Wednesday, 28 September 2011

Help! I've joined the prawn sandwich brigade!

Another Tuesday evening, another drive along the A2, tracking the red British rail signs on the overhead green boards until it's time to leave the rush hour traffic behind and steer towards Ebbsfleet International Station. Of course, it's non-league football rather than high-speed rail service which has tempted me to embrace the industrial skyline of north Kent once again, retracing my steps to Stonebridge Road, a ground which has become something of second home for me ever since I walked through the turnstiles to cover my first Ebbsfleet United game.

Tonight is different, though. No laptop, no notebook, no smartphone, no Twitter. The same friendly faces greet me as I make my way into the ground, but I'm not headed to the press box - not immediately, anyway - rather, my name's on the guest list for the Fleet Lounge, where members rub shoulders with the match sponsors and injured first-team players. Even as Phil Moss hands me a free drinks voucher and ushers me towards a vat of chicken soup, I find myself scrutinising the team-sheets which have just arrived, scribing imaginary tweets about the apparently defensive side selected by Fleet manager Liam Daish, who has left Ricky Shakes, Scott Ginty and Lanre Azeez on the bench for a game against Bath City, the bottom side in Conference Premier. Soup and roll devoured, I'm off to voice my concerns in the more familiar surroundings of the press benches before the game gets under way.

With nothing but a programme resting on the desk in front of me, I'm able to give the game my undivided attention. My experience of the game lies somewhere between that of an exasperated home fan and studious journalist, with two sides low on confidence serving up fare less appetising than that which awaits me at half-time. Over more soup and a pre-ordered drink, the lounge guests are generally of the opinion that Calum Willock's headed goal won't be enough to see Ebbsfleet win at home for the first time this season, although the Champions League scores flashing up on the flatscreen TV seem to hold greater interest. The second-half's started but I'm still deep in coversation with former chairman Duncan Holt behind the terracing. I've well and truly crossed the line from press corps to prawn sandwich brigade.

Full-time brings meatballs and spaghetti, as I leave the reporters to glean Daish's post-match musings. The home side have won 3-0 and the manager's got reasons to be cheerful. Ebbsfleet captain Paul Lorraine arrives in the lounge wearing a beaming smile to collect his bubbly after being voted man of the match by tonight's sponsors. Photos taken, autographs signed, the defender stops for a quick word with us before heading out into the darkness. It's great to see the skipper back after his injury lay-off, but I can't help feeling Michael West was unlucky to miss out on the award. Come to think of it, I can't fathom how the midfielder's been overlooked, given the thrusting runs which troubled Bath all night, bringing him one goal and a further assist. Still, who am I to question my fellow soup-slurpers?

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