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Legend. The word is bandied around willy-nilly these days but it kept cropping up when Ebbsfleet fans tweeted their farewell messages to departing skipper Paul Lorraine last week. And rightly so.
The defender arrived at Stonebridge Road in 2010 wanting to restore his reputation and he leaves the club adored by the fans and respected by his peers. Lorraine was cheered from the terraces as he warmed up for the Skrill South play-off final last Saturday. That’s how much the supporters will miss him.
"I had to keep reminding myself that there was a big job at hand," Lorraine said, having been restored to the Fleet team one last time after weeks on the periphery of Steve Brown’s squad. "When I came out to warm up, the reception I got from the fans in the Liam Daish Stand was remarkable. I feel privileged that I was in the middle of that. I don’t take it for granted because not every player gets a reception like that.
"I’m glad I’ve got the opportunity (in this interview) to say a massive ‘thank you’ and a massive goodbye because last Saturday, there was a lot of emotion, upset and sadness. But the previous four years, even though there were a lot of lows, it was a great four years."
Lorraine is leaving Ebbsfleet because his work commitments are incompatible with the club’s new training regime for next season – three mornings a week. Therefore, it was for the last time after the play-off final that he pulled off the red Fleet shirt and drove away from Stonebridge Road.
Lorraine said: "It sunk in when I got in after the game. I sat down and that’s when it actually hit me, that I wouldn’t be playing for Ebbsfleet United any more. It wasn’t a nice feeling. I’ve been there four years. It’s been up and down but the loyalty the supporters and players have shown me throughout the four years has been remarkable. I feel lucky to have played for Ebbsfleet."
The feeling from the terraces is mutual.
"You’re the best centre-back we’ve had," posted one fan on Twitter. Another wrote: "I have never been this disappointed that a player has left a club I support." And "proper gentleman and Fleet legend" said a third.
Lorraine led by example from the minute he arrived at the club. Coming off the back of two groin operations, it was a fresh start for him – and for Ebbsfleet, whose squad had been broken up after relegation from Conference Premier.
He said: "I knew Liam Daish had been a fan of mine from when I was at AFC Wimbledon and at Woking. When he called me, it fitted perfectly. I was at university (in south-east London) during the day and then it was right down the A2 to Ebbsfleet.
"I felt like I had a massive point to prove because my reputation got a little bit tarnished. When I had those operations done, Liam Daish showed the faith to give me a contract and he said 'you’re going to be my captain'. I got that yard of pace back and I felt strong. I was playing without the burden of that double groin operation.
"I could train and I felt I was doing something productive off the pitch by getting a degree. My first child was born that year as well, so it was a good year for me."
Lorraine’s central defensive partnership with Clint Easton was a match made in heaven and the season ended with the pair lifting the Conference South play-off trophy. Lorraine recalled: "When Calum Willock scored that goal in the final at Farnborough, to make it 4-2, that was probably the best moment I’ve had in football."
It wasn’t a smooth ride at Ebbsfleet, though, with the doomed MyFootballClub ownership model creating more problems than it solved.
One day in October 2012 epitomised the club’s hand-to-mouth existence.
Lorraine said: "We played Woking away in the FA Cup and Moses Ashikodi scored the winning goal in the last minute. I knew the club was struggling financially and that was an extra £12,000 towards the club. I said to Preston (Edwards) at the time I hadn’t had a feeling like that since we won the play-off final. Liam Daish put a lot of pressure on us in that game."
But the Fleet could only keep themselves afloat for so long. The end of last season was about as bleak as you can get, with the misery of another relegation compounded by the financial crisis which saw the players go without their wages for two months.
Lorraine admitted: "Team spirit wasn’t what it should have been. There were a lot of arguments throughout the season.
"The people that worked behind the scenes were getting visibly stressed out. They were working every hour under the sun, Cheryl (Wanless) and Jessica (McQueen), they were really putting a shift in. It was stressful.
"The whole package last year wasn’t good. We were getting a lot of loan players in, Liam was scrambling to get players in to try to better us, so it wasn’t that solid.
"It was a tough time and the money stopped. But not once did I ever ring up Jessica’s phone asking for wages. Ebbsfleet had paid me every week before then and I knew, if they had the money, they would have paid me. Jessica thanked me later for not being one of those guys that was ringing up her phone and trying to put added pressure on her."
Lorraine would have left Ebbsfleet last summer if KEH Sports hadn’t arrived in the nick of time to save the club. Brown was appointed manager and Lorraine was one of four players he kept on.
He was ever-present until February, when an ankle injury forced him out of the side.
Lorraine regained his fitness but not his place in the team, with Anthony Acheampong and Osei Sankofa ahead of him in the pecking order. He now knew this chapter in his career was coming to an end.
Lorraine said: "I couldn’t commit to the full-time training and didn’t know if the manager wanted to keep me anyway. It was difficult, because I’m used to playing.
"Under Liam Daish, I was the first name on the team sheet and throughout my 14 years of men’s football, I’ve always been a captain. I’ve never really played from the bench. But I trained well and I always wished those players (who were picked ahead of me) good luck when they played.
"My conscience is crystal clear with regard to that. I felt I handled it well - but I wanted to play."
It was fitting that Lorraine lifted the Kent Senior Cup at Priestfield, allowing the fans to show their appreciation for the 30-year-old’s efforts.
That show of affection spoke volumes.
Lorraine said: "When the supporters were clapping me and chanting my name, it made me realise. I didn’t know how well I was thought of at Ebbsfleet until I came out of the team.
"I’d like to thank the Ebbsfleet supporters for the four years I’ve had down there, for their support and loyalty. I hope that as many of them as possible can read this because I’m not on Twitter.
"I do appreciate it and feel privileged and lucky to have captained their club.”
So what does the future hold for captain courageous?
Lorraine said: "During the season, when I wasn’t playing, I had five clubs enquiring to take me on loan or maybe buy me. Will those five clubs still be interested? I don’t see how much changes in a month."
He added: "Ebbsfleet will be a massive club in the future. But I’ve got a wife and two kids and going full-time at the age of 30 doesn’t make sense. It’s a shame but all good things come to an end."
They do indeed. But Lorraine’s legend lives on.
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