Ebbsfleet United will begin 2017/18 in the top flight of non-league football for the fourth time after a tremendous comeback with 10 men in a dramatic promotion final at Stonebridge Road.
Jubilant Fleet fans invaded the pitch having seen two defeats on home soil in recent years and this one looked to be heading that way until Dave Winfield and Darren McQueen turned the final on its head and struck to send their side to a memorable promotion.
Those same fans were feeling quietly confident on entering a packed Stonebridge Road to see Danny Kedwell back in the starting lineup in place of Jack Powell as Fleet began the game with two up front, while Chelmsford as expected went with their three front men of Dickson, Jeffers and Theophanous.
It was a typically non-committal start from both sides as fans have come to expect in these finals and neither set of strikers saw much of the ball, far less the goal. Chelmsford almost caught the Fleet on the break after four minutes but Anthony Cook made a vital interception in the final third.
It took 10 minutes for Fleet to get a shot away, Aaron McLean finding a little room inside a packed box but he lifted his shot too high. The home side edged the first 15 minutes and looked slightly more comfortable on the ball, though Chelmsford seemed content to let Fleet play their passing game before stubbing out all attacks with a defensive line at the 25-yard mark.
Jeffers got a shot away as the Fleet defence stood off him on 16 minutes, a deflection sending the ball behind for a corner, before Kedwell had two efforts off target the first from a direct free-kick and the next after good work by Andy Drury and Sam Deering played him into a shooting position.
The Fleet goal came under more pressure on the half hour when a Chelmsford corner caused Nathan Ashmore some trouble but he eventually cleared and his defenders marshalled the ball to safety as City forwards queued up to get a shot away.
Kenny Clark got a foot in on Louie Theophanous as he shaped to shoot and Jeffers almost mopped up a scramble on the edge of the box but in truth the first half was a fairly tepid affair. That was until time added on.
With fans drifting off for their half-time pursuits, an unlikely flashpoint in the centre circle saw Cook dive in on Josh Rees before Michael Spillane reacted by shoving the Fleet winger to the floor. The referee had little hesitation in issuing Cook’s marching orders against his former club, while Spillane escaped with a caution.
That meant Chelmsford emerged after the break with their tails up while Fleet opted to put an extra man in midfield, Jack Powell replacing Kedwell. The visitors looked understandably eager to get forward and within three minutes Dickson managed to outpace Clark and get a shot away from an angle that Ashmore had to palm behind at full stretch for a corner.
Fleet perked up after that and despite the numerical disadvantage, began to give City a few things to think about. Sam Deering forced Ross Fitzsimons into a save and then the goalkeeper had to be alert to tip a Powell effort around the post. Winfield then headed over as the home fans roared their side forward.
But it was at that point that all Fleet’s solid work was undone. Bagasan Graham advanced down the left and although there didn’t look much on for the scorer of City’s winning goal back in September, he spied a gap and struck a crisp shot out of Ashmore’s reach that flew into the bottom corner.
Fleet had it all to do and the job could have been made even harder when Robbie Willmott set Theophanous free and he shot into the side netting with the defence unable to shackle him.
Having survived that, Fleet tried to dig themselves out of the hole with some decent football. Despite turning round single-goal deficits throughout 2017, it was a much taller order with 10 men but the home side did it.
Deering probably should have equalised when Marvin McCoy’s low cross reached him eight yards out but his first-time reaction shot was rifled off target without troubling Fitzsimons. Fleet’s next attacking movement, however, changed the game. Powell floated a free kick into the box that was cleared only as far as Deering. The former Whitehawk midfielder showed some trickery to turn his marker before hoisting a pacy cross back into the area that Winfield powered past Fitzsimons with his head.
With that unexpected foothold in the game, Fleet fans raised the roof and their team responded. Inside four minutes they were in front. Another free-kick put Fleet on the front foot and Deering again was instrumental, hoisting a high pass on to Drury down the right flank. The midfielder touched an instant cross into the six-yard box and substitute McQueen reacted quickest to nick the ball off the feet of the City defence and slot the ball home.
It was a long 13 minutes plus five added on but Daryl McMahon’s side weren’t going to let this one slip. Ashmore provided some assured handling as City sent in some high deliveries and the visitors threw on Anthony Church, Luke Daley and Elliott Buchanan but with Yado Mambo sent on to shore up the home defence, Chelmsford couldn’t get a sniff as they sought desperately to respond.
Eventually, the whistle sounded to signal the end of Fleet’s four-year stay in the National League South and supporters poured on to the pitch to salute their heroes. Skipper Kedwell and manager McMahon, who has overseen a club-record-equalling 23 games unbeaten, lifted the trophy together and Fleet look ahead to new horizons next season!
EUFC: Ashmore, Cook, Connors, McCoy, Winfield, Clark, Rance (McQueen 70), Drury, Kedwell (Powell 46), McLean, Deering (Mambo 83) Subs not used: Miles, Shields
CCFC: Fitzsimons, Haines, Graham (Buchanan 87), Porter, Bush, Spillane, Willmott, Rees (Church 82), Theophanous, Dickson, Jeffers (Daley 82). Subs not used: Hill, Johnson