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|Shall We Dance?|
The French Connection
By: Andrew Doherty
"DO you watch Strictly Come Dancing?" I was asked the other day. I replied that I don’t but I do like to watch 22 footballers poncing about collectively on a Saturday afternoon and the occasional midweek evening. That’s not to mention the referee of course. Jocelyne, the person who asked this question, was French. Thinking about it, she probably still is.
Having spent two weeks basking in the temporary glory of being top of the table, today’s mission is at Ebbsfleet United. An average of 238 away supporters visit Ebbsfleet United, which is surprising as it is a made-up place. This is 150 more than visit nearby Dartford, which according to my friend and local resident Ian is a hard place to get to. Between a place you can’t find and one which doesn’t exist, these southerners like to maintain their privacy. Yet Ebbsfleet has the distinction of being the only Blue Square Bet Premier club to have a direct train service from Paris. A hybrid chant rang through my mind: "Can you ‘ear ze Ebbsfleet sing ... allez, allez ... mate".
I came here last year. It was a very nice evening out. It was a bit cold but the bar was convivial and the company was good. It’s a shame that Town played as if they’d spent all day in the pub. Once again, the paper version suggests that Town should beat lowly Ebbsfleet, but this is a team who came from behind in their last league match to overcome Macclesfield 2 - 1. They should be fresher than us, having lost their FA Trophy game to Hereford, while we had a midweek trek to Derbyshire for our midweek replay at Buxton. At least the trip was fruitful.
Dismal greyness on this cold day was the backdrop for our entertainment. This was the first time I’d seen the Stonebridge Road ground in the daytime. There are no lambs gambolling around here. It’s gritty, bleak and between two roundabouts, surrounded by garages and a run down industrial estate. Only the tired white and red façade above the turnstiles and the distant blue cranes brighten the gloom, but only marginally. On the footballing front our cup exploits must be put aside for now. We must observe the cliché and concentrate on the league. The Ebbsfleet faithful inside the ground were concentrating on getting served at the bar, where today there was a beer festival.
Town, today in blue, lined up as follows: McKeown - Hatton, Shaun Pearson, Pond, Thomas - Southwell, Niven, Disley, Marshall - Cook, Hannah.
After initial jockeying, Town got the ball up the field and after 2 minutes, the ball was push up to Cook on the right side. Using his height, Cook got up well and nodded the ball onto Hannah who nudged it on to Marshall who was open on the left. Marshall saw his opportunity and picking his spot from the edge of the box, curled the ball towards the top right corner. Edwards in Ebbsfleet’s goal got a finger tip to it but could not stop it. Ebbsfleet 1, Town 1.
Ebbsfleet responded by winning three corners, but Town looked the more threatening of the teams with their build-up play and passing. Southwell won a corner on 10 minutes but Niven’s shot was way over the bar. Soon afterwards Marshall crossed to Cook who dived in to get his foot on the ball but the goalkeeper and defender got there first. Hannah was then almost sent clear. "It’s just like a library", sang the Town fans as an observation for the benefit of the silent Ebbsfleet supporters, who were watching their team being battered. Town believed in themselves and were winning 50/50 balls before setting up attacks. Niven did just this from Town’s half and Marshall’s resultant shot was weak. Hannah was ready to pounce but there was no crumb to feast upon.
On 19 minutes Thomas was tackled on the edge of the box as he surged forward in another threat on the Ebbsfleet goal. Town’s passing was slick. Ebbsfleet looked like bending under the siege but were hanging on, and after 21 minutes pulled off an attack themselves which led to a fantastic one-handed save by McKeown who had been sent the wrong way. In an increasingly open game, Ebbsfleet missed a good chance with a header which went over. Niven saved the day with a tackle 30 yards out as Ebbsfleet threatened again. A great cross field run by Marshall on 28 minutes was matched by the player’s determination. Unfortunately the shot by Hannah, the recipient of Marshall’s pass, was lacklustre.
A neat move between Niven, Southwell and Hatton gained a corner for Town. Pearson’s bullet header from it brought a magnificent save by Edwards. Town seemed to have plenty of options and were using them. A Disley tackle set up another attack but Hatton’s cross was too long. But Ebbsfleet showed great determination themselves and McKeown was forced into another save after a nasty deflection. Town broke away again after an Ebbsfleet free-kick movement was picked, but it ended in Marshall stumbling as he shot following Hannah’s pass.
Ebbsfleet were getting more and more into the game as Town now were allowing them time and space on the ball. McKeown had to make a save on the right hand post on 40 minutes following a cross. Ebbsfleet persisted and maintained pressure following a free-kick in their own area. Town were guilty of not clearing their lines, and on 42 minutes Phipp’s pass stayed in the penalty box and found Godden who had the freedom to fire a clear shot into the right corner of the net past McKeown. Ebbsfleet 1, Town 1.
Soon afterwards Ebbsfleet won a corner after a hefty looking challenge. "You’re just a bus stop in Dartford" sang the Town supporters. Well the bus stop had not only fought back to equalise but proved they were more than capable of beating Town, who had been so dominant in the opening stages. Half time came: Ebbsfleet 1, Grimsby Town 1.
After such a promising start, in which Town confidently combined effort with skill, Ebbsfleet had come back into the game. Ebbsfleet showed they could attack quickly but Town were no longer harassing them on the ball as they had earlier. This needed addressing. Dark clouds were descending overhead. The Ebbsfleet supporters escaped the Kentish Hades by seeking refuge in the bars. As the beer and bovril flowed, many of the 300 or so Grimsby supporters amongst the crowd of 1,164 made their way to the covered Stonebridge Road end which Town were attacking in the second half. The stand resounded with noise and vocal exhortations, known in other circles as a lot of chanting and swearing.
Soon after the re-start, Niven gave the ball away and McKeown had to save a 25 yard short from Godden. Town pressed on and won a corner, which Marshall took. Pearson got power but not direction on the header which went over. Both sides were looking to move forward and create chances, which meant an open game. Cook showed sublime individual skill on 55 minutes when he turned and twisted to take him past two defenders but his shot was misjudged. Ebbsfleet then had a shot blocked before Marshall embarked on another devastating run which Hannah received on the right. Hannah’s curling shot curled and curled some more almost at right angles but missed the left hand post by inches.
Town were looking to attack but were depriving themselves of opportunities to build attacks because off too many lost balls in midfield, where Ebbsfleet were taking the ascendancy. The earlier cross-field fluidity was lost as Town’s base tactic seemed to be to loft the ball through the centre for Hannah to run on to. Ebbsfleet were equal to this tactic, and were finding each other effortlessly as they embarked upon a series of long cross-field balls themselves. On 67 minutes, the ubiquitous Marshall attempted to chip Edwards, who made a good save to keep it out, conceding a corner in the process. Colbeck came on for Southwell on 68 minutes. Marshall won a corner after Hannah sent him on, but overall Town were losing any grip they had on this game. The pace was quickening, and moves were less and less collective. Although Colbeck’s introduction was welcome, Town’s tactic seemed to have become "clear and chase" but the following wind was causing frequent misjudgements in the weighting of passes. This was not sophisticated football but it was entertaining as both sides looked to secure a victory.
Rankine came on for Cook after 76 minutes. The pattern continued. Niven had a piledriver after 81 minutes. It was on target but Ebbsfleet’s Walsh managed to deflect it for a corner. A scramble ensued involving Rankine but the ball went over the bar. Hannah was then flattened as he ran on to the ball but Hatton’s floated cross was misjudged and Edwards gathered it easily. As Ebbsfleet continued to attack, McKeown was forced to run back and gather the ball after slipping, managing to palm the ball away for a corner before the advancing Godden could slide the ball home. Colbeck’s corner following Town pressure was cleared with about 5 minutes left, but Ebbsfleet continued to respond with sweeping upfield movements, and McKeown had to make another save. Rankine had a chance towards the end after Colbeck’s good work on the right, but scuffed his shot. Town had chances, but in the second half were careless and maybe tactically naïve as Ebbsfleet had more than enough possession and opportunities to have scored themselves. But no-one did in this open second half, and the game ended level: Ebbsfleet United 1, Grimsby Town 1.
It was an entertaining game. Town started outstandingly but stopped fighting, which enabled Ebbsfleet the time and space to get back in the game and score a deserved equaliser before half-time. Although Town had chances in the second half, there were too many wasted opportunities. Ebbsfleet defended resolutely and had many chances themselves, forcing McKeown to make far more saves than his counterpart at the Ebbsfleet end. Ebbsfleet quickened up the tempo of the game and although they periodically lost the ball, Town were forced into mistakes too, especially in midfield, and whereas in the first half attacking moves were controlled, Town looked rushed and did not deserve anything more than a draw against an enterprising Ebbsfleet team. Colbeck looked useful when he came on, Cook had a good game, and Town had to thank McKeown for another great contribution in goal. Otherwise individually Town’s players were inconsistent with the exception of my clear man of the match Marshall who was outstanding with his electric runs, passing, workrate and goal. Collectively we seemed to lack the discipline to control possession after gaining the early advantage.
For those Parisians who may have popped over for the match, the last train left 5 hours before the final whistle. A night in Ebbsfleet beckons. Zut alors. As the French then indulge in their disappointment, Town fans who came to Ebbsfleet today will share it for a different reason, as the fluffy clouds which float atop the BSP table now escape us. The struggle is on. Strictly Come Dancing is on telly in a while - not tonight, Jocelyne. Sod that. Instead I shall spend it in Proustian reflection wondering what might have been at Stonebridge Road.
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