Ebbsfleet United 2-2 Mansfield Town – Saturday 9th August 2008 3.00pm
The image of Adam Murray holding the conference trophy aloft and getting drenched in Champagne on the One Call Stadium turf will be long remembered as on Saturday 20th April 2013, Mansfield Town finally banished the demons and returned to the football league. It was the end of a five season journey which saw more turns that spaghetti junction and is a moment, as I mentioned, which will be remembered forever – but what about the start of the story into the unknown?
I guess technically it all began with the goalless draw between Chester City and Stockport County and the point which mathematically condemned Stags to life in non-league football, however I’m classing the start as our trip to Ebbsfleet United on the 9th August 2008 – the first time we kicked a ball on unknown turf, the first time we we’re the new boys.
I’ve been following Stags since roughly 2002 and at the start of every season there’s always been the feeling of “here we go again” – we we’re always a league club and knew what to expect, standing on that cracked terracing at Ebbsfleet though, nobody knew what to expect and that feeling of “here we go again” became one of panic, confusion and sadly, arrogance.
The close season was a nightmare; the hurt of relegation was still rife as the season’s opener with Ebbsfleet approached. The close season had provided a takeover in ownership and in turn management, however anyone that had closely analysed the handful of pre-season friendlies could tell that our squad was sparse – deep down there was a sense we we’re in for a bumpy ride however you don’t admit that as it’s an unwritten football supporting law to say before a ball was kicked, that your side would end up champions especially when you’re playing in the division lower than the previous season.
That’s just the way it is, promoted teams are tipped to go straight back down whilst relegated teams are hotly tipped to bounce straight back.
In our hearts we desperately craved for that to come true which began to send arrogant blood pumping through our veins – in our heads we we’re still a football league team and shouldn’t be running shoulders with the likes of part time conference teams such as Ebbsfleet. In our heads we we’re world beaters and had already won the title, we’d smashed every team and this awkward fact of being in the conference was just a minor inconvenience – looking back now, it was always a recipe for disaster!
Not for a second will I deny having these thoughts as I took my seat on the SSA coach that morning, it was the start of a one season journey that would end in triumph – together with fellow fans and my family, we laughed and joked about how the season would turn out, it was a very spirited journey with a sense of happiness that football was back, however it didn’t last and as we pulled onto the main road adjacent to Ebbsfleet’s ground – the laughing and joking turned to a bitter silence.
Usually when the coach parks up everyone is up and off to the pub with in the flash of a second, eagerly anticipating the afternoon’s football – not this time. I remember the coach being deadly silent and passengers looking out of the window at our destination. No disrespect is intended to Ebbsfleet United here but it was a massive culture shock. We could see the floodlights from the main road but no turnstiles, we could however see a club car park (written on a decaying plastic board with fading sticky letters and nailed to a brick wall), inside the un-tarmacked car park were several rusty scrap vehicles becoming tangled in growing weeds. Several puddles reflected the glum faces of shocked and taken-aback fans when suddenly there was movement, a slow trickle of people stepped off the coach.
The three of us (myself, my dad and my brother) followed the silent moving cue and as I stepped off the coach, I turned to the two of them and said “you know that conversation we had about this being an easy ride, forget it – welcome to the unknown” – there silence spoke volumes.
One of the Stags fans had asked a local where the local pub was and pointed to a small building on the edge of a roundabout, a coach load pilled in and were soon literally helping themselves behind the bar on the say so of the landlady who and I quote, was expecting “50 fans at best” – yeah right!
Kick-Off crept closer and the three of us made our way from this cramped, amber & blue flooded pub, back towards the ground in search of a turnstile. We found one on the main road which we missed on the way to the pub, above it there was a sign I’ll never forget it read “Conference Match No.1” – it was then I had a sinking feeling that our magical vision of a one season wonder would be everything but.
Eventually we found the away turnstile, accessed through that museum of rusting old vehicles, weeds and puddles. One inside the scenery got no better as we were directed onto the behind goal open to the elements terracing – a terracing which was far from level, had numerous cracks and weeds growing through it. I stood right at the back and looked up to see a telephone pillion run low overhead before turning to my left and looking at the main stand. A small covered seating area which had a mixture of uneven plastic seating and splinter clad wooden benches was the view; the crumbling paint left me speechless.
Obviously we had arrived at a tired ground; all we could hope for was for football to be our saviour. Our brand new squad, assembled majorly the night before, soon descended on the pitch with Ebbsfleet who the previous season, under their former name, had won the FA Trophy. Stags were in there white away strip with Ebbsfleet in red, a roar of “come on you Stags” before kick-off installed the feeling that everything would be alright, however 45 minutes later we we’re red in the face – getting rained on by the miserable shower above, watching our side struggle and trail by two goals. I turned to those around me and said “welcome to the conference folks”.
The second half saw a spirited Stags fight back as Michael Blackwood made history netting Stags first goal outside the football league before a combination of Jason Lee’s shaven pineapple head and Mark Stallard’s left buttock rescued a draw late on – as we headed back to the coach feeling dejected and sucker-punched, barley anyone spoke. Mansfield Town, the world beaters, the champions elect, the football league side – had scrapped a draw with Ebbsfleet United, it was a long drive home!
I look back fondly on that day in honesty as not only was it the start of what proved to be a beautiful tale, but it taught us so much about life in the conference. We we’re taught the hard way to respect other grounds, other team’s desire and that we we’re here because in the past we simply weren’t good enough to compete. We began the day with arrogance thinking we we’re better than everyone else, we ended it with a new found vision, we ended it respectful of others and began the long process of accepting our situation – had we been at home and won, I don’t think that would have ever happened and maybe, we would have ended up like other arrogant “we’re better than you” clubs that are currently in the conference, going nowhere fast!
It took a long time to evolve and for the dream to become reality, every time you remember how it ended, spare a thought for where it began, that way the ending becomes that little bit more special and sweet.
Written by Craig Priest– The views expressed in this blog are those of the writers and not those of Mansfield Matters or its related organisations, to submit a blog email firstname.lastname@example.org
Photos: Copyright Paul Jarvis (Ebbsfleet)
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