Farnborough v Woking/Ebbsfleet play-offs

Farnborough 1 Woking 1 (08/05/2011)

Farnborough is hardly a new ground for me, being just 11 miles away. Nor is seeing them bidding to gain promotion a new experience. My very first visit to Cherrywood Road saw them beat Gresley Rovers 5-0 to win the Southern League title in 1994.

The club has changed since then. Farnborough Town folded in 2007, to be reborn as Farnborough FC, attempting to battle up to the previous level on a more professional footing.

The ground has certainly changed too. Back in the 1990s it was a typical small semi pro ground. A tiny main stand on the halfway line. A thin cover down one side. A small bit of cover behind one goal, which was the only pice of terracing more than three or four steps high. Basic, innocent, and not a lot to write home about.

Now, the same ground is officially known as the Rushmoor Stadium, and although “stadium” would be a loose application of the word at the moment, it certainly has had one heck of a facelift.

The main stand has been extended, with all the seats now the same colour, even if the different roof sections do their best to remind you they are two stands joined together.

The previously uncovered end now has a roof, with a long mural of the club’s name, and an electronic scoreboard above, making it look bigger than it really is.

The covered side terrace has been converted to a seated stand, and generally smartened up. It does still have the same large number of mercifully thin pillars at the front. A lattice of steelwork above what looks exactly like the old roof undulates alarmingly along its length, giving the impression the roof is holding it up, rather than the other way around. This stand is also now fulled decked out in blue, giving the ground some continuity.

The remaining end of the ground shows the ambition of the new club, as well as highlighting how far it is from achieving it. Once complete, the Prospect Road End Stand will no doubt be hugely impressive for this level. 1350 seats, blue of course, will give a genuinely professional edge to the place. The question is when it’ll be ready. It’s already over-run by two years, and progress is stuttering at best. Currently about half the seats are in, of which about half are actually allowed to be used. Above, roof supports hold up nothing but fresh air.

If a lack of funds threatens to make that stand look a white elephant, heads were scratched in disbelief as the club announced it had bought the old 3000 seat main stand from Darlington’s Feethams ground, and were going to erect it in place of the current main stand. For a club that regards crowds in four figures as large most weeks, it certainly raised a few eyebrows. How often would anything near that size be needed?

If 2010/11 is anything to go by, then the answer would be about twice a year. A total of around five and half thousand fans came to the ground on consecutive Sundays to see if Farnborough could win the Blue Square South play-offs.

The first visitors were Woking in the semi-final. They’d lost the first leg 0-1 at their ground a few days earlier, making Farnborough hot favourites. A quite unbelievable miss late in the game, putting a tap-in over the bar from two yards, prevented that 0-1 hill being a 0-2 mountain. Mistakes would prove to be a key feature in the tie.

At first the mistakes were just in the general play. Both teams took a very long time to settle, with real chances very rare. The first big mistake came from Farnborough’s nervous looking goalkeeper. Running out to chase a high ball out of his area, he misjudged it completely, with an attempted header doing no more than ruffle his parting. This allowed Woking’s Elvis Hammond to bash the ball into an empty net and celebrate in front of the fans at that end of the ground.

Farnborough really were struggling to get into the game, and if it went to 2-0, you had to feel they’d find it hard to come back. It nearly was 2-0 early in the second half. Skipping past a floored goalkeeper, a Woking forward was just a shade too casual trying to put the ball into the unguarded goal, allowing a Farnborough defender, if more by luck than judgement, to throw himself in front of the goal-bound shot.

1-0 wasn’t enough for Woking to win though, and in the latter stages of the game, Farnborough started to look stronger, and when it went to extra time, only one side looked likely to add to the scoring. The teams were just nine minutes from penalties when the ball was pulled back to Dean McDonald, just inside the area. It fell perfectly for him, and he thumped it in so hard the keeper had barely moved before it hit the net.

Woking then had to press forward in desperation, and final cruel mistake would rob Woking the chance of penalties. In the final seconds, a goalmouth scramble would see a Woking boot connect through the crowd of players. The keeper was stranded and helpless, but the connection wasn’t clean, and the ball bounced harmlessly wide. And that was that for Woking. For Farnborough, Ebbsfleet would be the visitors for the final.

Farnborough 2 Ebbsfleet 4 (15/05/2011)

3,365 fans, not far short of the ground record, were at Farnborough for this deciding game, and it rather showed up the inadequacies of the ground in its current state. Around 1000 Ebbsfleet fans were allocated the terrace, meaning 2300 Farnborough fans had to fight for spaces in the seats that were open for business. There didn’t seem to be enough to go round. Requests over the PA system for fans to not sit in gangways, but to find seats instead, rather misses the point that those fans were only in the gangways because they couldn’t find a seat. It’s not as if people choose to sit on shallow concrete steps by choice. All the time, a few hundred seats in the unfinished PRE stand stood vacant, falling foul of some Heath & Safety imaginary danger that occupying them could pose.

Despite the prize at stake, the danger from Farnborough’s players looked equally imaginary for most of the game. They had a really bad case of stage fright, and looked nothing like a team that had been pushing for a title a few weeks earlier. Ebbsfleet deserve credit too, controlling the game and looking more like the home side.

Although they hadn’t created many clear opening themselves, it was no surprise when they went in front. A header was flicked on from a throw, and an acrobatic overhead kick gave the Farnborough keeper no chance.

Having seen their team recover from a deficit the previous week, the Farnborough faithful didn’t seem too downbeat about this setback. If they could find a foothold, the game would surely change.

Before they got that chance though, it was 2-0. A through ball played in Ricky Shakes, and he made no mistake, slipping the ball past the keeper to double the lead, early in the second half.

From there the play was more even. In a game where more goal looked likely, the next one really would be crucial. To the increasing gloom of the home fans, and the increasing delight of those from Kent, it was Ebbsfleet who got it. A good long cross found Michael west beyond the back post, and his header returned across the goal looped over the keeper and just under the crossbar, to give Ebbsfleet what looked like an unassailable lead.

It certainly looked that way. With three minutes to go, many on the Farnborough fans were already on their way home when Daryl McMahon fired a shot across goal that found the far corner.

It looked no more than a consolation, but slack defending allowed Farnborough in again a couple of minutes later, and a the score was now 3-2.

Five minutes of time were added, to the roar of the crowd that hadn’t yet gone home, and Farnborough threw the kitchen sink at Ebbsfleet in search of an equaliser that seemed impossible just minutes earlier.

Impossible it was though, as this was to be but a cruel tease. In the 4th of the five added minutes Ebbsfleet broke upfield. A low shot wasn’t held and Calum Willock (or Wilcox as the scoreboard said) showed a striker’s instinct to be in the right place at the right time, to turn the ball in from close range. This time there really would be no coming back. Ebbsfleet knew it. They were up.

The crowd figure has since been raised to a suspiciously high sound 4267 – a new ground record. apparently the figures from the away turnstiles have been reviewed, indicating a turnout of 2158 from Ebbsfleet – outnumbering the home fans in other words. Unless “review” means to count all adults as actually being two children, the numbers seem a trifle unlikely. Then again Ebbsfleet are up. That’s all that matters. And if they keep on scoring four goals every time I go to one of their games, they’ll probably hope I see them again soon.

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