Ebbsfleet’s amazing journey towards Wembley is over as Tranmere proved too strong in extra-time. The Fleet put up an almighty fight, their grit and determination shining through once more, to push this strong, capable, attack-minded Rovers side to a further 30 minutes.
Once again, this well-travelled, hard-working squad was unchanged, desire and adrenaline triumphing over fatigue and bruising. Tranmere were boosted by the return of Adam Buxton in the only change from their home defeat to Hartlepool United.
It was all about keeping Tranmere quiet for the opening period and while Fleet couldn’t prevent the home side from sustained attacking, the back four fulfilled their brief. It wasn’t an easy task with Andy Cook and James Norwood’s movement on and off the ball quite exceptional at times.
Kicking towards their own fans in the Kop, Rovers were eager to unsettle the visitors. Nathan Ashmore got an early touch from a Larnell Cole attack and Dave Winfield had to get a strong head to a ball into the box after Josh Ginnelly had turned Jack Connors. Kenny Clark did his bit with an important clearance behind for a corner and Ashmore made another stop at his near post from a floated free-kick.
On 10 minutes, the Fleet goalkeeper – no doubt expecting a busy afternoon – was in action again, stretching a leg out on his goalline as Norwood speeded away on the counter and flung a cross-cum-shot through the box.
Lawrie Wilson was next to stem the tide, blocking at Cook’s feet as the striker aimed to shoot before Fleet began to blunt the home side’s edge from the quarter-hour mark.
Ashmore was winning few fans among the crowd behind him and the referee had to intervene by way of the PA to warn about missiles being thrown on to the pitch.
Against the run of play, Fleet took a shock lead. Jack Powell eased his way into space from midfield and sent in a superb cross that Coulson met with an elegant jump and nod of the head to send the ball flying past Scott Davies.
The visitors succeeded in stifling the Tranmere response for some time and created a couple of half chances, Corey Whitely firing narrowly wide of the post. Powell’s neat exchange of passes on the edge of the area and shot then drew a stop from Davies that fell into Kedwell’s path but he had to try and hook a shot from behind him with his heel and it went wide.
Back came Tranmere and Ashmore pulled off an incredible double save on the half hour when two shots came in at speed on the ground. Cook had a third bite at the cherry as the ball spun free and again a yellow shirt dived in to prevent it crossing the line.
Eventually, however, the movement and speed of Tranmere’s attack paid off and it came on 33 minutes. Liam Ridehalgh found Norwood with a pass and the striker made no mistake burying the ball in the bottom corner.
Coulson picked up a knock and had to be replaced by Myles Weston after that but Fleet continued to stand strong against home pressure. Ashmore saved from Ginnelly’s snap shot on 38 minutes and Fleet had to block another couple of efforts to see them through to half-time.
And there was drama aplenty in the second half, too. Fleet got their noses in front by extraordinary means six minutes in when Tranmere got themselves into all sorts of bother at the back, a square ball to goalkeeper Davies charged down by Whitely, running on to Weston who kept his head to roll a shot into Rovers’ unguarded net.
But it was a lead that lasted only five minutes. The excellent Ginnelly took receipt of a pass on the right and he beat two Fleet defenders and did enough to maintain possession, open his body and sweep a fierce low drive past Ashmore for 2-2.
Fleet, exhausted and up against it, could have buckled there. But they didn’t. They continued to defend stoutly and Ashmore was out smartly to block Oliver Norburn’s route to goal as he received a ball on the counterattack and seemed certain to hit the target.
Several corners were dealt with and Connors threw himself in the way of another effort. Fleet had little outlet and attempted to contain the home side. With 10 minutes left, Norburn again attacked and played a fantastic through ball to Norwood whose shot was pushed high by Ashmore and brilliantly headed clear by Winfield under pressure.
That was the last Tranmere had to throw at the Fleet and it was a second extra-time in four days for the visitors.
But it was to prove all too much. Twelve minutes into a quiet first period, Tranmere were awarded a free-kick and from an angle on the left, Norwood swept a fine effort beyond the reach of Ashmore.
McMahon threw Norman Wabo into the fray and Fleet attempted to collect themselves for the second period but then Tranmere killed the game off. Within a minute of kick-off, Cole had space outside the box to size up his target and his exquisite shot was too quick for Ashmore to even react as it sailed into the net.
The afternoon ended on a sour note for the Fleet when Winfield’s superb tackle from Norwood to prevent a fifth Tranmere goal resulted in a confrontation between the Fleet skipper and Jay Harris. Winfield, who sported a bite mark on his arm after the game, was red-carded for his reaction and Aaron McLean followed him from the bench after a flare-up by the touchline. Steve McNulty received a yellow card in the aftermath.
Fleet couldn’t summon another ounce of their already well-tapped spirit and it’s Tranmere who take the step towards Wembley and the EFL. Despite the earlier flashpoints, the majority of the Rovers crowd applauded the Fleet off the pitch as they look forward to their day at the National Stadium next season.
For Fleet, it wasn’t a step too far as much as they came up against a very strong Tranmere side who eased away in extra-time. But what a season it has been and Fleet players and fans can exit 2017/18 with their heads held ever so high.
EUFC: Ashmore, Wilson, Connors (Wabo), Clark, Winfield, Rance, Drury, Powell (McCoy), Coulson (Weston), Whitely, Kedwell. Subs: Bush, Miles
TRFC: Davies, Buxton, Ridehalgh, Sutton, McNulty, Norburn, Ginnelly, Hughes, Cole, Norwood, Cook. Subs: Taylor, Harris, Mangan, Dunn, Monthe