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Kick off for a new era at Ebbsfleet

Craig Freeman, head groundsman
Craig Freeman, head groundsman

Ebbsfleet United is gearing up for the new season with half a million pounds of Kuwaiti investment, a new business structure, ground improvements and hopes of promotion.

After some turbulent years as a business, and the disappointment of relegation from the Conference Premier division last season, the club is determined to bounce back quickly, with eventual League status the ultimate goal.

There is a buzz of optimism around the Stonebridge Road, Northfleet, ground, following the new ownership by KEH Sports, a wholly-owned subsidiary of Kuwaiti European Holdings controlled by Dr Abdullah Al Humaidi.

As chairman, he is joined by Peter Varney, former Charlton Athletic chief executive, and Stuart Butler-Gallie, a legal expert previously with Brachers and Vertex Law.

Stuart Butler-Gallie
Stuart Butler-Gallie

They had initially considered investment in Eastbourne Borough FC but abandoned that idea in favour of Ebbsfleet. “We looked at clubs closer to London,” said Mr Butler-Gallie. “Peter and I had already looked at Ebbsfleet and had a bit of a head start.”

He believes its location close to the proposed Paramount Park theme park on Swanscombe Peninsula, Bluewater and plans for housing development at Eastern Quarry offer the club huge growth potential.

Dr Al-Humaidi was keen to get into football, especially as his friend Fawaz Al Hasawi had bought Nottingham Forest.

It has been a rocky road for Ebbsfleet, a club founded in 1946 and known for most of the years since then as Gravesend and Northfleet – or The Fleet. Celebrity players have included England manager Roy Hodgson.

The club’s name was changed when Eurostar, the high-speed international train operator wanted more publicity for its nearby station and agreed to sponsor the club. Although some fans would like it to revert to its previous name, club chief executive Jessica McQueen says that’s unlikely to happen.

In 2008, the club was bought by MyFootballClub.co.uk, a website for fans wanting to buy shares in football club ownership. It grew to 20,000 members across the world, raising income and profile. But numbers fell away, increasing financial pressure. KEH Sports has since bought the website’s interests in Ebbsfleet with most shareholders agreeing to sell. The tiny percentage remaining will be “squeezed” out soon, said Mr Butler-Gallie.

KEH Sports also paid £135,000 to settle a winding up petition between Fleet Leisure, which went into administration, and the club for use of training facilities.

But that’s the past. The new owners stress they are looking ahead. They have injected £250,000 in ground improvements, with new roofs for the Liam Daish and Plough End stands. There has been a substantial makeover of the main stand.

Head groundsman Craig Freeman, 25, from Gravesend, is busy preparing the pitch for pre-season friendlies. He is worried about black patches of “fairy rings” but is confident it will become a “winning” pitch. “I need more rain,” he said on one of the hottest days of the year.

The club has retained most of its staff and aims to boost the playing squad to around 22. The squad – managed by Steve Brown – have been training at the Beaverwood Club ground in Sidcup. Sponsorship is expected to bring in about £100,000, with PHB Construction, which has undertaken a lot of the improvements, the home shirt sponsor.

Turnover is around £450,000 but success on the field could boost that figure this year. Mr Butler-Gallie said: “We haven’t come here to throw Manchester City-like cash at it, but we’ve brought in a new team, we’re investing in the players to bring people back to the Fleet, to get them back to supporting the club.”

The first target is promotion from the Football Conference South. Gates hovering around 1,000 could go up and developing a community policy, similar to the Charlton Athletic Community Trust, is a high priority.

Jessica McQueen
Jessica McQueen

Jessica McQueen said: “You’ve got to put on a show on and off the field. You have to have good quality food, serve decent meals in decent surroundings,” adding “it would be nice if the local community started to realise they have a football club here.”

Dr Al Humaidi said recently: “A club of similar stature should be in the Football League and this is achievable.” With the commitment of the new owners to make Ebbsfleet a successful club once again, with the financial resources and skills to run it as a proper business, fans can perhaps hope that the tide has turned and this Kent club – in such a key strategic location - could become a force to be reckoned with in the years to come.

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