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No bovril!
No bovril!

Operation E

By: Andrew Doherty
Date: 19/10/2011

"WHERE’S Ebbsfleet?" my brother asked me. "It’s at Ebbsfleet" was my ever helpful reply. The problem is that it doesn’t exist. Ebbsfleet is a wasteland in Kent with an industrial estate and an international railway station. Apparently Ebbsfleet was a barn - who would name a barn anything, let alone Ebbsfleet?

According to Dartford Council, Ebbsfleet is a vision of a vibrant cosmopolitan development and a sustainable community. Ah, it’s a vision. So it’s the opposite of the lost city of Atlantis - it can’t be found because it doesn’t exist. So a place that doesn’t exist sounds like the ideal place to go to and suffer the latest ignominious defeat.

What Ebbsfleet does have is a football team. My companions today were Ian, his brother Andy and young Henry. In normal life, they’re QPR supporters. They gamely agreed to taste the Blue Square Premier league tonight. Our rendez-vous point was Car Park C - no shortage of imagination round here. We headed off for the ground with no name. Are Ebbsfleet’s players real and do they have names, I wondered? It’s all very Dr. Who. Ian, who comes from a nearby place which does actually exist, told me that the local attractions are the Ford showroom and the Queen Elizabeth Bridge. Hopefully for his sake this information will not get into enemy hands. My friend Pete, who’s a bit of a military historian and a landmine of information, tells me that Pocohontas is buried somewhere round here. I’m still trying to work out the military significance of this fact. Today’s plan of campaign was to obtain some alcoholic lubrication in the Lounge Bar, which as Ian pointed out, bears no resemblance to any lounge. That should throw off the enemy invaders. I thought this was just going to be a nice evening with friends at a football match, but evidently not. Realising that I might be in a potentially dangerous environment where careless nomenclature could cost lives, I decided to give tonight’s mission a code name: Operation E.

The Lounge Bar was very nice and friendly, and having put the world to rights in the time-honoured tradition of any pub we headed into the neat but identikit Blue Square ground. I asked a stewardess where the away section was - she reacted as if I had asked the £1 million prize question. It became apparent that there was no segregation. We met up with Rob behind the goal. There were a few Town supporters scattered around the ground in the crowd of 1,143 tonight.

Town, who were wearing black and white, lined up with one change from Saturday’s defeat at York, with Elding replacing Duffy in the starting line-up. And so the team read: McKeown - Silk, Kempson, Garner, Ridley - Coulson, Disley, Church, Artus - Hearn, Elding.

The game started and soon Town were on the attack. An Ebbsfleet defender in the distance gave the ball away. A cross pass came in from Coulson on the right and Elding coolly slotted the ball in from the edge of the box. Ebbsfleet 0, Town 1. Ebbsfleet’s defence went missing in action.

Three minutes later, Ebbsfleet’s Shakes received a cross from the left and had a direct header which went straight over the bar. Neither side threatened. On 13 minutes Town carelessly conceded a free-kick outside the box, Ridley being the offender. Ebbsfleet’s West fired a harmless-looking low shot in. It deflected off a Town defender’s leg and wrong footed McKeown. Ebbsfleet 1, Town 1. Where was the wall? It was as if Town hadn’t realised the game had started, and therefore were expecting no danger and weren’t prepared. Town started to work the ball upfield but gave the impression of going through the motions. On 20 minutes Church was given a good opportunity but instead of taking his time, sliced the ball spectacularly wide with a left-footed shot. Artus gave the ball away on 25 minutes and enabled Ebbsfleet to set up an attack. Ebbsfleet launched the occasional attack and won a corner on 30 minutes. Town meanwhile seemed to resort to long balls, and on 33 minutes Artus had a shot which he sliced wide, but not quite as spectacularly as Church had done earlier. Off the field of play, Henry went off on an important recce to get Rob’s first Bovril of the year. This was the highlight so far.

On 37 minutes Ebbsfleet worked the ball upfield for one of their occasional attacks. The cross came from the left and Phipp headed it back across for Shakes who, attacking the near post, laid his head on the ball and past McKeown with no marking to be seen from Kempson or Garner. Ebbsfleet 2, Town 1. At about this time an Ebbsfleet supporter told me that he thought Grimsby "were holding the ball well". I don’t which game he was watching.

Ebbsfleet almost scored again on 40 minutes after another good header, but Silk was standing on the post and cleared it. Church shot into the side netting but when half-time came, it was an opportunity as hopefully Town could sort themselves out in the dressing room and regroup. Henry came back and informed Rob that the catering cabin had run out of Bovril. Rob wasn’t the only disappointed Town supporter. Things could only get better, it seemed.

Half-time verdict. The first half was very poor from Town’s point of view. We just hadn’t turned up. Worryingly our big central defenders were constantly out of position and couldn’t win headers. Our midfielders were playing ok but the attempts we had on goal were simply pathetic, as if we just didn’t believe in ourselves. Ebbsfleet were a no more than average side, which at least gave us the hope that with a few choice words and a sense of direction from our management duo, we could at least impose ourselves in the second half.

Second half. Eagle came on for Artus in a like-for-like move. The first action of the half came on 47 minutes when Elding’s header nearly cleared the goalkeeper, who could only tip it out. There was no-one to follow it up. There was a controversial moment on 51 minutes when Elding was held back following a long ball while bearing down on the box. The referee was in the other half keeping an eye on a previous incident but chose to ignore the linesman, who had spotted the infringement, and re-started with a drop ball. On 60 minutes Eagle turned the right back and crossed but the defenders closed in well on Hearn, Elding and Coulson. Hearn then ballooned a left-footed shot over. Ebbsfleet moved the ball forward again and at least showed a spirit which was lacking where Town were concerned. Town then went into a phase of putting hanging crosses in, so neither Elding nor Hearn, who were both closely marked, could get any power onto their headers. Different tactics were needed but no-one in the Town seemed capable of adjusting this tired and ineffective performance. Individual efforts by Church and then Eagle won corners which were despatched with ease by Ebbsfleet’s defence. Hearn, who should have been in the middle feeding off passes, found himself on the right on 68 minutes with no-one to cross to. Town were without passion or shape. Coulson got a decent cross in on 71 minutes but Eagle fired his shot straight at the keeper. Of all Town’s players,

Coulson was battling the most and won the ball on 72 minutes to send it out to the left, but the move came to nothing following another high ball which the goalkeeper collected. Although ineffective, Town were having most of the play at this stage, but on 74 minutes Ebbsfleet had a rare attack. The ball was sent in high from the right. McKeown went to collect it, but dropped the ball, leaving Willock a free shot which he despatched into the net. Ebbsfleet 3, Town 1.

The lack of co-ordination was exemplified moments later when Hearn laid the ball off to Coulson who wasn’t expecting it. To try and inject some life into the team, Wood and Duffy came on for Ridley and Elding, but the pattern remained the same. Hearn won a corner and Town won the odd header but nothing led to anything. Hearn was more and more out of position, and seemed to be completely out of sorts. On 85 minutes, Hearn took the ball in the penalty box with his back to goal. His touch was poor and his pass to Wood led to a mis-hit shot. This summed the game up. Town were no threat. Hearn as a striker might have been expected to turn and take a shot. Apart from Eagle and Coulson, who played with endeavour and purpose, there was no evidence of any confidence. Duffy had a low shot on 89 minutes which went wide but it was so carefree as to be reminiscent of a practice game. Coulson won a corner right at the end but when the final whistle was blown a couple of minutes later, it was almost a relief. This was a shameful performance. Final score: Ebbsfleet United 3, Grimsby Town 1.

Verdict. Town weren’t robbed. They robbed themselves and cheated the supporters. I would be interested to know how Mr. Scott and Mr. Hurst, as the stadium announcer politely referred to them, might explain the lack of co-ordination, intelligence, skill or confidence in this performance. Town were shocking. Ebbsfleet United were workmanlike but they didn’t need to perform like Brazil. Town’s repertoire tonight consisted of an inability to know or understand where their own team-mates were, misplaced passes, aimless headers and a complete lack of desire or passion. Were there any positives? Well, I thought that Coulson and Eagle, when he came on, showed a spirit which was lacking in all the other Town players. On this basis Coulson was my man of the match. The only other positive was Ebbsfleet United itself - very nice people and a friendly bar, even by the generally very high standards of non-league football clubs. This is just as well, because on this performance we’re not going anywhere else.

As we disappeared into the night, with the gleaming Ford show room across the road, I recalled that we had been playing against a vision. Just over a thousand people returned to real places. The Pocohontas mystery remains. The reality is that Town got no points. The mission was complete and it all now became clear. This was Operation Emptiness.

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