Shell-shocked Ebbsfleet face a National League relegation battle after a dismal home display against Oxford City on Saturday.
The Fleet lost and had Billy Clifford sent off in the opening half-hour as they dropped alarmingly into the bottom three having lost a game that was probably billed as ‘must-win’ by most home fans.
It’s now no win in seven league games for the Fleet, another game without a clean sheet and their early-season vigour has been replaced by a clear lack of confidence.
Ebbsfleet made one change from the side that drew 2-2 at Hartlepool last week with Chris Solly replacing Luke O’Neill but any confidence from that result seemingly evaporated in the first five minutes at Stonebridge Road.
Craig Tanner gave the ball away cheaply on the edge of his own penalty after four minutes but Oxford striker Oliver Sanderson saw his shot turned behind by keeper Mark Cousins.
The visitors went ahead from the resulting corner, which proved almost a carbon copy of the first goal scored by Slough in their FA Cup tie. Latrell Humphrey-Ewers crossed from the right and the unmarked Cole Kpekawa - making his debut after joining on loan from Bromley - headed in.
Referee Ruebyn Ricardo was to have a busy half with a number of yellow cards being shown. The first came on just 11 minutes when Billy Clifford was cautioned after a foul in the build-up for an Oxford attack, the official going back when play was stopped.
Before the cards started to flow, Oxford were busy taking control of the game and they went 2-0 up on 13 minutes. Keeper Cousins looked to have turned over Zac McEachran’s 20-yard right-foot shot but the ball looped high in the air and bounced just inside the far post.
It could have been worse as another Oxford debutant, Alex McQueen, headed wide at the far post.
Ebbsfleet responded and the lively Matthias Fanimo cut inside from the right but his low drive was pushed away by keeper Jack Bycroft.
Kpekawa went into the book for dissent and was quickly followed by Lewis Coyle for kicking the ball away.
Clifford cut short his own afternoon on 29 minutes, foolishly handling the ball after giving it away cheaply near halfway, he left the referee no option but to show him another yellow card.
Tanner was perhaps the harshest of the day’s cautions, seemingly booked for a foul near the corner flag.
Oxford should have added a third on 34 minutes when McQueen found space in the box and square for Sanderson but his low drive was saved by Cousins when it seemed easier to score.
It wasn’t the Fleet’s day as Cundle did well to work space down the left and cross into the box but Mustapha Olagunju turned his shot wide from close range.
Ebbsfleet had just cause for complaint on 40 minutes when Coyle somehow escaped a second yellow card. The Oxford man clearly fouled Myles Kenlock after the Fleet defender went for a one-two but none of the officials managed to see it. Fleet boss Dennis Kutrieb was booked for making his feelings clear to the fourth official, but it was yet another example of the shortcomings of the officials in National League and National League South this season.
There was still time for Cundle to be booked just before half-time, bringing the number of yellow cards to six in the first 45 minutes alone.
Ebbsfleet replaced the injured Fanimo with Darren McQueen at the break but the game was over within seven minutes of the second half.
Oxford added a third when Renny Smith led a breakaway, his initial shot was saved but the ball eventually fell to Sanderson who found the bottom corner.
Then a ball over the top found Alex McQueen in behind on 52 minutes and his accomplished finish added more misery to the home side.
Boss Kutrieb quickly used his remaining substitutes, keeping both strikers on the pitch but his team understandably looked deflated.
Oxford had the points wrapped up and the last half-hour at times resembled a training-ground exercise, although that may not be a bad thing for Ebbsfleet with another huge home game against Maidenhead on Tuesday night. The last thing they needed was to waste more energy.
The referee again failed to impress with a yellow card for Olagunju, presumably given by the scream from the Oxford player who was up and about again within seconds. But he didn’t have an impact on the result - that was all on Ebbsfleet, who had just one shot on target in the 90 minutes.
Ebbsfleet: Cousins, Olagunju, Solly, Kenlock, Fanimo (D McQueen 46mins), Wright (O’Neill 56mins), Tanner (Edser 51mins), Clifford, Cundle, Samuel, Poleon. Subs not used: Domi, Odokonyero.
Oxford: Bycroft, Coyle, Sanderson (Fleet 72mins), McEachran (Kirby 72mins), A McQueen (Williams-Bushell 64mins), Roberts, Smith, Carroll, Humphrey-Ewers, Kpekawa, Moore. Subs not used: Miccio, Ofosu.
Referee: Ruebyn Ricardo.
Attendance: 1,326 (estimated 27 away).