Report - Ebbsfleet United 1-0 Oxford City
By Ryan Bratley
Oxford City put on a spirited performance against title-chasing Ebbsfleet in front of a bumper Stonebridge Road crowd, falling to a 1-0 defeat in an open and entertaining match.
Despite a strong second half showing from City, Anthony Cook's early strike was enough to see the Fleet home in a game where both goalkeepers were kept busy.
On the back of three consecutive wins, keeping a clean sheet each time, Mark Jones once again named an unchanged side. With Lee Henderson once again missing out through injury, George Essuman, Jean Niate and Guri Demuria formed a back three ahead of goalkeeper Craig Hill with Godfrey Poku and Freddie Grant operating as wing-backs. Scott Davies and Reece Fleet sat in the centre of midfield, behind a front three of Ezra Forde, Kaiman Anderson and Jefferson Louis. City were also boosted by the return of Mike Fondop, the popular striker returning to the bench having finally recovered from a hamstring injury.
Although Anderson saw an early shot deflected behind for a corner, it was Ebbsfleet who found the net first with a 5th minute strike. A quick break down the left saw Darren McQueen take on Demuria, squeezing a ball to the front post where Cook was able to calmly stroke the ball past Hill to settle the home side's nerves.
The Fleet could have easily doubled their lead 5 minutes later when a cross from the left found Dave Winfield at the far post. The big striker planted a firm header goalwards but Hill reacted superbly, getting his body in the way and beating the ball away.
Having survived a difficult opening period largely intact, City were able to begin applying pressure of their own. With Ebbsfleet sitting relatively deep and putting numbers behind the ball, patient buildup saw Fleet pick out Anderson whose volley clipped the near post as it went into the side netting.
Hill was called into action again in the 22nd minute as Jack Powell bent a free kick around the wall, forcing the City stopper into a fine diving save low to his right. Minutes later, McQueen got the better of Essuman on the edge of the area but his ambitious overhead kick was easily gathered.
Whilst not necessarily creating many clear cut chances, City were probing the opposing area on a regular basis and winning a number of corners. A short corner in the 33rd minute found Grant who whipped a cross towards the unmarked Poku at the far post, forcing Nathan Ashmore to come off of his line to claim the ball.
Having already showed the threat they could pose from free kicks, Ebbsfleet managed to come even closer to doubling their lead in the 36th minute as Andy Drury stepped up, hitting a dipping drive which cannoned back off of the bar.
In the dying moments of the half, the Fleet crafted one final goalscoring opportunity as a corner found Drury at the far post. His downward header seemed destined for the bottom corner but Hill once again came to the rescue, pushing the ball onto the post for Poku to clear behind.
Ebbsfleet were good value for their half time lead, but will have been deflated by news that Maidenhead were leading comfortably at Margate, putting the title all but out of reach. City meanwhile could take a lot of positives from the half having looked composed in midfield and restricting the hosts to a single goal.
When play restarted for the second half, it took a matter of seconds for Ebbsfleet to find the back of the net. Sam Deering's driven pass across goal was bundled home by McQueen but the celebrations were cut short as the goal was ruled out for offside.
The home fans were brought to their feet again a minute later as Cook outpaced Demuria to race onto a long ball, hooking a shot beyond Hill but not beating the backtracking Essuman.
Not to be outdone, City made their own contribution to this frenetic start to the half in the 48th minute when a short free kick found Forde in the left channel. The young forward took the ball to the byline before driving a pass across the face of goal, failing to find a teammate but forcing the defence to scramble the ball behind.
This began an excellent spell of pressure for the Hoops which continued as Poku burst clear down the right wing, cutting inside to aim a vicious effort at the near top corner which Ashmore reacted brilliantly to push around the post. The resulting corner saw Demuria's stooping header blocked at close range as Ebbsfleet struggled to clear their lines.
Poku was involved again in the 54th minute, capitalising on good work from Fleet to whip a cross in from the right wing. Ashmore came off of his line but was unable to take the ball cleanly, tipping it onto the head of Louis whose first time effort from a tight angle cleared the bar comfortably. Louis did much better three minutes later with a dipping, curling shot from range which drew yet another sharp save from the 'keeper.
At the other end, the City defence was still being kept busy as Essuman and Niate both made superb last minute interventions to put the ball behind from dangerous situations.
Mark Jones showed his intention to keep chasing the game as he made three substitutions: Wilson Carvalho, Connor Furlong, and Mike Fondop replacing Forde, Anderson and Demuria.
The three substitues almost combined to give the Hoops an equaliser as Furlong found Carvalho in space on the left wing. The tricky winger found the feet of Fondop in the box but, with Furlong in space on the edge of the area, the striker chose to shoot on the turn and blazed his effort over the bar.
With the game wearing on and Ebbsfleet seemingly resting some key players ahead of what they now knew would be a series of vital playoff games, the pace of the match seemed to have slowed. However, with 5 minutes remaining City rallied to produce a final push for a goal.
Grant was the unlikely recipient of a superbly weighted pass over the top, taking control on the edge of the area but seeing his effort blocked at close range. Louis was on hand to pick up the loose ball and immediately drilled an effort of his own towards the bottom corner, only to be denied by another piece of excellent last ditch defending.
Undeterred, City came forward again – this time winning a free kick on the left wing. Another short pass saw the ball driven into the area and the resulting melee saw a number of shots on goal blocked.
The defence came out on top again in stoppage time when Louis squirmed between two defenders on the right wing and found Fleet at the near post. The midfielder got a shot away but once again found a body in his way. The resulting corner saw a loose ball fall to Poku but he was unable to reproduce his earlier effort, blasting a shot into the side netting.
The final whistle brought an end to the mayhem, drawing to a close one of the Hoops' most entertaining and open matches of the season.
Whilst Maindenhead's victory at Hartsdown Park may have soured the occasion for some home fans, Ebbsfleet's victory maintained their unbeaten record in 2017. City also had a minor milestone to celebrate as Supporters' Man of the Match Craig Hill was just able to rack up his 300th minute without conceding before Cook's 5th minute strike.
Speaking after the game, Mark Jones praised the professionalism of his side:
“I was proud of the players' performance and the way they went about it. It was a difficult game playing against second at home in front of a couple of thousand supporters and we knew how much they needed the win. When we conceded the early goal I was worried that it was going to be a really difficult afternoon but we stuck at it, we kept going and the players' attitudes were good. We played some good football, particularly in the second half where I felt we got on top, and maybe on another day we would have got a draw.
We're not celebrating a 1-0 defeat but we certainly came off of the pitch knowing that we had given a good performance. It would perhaps have been easy for us to go through the motions on the last day with nothing at stake for us but we played as though it was a game that meant something which was pleasing to see.
Our lads were a credit to the club. After the game a few of their people said we perhaps deserved more and we were one of the better sides they had played this season which gives us a lot of encouragement.
The players have done very well during the second half of the season, we're pleased with how we've come on and now we need to take all of those positives and look at how we can improve and move forwards again. We want to add a few players with a bit more quality to the squad and see if we can have a good go again next year.”
Oxford City: Hill, Poku, Grant, Demuria (Carvalho 64), Essuman, Niate, Fleet, Davies, Louis, Anderson (Furlong 74), Forde (Fondop 64).
Subs not used: Peake-Pijnen, Daramola.