Tickets are all but sold, pre-match bravado is pretty much expended on both sides and so attention now finally turns to the biggest one-off fixture in the Vanarama National League South season which should result in its biggest crowd, a 3,800-capacity crowd set to greet the players of Ebbsfleet United and Maidstone United on Saturday afternoon. The match kicks off at 3pm, with turnstiles opening at 12.00 noon.
The two Kent clubs have had six days to recuperate from their semi-finals and fine-tune their tactics and now they do battle for the prize of top-flight non-league football next season. For Maidstone, a second successive promotion would be a remarkable achievement following their Ryman League title in 2014/15; for the Fleet it’s an opportunity to erase the painful memories of defeat at this stage to another set of county neighbours two seasons ago.
Fleet go into the final off the back of a 2-1 defeat to Whitehawk but nobody in Stonebridge Road viewed the result as anything other than a resounding victory following settlement of the tie on penalties. The additional half-hour of extra time may have taken its toll on Daryl McMahon’s side but the feelgood factor and stimulus provided by the penalties win will have quickly helped soothe any aching limbs.
The big question for the Fleet is how the defence shapes up – will it be the formation that ended the Whitehawk game, or will the flat back four that started it get the nod? And do Fleet sit tight in the middle with Dean Rance holding on to his pivotal role there, or does John-Paul Kissock feature in McMahon’s plans once again? There is also Sean Shields waiting in the wings to challenge Sam Deering and/or Anthony Cook out wide. And all those obvious permutations aside, it’s not beyond the Fleet boss to spring a surprise and utilise one of the players recently returned from loan.
“We don’t treat this game any differently,” McMahon said in the build-up to the final. “Obviously there’s a lot riding on it but you’ve got to take that away from the players. They’ve got to make good decisions, forget what’s riding on the game, and go out as you would in the first game of the season. The team that does that will win the game.
“I’m sure there’ll be a singing contest between the fans out there but it doesn’t matter that it’s Maidstone, the aim is to win promotion. I think the game will be a great one, Jay’s had a great year and they’re a very good side.
What Fleet will have to do to secure promotion, of course, is something they haven’t managed at Stonebridge Road this season and that’s to win a Kent derby. Having picked up a maximum nine points against Maidstone, Dartford and Margate on the road, all three clubs proved rather more troublesome as visitors. Fleet will look to their big-game players whose play-off experience – both good and bad – is considerable; that and the fact that only six league games were lost across the course of the season are the big plus points in the home side’s favour.
With Matt Godden firing the front line, Fleet must also take confidence from their superior goalscoring record, having netted 17 more goals than the Stones in the 42 league games to date.
The visitors, meanwhile, are starting to find their groove again after some indifferent form during the season run-in. The Stones recorded only one win in five before the play-offs and having spent much of the season with the meanest defence, their final total of 40 conceded was higher than either the Fleet’s or champions Sutton’s. Yet two clean sheets against Truro City in the play-off semi-finals is testament to a tighter back line, due in no small part to the return of central defender Jamie Coyle whose comeback from injury was unexpected, manager Jay Saunders having presumed the player would miss the end of the season entirely.
Just how much one can read into the last time the clubs clashed in October is open to argument. Back then, the Stones’ biggest problem was scoring goals but Saunders’ later acquisitions went some way to addressing that shortcoming. Former Leatherhead winger Vas Karagiannis presents potentially the visitors’ greatest threat with nine goals since he stepped up a level. Other new faces since October include hotshot ex-Grays striker Dumebi Dumake who had scored 23 goals in the Ryman Premier by January and midfielder Dan Sweeney, acquired from Dulwich Hamlet. In defence, Callum Davies joined from Gillingham and Fleet fans might have good cause to remember him as he starred for Dover in their 1-0 final win two years ago.
Aside from the Karagiannis threat, Fleet also need to be mindful of Alex Flisher’s long-range throw, a significant weapon in the Maidstone armoury, and – despite the midfielder’s long injury lay-off – he is another goal threat with seven strikes this season. Elsewhere, the Stones will be without wide man Matt Bodkin who is away on an untimely holiday.
While there may be plenty of words between the two sides’ supporters off the pitch, on it there are fewer player vendettas with little of the club-swapping spice that marked the Dover play-off two seasons ago. On the Fleet side, only Dean Rance, Dean Pooley, Danny Kedwell and Alex Osborn have spent any time at Maidstone (and those just for relatively short periods) while of the men in amber and black, Jamie Coyle once played in red and white, but that was 13 years ago when he graduated from our youth side to play in the Conference. (Coyle and Kedwell pictured left with their previous clubs.)
Nonetheless, the county rivalry adds another level of intrigue to an already blockbuster final. It’s winner-takes-all, with the club that prevails progressing to meet the likes of Tranmere Rovers and York City next season rather than Hungerford Town and Poole Town.