if anything it’s made us more together. The players do understand the structure going forward and I’ve said to them, in a group of 17 players down from 23, you’ve got to be fancying your chances and be a lot more confident of getting in the team straight away. They’re a good bunch of lads and Ian Hendon’s done very very well with them, as well as the backroom staff. It’s nice to be a manager and taking praise but the players go and get the results and Ian Hendon and the back-up staff have to be credited for all the work they’ve done with the players. Everyone knows the purpose of what they’re coming to work for here.”
And although the squad is down to 17 with a punishing schedule ahead, Hill’s not worried about approaching it with fewer bodies.
“In all fairness to the chairman, he has said players can come in, the right players in the right structure for the football club. He has encouraged that. If we feel we need one or two more and they’re the right fit, he’s there to help us. We respect that. We look after the structure here as if it’s our own finances, we’re prudent about what we do. We’ve got a lot of games coming up and only five points off the play-offs so we’ll see how it goes in these coming games.”
Even with a smaller squad, Hill still has selection dilemmas with a squad that’s playing well in all areas. Bagasan Graham and Cody McDonald are the latest to stake a claim after impressive cameos off the bench last Saturday and the manager was full of praise for all those brought back into the fold.
“Bagasan Graham offered something that little bit different on the other side,” he explained, “and he put that great ball across to the far post. He’s got a great attitude, the same as all the lads. I think players are aware – if you look at Lawrie Wilson, Jack King, Michael Cheek – that they have that chance again and they have all taken an opportunity which they weren’t getting when we arrived at the club. You ask players to raise their game, step up to the occasion and show that they want to do it collectively and they’re doing that.
“It was good to give Cody McDonald that opportunity to see what he could show, even though he’s not played many minutes and is a little bit behind with his fitness. But he’s been very honest with that and he’s done very well in training. Last week was the ideal opportunity to fetch him on and see what he could do. He was probably kicking himself but that’s what you’ll see with him straight away, experience and proven quality. When he missed that chance, it wasn’t a case of what you see in a lot of players when they lose confidence or let it affect their game. He knew he’d get the measure of the Barnet defence again and he did that two or three times after. With the substitutions, sometimes you have to risk losing a game by trying to win it and you have to assess that in the moment.”
And Hill won’t be resting up for the Trophy game, a competition in which he’s been to a semi-final with St Albans and a couple of quarter-finals, but never reached Wembley.
“It’s nice to have a break and the FA Trophy means a great deal to everyone at Ebbsfleet, as it should do because of winning it a few years ago,” he said. “And I’m sure we’d want that again, to achieve something like that again at Wembley. We’ll give it our very, very best against an in-form Dagenham – all credit to Peter Taylor and Terry Harris. They’ve got some players in and they’re now in a position to be able to do that.
“But it’s about us and what we do. It’ll be hard work, it will need commitment and we should be – and we are – enjoying our football on and off the pitch. Like last week against Barnet, it was a funny sort of game, both teams cancelled each other out. You can’t always play well, what we’ve got to do is show that little bit of character and sometimes nick a 1-0, even if it’s a bit ugly. Control the game and create more chances and it gives you a platform. When you reflect on a win like that later on in the season, it could be a big three points. Or if we do it on Saturday it takes us a step nearer to Wembley.”
Dagenham have never won the Trophy since their merger with Redbridge Forest, having reached one final in 1997 that was lost to Woking. They won it as Dagenham FC in 1980 under skipper Denis Moore, the former Fleet boss, but are long overdue another run in a competition where they have fallen at the first hurdle in each of the two seasons since their relegation from the Football League.
On a run as good as the Fleet’s, which has seen six wins in eight National League games, the Daggers have roared out of the relegation places to sit 14th after looking resigned to the drop earlier in the season. They will be a much different prospect than the side that lost 3-1 at home to the Fleet in September, their new US-based owners beginning to flex a little muscle as far as the playing squad is concerned.
Kenny Clark – who operated at left back on his home debut last week – was just one such investment and the Daggers also have centre-back Emmanuel Onariese in on loan from Rotherham. Other new faces include Conor Wilkinson up front, the Gillingham loanee netting four goals in his first three games and former Boreham Wood hotshot Angelo Balanta. Skipper Ben Nunn has returned from injury (though is suspended after a red card last week) and Jamaican international defender Nathan Smith is in from Yeovil.
It all means the Daggers will offer a more potent threat up front and in all likelihood be tighter at the back than when the clubs last met in the league. The prize money for this round of the competition, meanwhile, is £6,000.
The game is not segregated and all other info for the afternoon is here. Fans are reminded they are welcome to use the bar in the Main Stand up to 2.45pm.