Saturday 16th January 2021, 1500 Kick Off
Hampton & Richmond Borough FC vs Ebbsfleet United FC
The Build Up
Like so many matches this season, Hampton’s previous two fixtures, against Concord Rangers and Havant & Waterlooville, had fallen prey to the auspices of a pandemic that you might have heard mentioned a few times recently. So, despite an overnight deluge (while the rest of the country obviously got snow…), there was a concerted push to get the game played – which would be the Beavers’ first since a 1-1 draw with Dorking Wanderers on the 2nd. With my wife working an early shift, it meant the car wasn’t available, so I travelled to the match by Uber (other taxi firms are available) – and was immediately glad that I hadn’t driven. If I had, I’d have joined the ranks of Hampton players waiting frustrated outside the ground, after Ebbsfleet’s coach driver decided to try and drive a coach the size of an aircraft carrier through a space that would struggle to fit a jet ski. Cue amusing scenes as he attempted to reverse out again, in a manoeuvre requiring more fine adjustments than a Rubik’s Cube.
Thankfully, I did make it in, and so did the Beavers players eventually, as they sought to break the hoodoo of a difficult home run, which had seen them win once in seven, scoring only four goals into the bargain. Thankfully, Gary McCann’s side have had no such difficulties on the road, where six straight away victories sees them boast the best travelling record in the division. It’s this form away from home that has resulted in them nestling neatly in 6th place, with roughly a third of the season played. The visit of Dennis Kutrieb’s Ebbsfleet side might look at first glance as a perfect opportunity to turn the home form around, as they came into the fixture with only one win in six. However, that statistic is slightly misleading – they won their last match against Concord, and the previous five fixtures had included tough games against Dorking, Havant, Dartford and Maidstone.
An impressive start to the season meant that Ebbsfleet came into the match in 10th, despite that difficult recent run, and with a goal difference of zero. That position represents a decent return for the Fleet, who have had to bed in almost an entirely new squad – and manager – since their relegation from the National League in the summer. In 2019/20, despite having more points on the board, Ebbsfleet’s adjusted PPG total saw them leapfrogged by Maidenhead United, meaning they dropped into Step Two for the first time since they won the Play Offs in 2017. That relegation (by 0.002 points…) was confirmed on 17th June, a mere two weeks after former Tennis Borussia Berlin manager Dennis Kutrieb had been confirmed as Ebbsfleet’s manager for the next campaign.
Formed in 1946 via a merger of Gravesend United and Northfleet United, the artists formerly known as Gravesend & Northfleet adopted their current moniker in 2007, and have bounced between the top two tiers of nonleague ever since. 6th place in 2017/18 represented their highest ever league finish, and that was followed up with 8th in 2018/19, before falling away last season. That relegation, and some associated financial restructuring, resulted in almost the entire squad departing, and Kutrieb was left with the task of building a team from scratch, in an unfamiliar league. Alex Eirich and Sefa Kahraman followed him from Berlin, but the remainder of the squad is a blend of familiar National League faces (Adam Mekki, Bobby Joe-Taylor, Michael West etc) and some talent from the Football Leagues, such as Ben Frempah and Rakish Bingham.
I also have to commend the sheer determination and skill of the grounds staff to actually get the pitch playable. Armed with forks and will power they transformed a semi-submerged patch of grass into something resembling a football pitch across the morning, earning plaudits from the players and officials alike. The second notable thing, is that this was actually a re-run of my first ever nonleague match – when I attended this fixture in March 2017. As I recall, Harold Odametey scored a worldy, and Duncan Culley nearly impaled Nathan Ashmore, on a day where Hampton programme compiler Chris Hurst talked me into starting a blog. So blame him for the ensuing four years…
As it turned out, the first half was almost as stodgy as the pitch, with precious little for either side to get too excited about. On a muddy, heavy pitch, both teams worked hard, but the opening stages were more about sizing each other up than anything particularly creative.
Indeed, it was 12 full minutes before either side created a chance at goal, and it fell to the home side through Niko Muir. With four league goals so far this season, Muir is the Beavers top scorer (joint with Ryan Gondoh, absent today with a shoulder injury), and he produced a sharp turn and shot in the penalty area following a pass from Kyron Farrell. It was no trouble for Sydney-born stopper Jordan Holmes, who got down quickly to save and hold.
Holmes was active in the first fifteen minutes, showing early on that he was happy coming off his line, and restricting the Beavers’ through ball options. After twenty minutes, Scottish midfielder Ruaridh Donaldson snapped into a firm tackle, and received a (probably fair) yellow card for his troubles, to add to two already received by Fleet’s Alfie Egan and Chris Solly.
With 23 minutes played, a loose touch in the defensive third by Hampton gave Ebbsfleet their first proper opportunity of the match. As the visitors reacted to the unexpected chance to press towards goal, they saw half chances blocked for Rakish Bingham and Adam Mekki, before goalkeeper Alan Julian eventually held Will Wood’s headed effort.
This game saw a first outing for new Hampton signing Mauro Vilhete, who arrived on dual registration from Wingate & Finchley in the week, and he struck up an immediate understanding with Niko Muir. After half an hour, some neat interplay between the two gave Muir the chance to shoot from the edge of the area, but Holmes did well to get a hand to it, before Bobby-Joe Taylor completed the clearance.
Straight from that clearance, Ebbsfleet went up the other end, and some decent footwork by centre back Tobi Adebayo-Rowling at the edge of the Beavers box enabled him to tee up Adam Mekki to shoot. The former Bromley man can shoot well from those positions, and Luke Ruddick got in an important block. It was one of many from the Hampton skipper, who rarely put a foot wrong here, and left everything on the pitch. If I ever found myself in a position of needing someone to run through a brick wall successfully, Ruddick would be my first choice.
From that point, Ebbsfleet took something of a stranglehold on possession, but were well restricted to ‘sterile domination’ by the Hampton rearguard. The visitors were adept and sliding the ball from side to side, probing for openings, but McCann’s side showed exactly why they had only conceded 13 goals this season, holding their shape well. Particularly impressive in this were Donaldson and Ruddick, re-roled from left wing and right back respectively to cover for the absent Dean Inman and Charlie Wassmer.
On 35 minutes Ebbsfleet did get the ball in the net, through top scorer Rakish Bingham, but he was offside. Signed from Dundee United (with whom he won promotion to the Scottish Premiership) Bingham has hit the ground running for Kutrieb, bagging five goals, but when the ball broke to him from a corner the linesman had no doubt raising the flag.
When the second half started it took ten minutes before either side really did anything of note, with Will Wood – who was influential throughout – volleying just wide of the post, before Holmes was almost immediately pressed into action at the other end. Good work by Muir saw chances for both Deadfield and Vilhete, but the Australian ‘keeper – who was one of the few to remain at Ebbsfleet this summer – made a fine double save.
On 60 minutes, Kahraman picked up a booking, after he slid in on Muir, a rare mistake for the Berliner with the floppiest hair in the National League. One minute later, Jack Paxman danced into the box from the right wing, and squared the ball to Wood who’s shot was blocked. From that block, Wood then delivered the ball to Bingham, but his effort was turned behind for a corner, by an exceptional challenge by Guyana captain Sam Cox. It was some tremendous last ditch defending from the Beavers, but it felt as though a breakthrough might be coming.
And it was – on 68 minutes, and completely against the run of play, it fell to the hosts, and specifically new man Mauro Vilhete. With over 200 appearances for Barnet in the EFL and National League, Vilhete has experience and composure in spades, and showed both when Wilson Carvalho’s cross field pass set him clear. Advancing on goal, he waited for Holmes to commit himself, and then dinked it impudently over the ‘keeper, to put his new side ahead.
That goal stung Kutrieb into action, and he brought on Iffy Allen and Alex Eirich into the fray, and was almost immediately rewarded as Allen had a shot saved by Alan Julian, with a firm palm around the post. With time running out, Ebbsfleet brought on Michael West for the last ten minutes, and he played the role of supersub, equalising within a minute of coming on the pitch. Tricky play by Bingham gave him a shooting opportunity, which was blocked by Julian, but ricocheted up over the despairing lunge of Ruddick. West was waiting, and headed home, past Sam Cox on the line. A deflating blow for Hampton, but a deserved equaliser for the visitors. Gary McCann reacted straight away, bringing on David Fisher and Nathan Minhas. Three minutes later West attempted a spectacular bicycle kick inside the six yard box, but instead only connected with the head of Kyron Farrell, who was subbed for Christian Smith as a precaution.
The referee announced four minutes of stoppage time, and with those precious seconds ebb(sfleet)ing away, it was clear that Hampton were throwing everything into getting a winner, desperate to secure three points at home. With around thirty seconds left to play, Sam Cox took a quick throw in, Vilhete laid it off first time to Jake Gray, and he delivered the best cross seen at the Beveree so far this season. With typical tenacity, 18 year old David Fisher made a late run across his defender, and got a toe to the ball, steering it neatly into the corner, bagging his first goal in a Hampton shirt, and securing only the Beavers’ second home victory of the campaign. For someone who has probably never seen Alan Shearer play live, Fisher absolutely nailed an homage to the England legend’s celebration.
The Wash Up
If the first half was a probing warm up, the second half was an absorbing end to end contest, and neither side wanted for commitment or desire. Objectively, Ebbsfleet played the better football, but to say they deserved more would be to underplay the importance and quality of Hampton’s defensive play at times. Defensive excellence merits victories as much as swashbuckling attacking play.
The visitors played some fine football at times, and for much of the match won the midfield battle. It is clear that Kutrieb’s style is starting to take effect, and with the team getting to know each other more and more with each passing week, I fully expect to see them push into the Play Off positions into the spring. Adebayo-Rowling is a fine defender, and Kahraman is a solid tackler who is also comfortable coming forward out of defence. In midfield, the likes of Paxman, Chapman and Egan have the technical ability to outplay a number of teams, whilst I think Mekki was probably the standout player for the Fleet here (closely followed by Holmes, who played the sweeper ‘keeper role excellently). I’ve always liked Mekki as a player, and think that he really has the quality to put teams to the sword. Bingham was a handful too, and the Beavers defenders had to be at the top of their game to keep him off the scoresheet.
But they were. All four of the Hampton defensive line – Cox, Ruddick, Donaldson and Farrell – were excellent, particularly in the second half, and it’s telling that despite all of Ebbsfleet’s possession, Alan Julian probably only had to make two saves of note. Miller-Rodney in front of the back four was his usual dynamic self, whilst Mauro Vilhete had a debut to remember.
Not only was his goal taken with consummate calmness, but every time he got in possession he seemed to make space and time, and rarely wasted the ball. For someone who is approximately 4 foot 7, his leap is frankly ridiculous, and he’ll catch a few teams by surprise with his aerial ability. He had flashes of good interplay with Deadfield, Gray, Carvalho and Muir, and with the likes of Gondoh, Sheppard, Minhas, Fisher and Coleman de Graft to come in, it leaves McCann with the sort of selection headache that managers love.
Man of the match though has to be Luke Ruddick. He’s had more than his share of illness and injury concerns this season, and was clearly exhausted by the time he left the field – but while he was on it, he played like a man possessed. I honestly believe that if someone shot an RPG at Hampton’s goal he’d throw his body in the way of it.