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Ebbsfleet United put 15,000-home garden city at centre of their expansion plans as they set their sights on eventually reaching the Football League

09 May 2014
by Chris Price

At the beginning of June last year, Ebbsfleet United had just been relegated to the Conference South, had no manager and were smarting from an ownership experiment which nearly left them in financial ruin.

This month, the Kuwaiti-owned club have transfer money in the bank, are in the playoff final and have a board of former Charlton Athletic directors with big plans to make it to the Football League.

It is a remarkable turnaround for a club which faced bankruptcy as money dried up after the failed tenure of fan-owned MyFootballClub.

Ebbsfleet United Football Club's homeground Stonebridge Road in Northfleet

Ebbsfleet United Football Club's homeground Stonebridge Road in Northfleet

Yet the takeover by KEH Sports Limited – led by chairman Dr Abdulla Al-Humaidi – was about more than rescuing a football club which dates back to 1893.

The government’s plans to invest £200m in building 15,000 homes in the Ebbsfleet Valley was no stroke of luck in the owner’s growth plans.

“Dr Al-Humaidi was looking to source a non-league football club with the potential to progress, with good transport links, the possibility to grow support and business opportunities as well,” said chief executive Peter Varney, a former vice chairman of Charlton Athletic, who oversaw their rise to the Premier League in 1998.

“Ebbsfleet had already been touted as an area for growth. There are lots of things going on here – including the potential for a theme park.”

Ebbsfleet United chief executive Peter Varney

Today, the board is putting into motion a series of plans to get more punters through the turnstiles, renovating the ground, improving its corporate offer and forging links with community groups.

Yet the story could have been so different. Ebbsfleet were not the only club considered by Dr Al-Humaidi.

Having flirted with the idea of taking over Eastbourne, his management team at KEH Sports killed the deal, foreseeing difficulty in attracting support.

It also stopped a takeover of Welling United after questions were raised over its corporate facilities.

Director Stuart Butler-Gallie – another former Charlton board member – said: “With Eastbourne we convinced Dr Al-Humaidi not to invest his money in a club we felt was the wrong end of the Conference South catchment area.

 From left, Ebbsfleet United director David Testa, chief executive Peter Varney and director Stuart Butler-Gallie at Stonebridge Road

From left, Ebbsfleet United director David Testa, chief executive Peter Varney and director Stuart Butler-Gallie at Stonebridge Road

“Here we are pulling in from north London, central London and south London. This is a borough with a large population which we only scratch the surface of.”

Some people with long memories will say this has all been promised before.

The Thames Gateway was highlighted as an area of regeneration more than a decade ago, stretching from east London to north Kent and south Essex.

Hopes for an estuary airport to kick-start growth remain at a standstill as the Airports Commission considers whether the Isle of Grain is a suitable site.

Yet the Ebbsfleet board feel they have a crucial factor in their favour.

“The problem with Thames Gateway has always been its commutability to London,” said Mr Butler-Gallie.

Developer Land Securities' vision of how Ebbsfleet Valley could look in 25 years

Developer Land Securities' vision of how Ebbsfleet Valley could look in 25 years

“People live here but don’t work here and the attraction of Ebbsfleet is going to be getting to work in London in 17 minutes.”

Even if the house building in the Ebbsfleet Valley is delayed, there are several plans in place to grow the club’s support and reach the Football League.

There is certainly a buzz around the place, even though running a Conference South side is far removed from Peter Varney’s Premier League days with Charlton, when “Sky were down there every other day”.

He said: “There are various strands to this. To have virtually a nil Sikh attendance when you look at the population of Gravesend means we have not done our work properly.

“They would never dream of coming to our games and yet the Guru Nanak games in the Kent County League get 1,000 people. Why is that?

Ebbsfleet United's Anthony Cook on the ball against Concord Rangers this season

Ebbsfleet United's Anthony Cook on the ball against Concord Rangers this season

“We have done a lot on price. Season tickets have had a 66% cut and although people say that has had a limited affect we don’t know what the gates would have been having been relegated from the Conference Premier.

"We do know we have the highest gates in the league. The fact is we have increased the attendance for a lower level of football.

“It’s about attracting in each compartment. You have got to eat away at each of the elements and if you get 200 out of each then we would have 2,000 fans here.”

Ebbsfleet play Dover Athletic in the Skrill Conference South final on Saturday at 3pm.

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