And so, 41 games into the campaign and entering its ninth month, Ebbsfleet United have their sights set on the title. It’s not quite done… but it can be, as the Fleet make their first ever visit to Taunton Town.
How it unfolds depends on numerous factors but the short version is if the Fleet better whatever result Dartford achieve in their home game against Dulwich Hamlet, then that’s the Vanarama National League South title in the bag.
If both clubs lose or win, then Fleet will have another opportunity to wrap it up against Oxford City on Good Friday. If Dartford lose and Fleet draw, it’s Fleet’s title. If Dartford draw and Fleet win, it’s Fleet’s title.
Dennis Kutrieb will have his players focused on the immediate task in hand, however, which is points at Taunton, and he’ll leave other clubs’ results well enough alone until the final whistle at the Cygnet Health Care Stadium.
Craig Tanner was back on the sidelines at the weekend and Rakish Bingham retired early from last week’s Slough victory with an Achilles injury that the Fleet boss said would end his season prematurely, but there are few other injury concerns ahead of the club’s longest trip of 2022/23. And as ever with a long trip in the spring, Fleet fans are embarking on a weekender themselves – especially with more than a sniff of success in the air after a long, hard but thoroughly enjoyable campaign.
“It’s a tough away trip, our last long one and it’s a long drive,” said Kutrieb as he enters the final month of many such months of meticulous planning. “We have six more games and we want to win as many as we can – we will be ready. The support was amazing again last week and we need to make sure we get that again. There’s not a long time to go now, it will go quickly, and we must all be prepared to support the boys and do as much as we all can, as a club, to get them over the line. And I’m sure we all will.”
Fleet ran out 5-0 winners in the first meeting of the clubs in October – quite the scoreline given that the Peacocks boasted one of the better defensive records in the league. Dominic Poleon, chasing the Golden Boot and the 40-goal mark in his remaining matches, scored once in that game, with Toby Edser (2), Greg Cundle and Bingham also on target.
Taunton, celebrating their 75th anniversary this year just as Fleet did last season, will be desperate to cement their stay in the division in their first time at this level. The Southern League champions have looked assured enough for much of the season but a backlog of fixtures has dragged them into the relegation fight and it’s a matter of using their games in hand to now haul themselves clear.
Despite being only four points and three places clear of the relegation zone, they still possess an excellent defensive record, having conceded only one more goal than the Fleet this season (albeit in four fewer games so far). That, once again, will have to be the obstacle Fleet must overcome although with Taunton needing the points, they will need to attack with a little more conviction than their goals total of 38 – the third lowest in the division – suggests.
That shouldn’t lull the Fleet defence into a false sense of security, however. The Somerset club have recently come away from Welling and in-form Braintree with a pair of victories and have beaten both Havant and Dartford on home soil in 2022/23. They have won only once at home since November, however… quite the contrast to the past five years when they lost only five on their own patch in all that time.
Taunton played in midweek, losing at Hampton, but manager Rob Dray is bullish ahead of the Fleet’s visit. “We’ll make it really difficult for the best team in the league. We’ll have one or two players back, I signed my players for character as well as talent. Ebbsfleet are the best team and they’ve won it by a mile but we’ve been in that position, we know how difficult teams made it for us in the last few years, so we’re going to make it difficult for them.”
Despite Taunton’s gruelling schedule to the end of the season, Dray has made do with pretty much the same squad he began the campaign with. One new arrival, however, is former Swansea City and Wales U19 defender Cameron Evans who played in Ireland for the past couple of seasons but there’s likely to be few surprises in store for the Fleet’s analysis team.
Top scorer for the Peacocks is former Bath City striker Dave Sims-Burgess with six goals, while ex-Sutton and Chippenham veteran Ross Stearn has chipped in with nearly as many again.
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