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Maidenhead United flashback: The whole town was geared up for a promotion party, but Ebbsfleet failed to read the script

Sometimes defeats can feel just as significant as victories. This week’s flashback takes us back to Saturday, April 22, 2017. This was supposed to be the day Maidenhead United lifted the title in front of 3,000 expectant fans. Only they didn’t.

Ebbsfleet United were the visitors to York Road and the only side that could mathematically stop the Magpies from winning the National League title.

Both were in excellent form. Alan Devonshire’s side had won nine matches in a row dating back to early March and hadn’t been beaten in the league since February’s 2-1 loss at Hemel Hempstead Town. The only problem was that Daryl McMahon’s Fleet were just about matching them stride for stride.

But this was going to be the day and everyone in town was geared up for a massive promotion party. The National League South Trophy was at York Road, safely stored away in preparation to be handed to Magpies captain Alan Massey. Only it wasn’t.

Supporters from both clubs were crammed inside York Road. The old stadium was as close to capacity as is possible, and most of a black and white persuasion were hoping to see a little bit of Maidenhead United history. A coronation that would see the club promoted to the National League for the very first time. Only they didn’t.

That’s because Ebbsfleet spoiled the title party after a thrilling contest which ebbed and flowed and illustrated just why these two teams were out of sight at the top of the table. A 3-1 win at Truro City the previous weekend had given the Magpies some breathing space, and they held a five point lead over their rivals going into the match. Going into their penultimate match they had – as everyone was saying at the time – two bites of the cherry. Surely they’d only need one and do it at the first time of asking? Only they didn’t.

The Maidenhead United programme that day didn’t do the side any favours however. McMahon used a piece which said ‘the Magpies hoped Ebbsfleet would be joining them in the National League’ to motivate his players ahead of kick-off. And it seemed to do the trick.

Not that any of the 22 players, plus subs, needed any extra motivation for this one, and in truth Maidenhead could have been out of sight before the Fleet fired back to win the game in the second half.

The home side dominated the early stages. Sean Marks saw a powerful header deflected against the crossbar before defender Dean Inman muscled in to force a header past Nathan Ashmore from just inside the six yard box. He raced away, his arm windmilling in the manner of Mick Channon. But Fleet were playing well too, they clipped the top of the crossbar in the first half and put plenty of pressure on Carl Pentney’s goal.

Then came the Magpies’ best chance to win the match. Marks found some room on the left hand side of the penalty area and worked the ball into the path of Dave Tarpey. United’s talisman had only Ashmore to beat, and it was the kind of chance he’d been gobbling up all season. Only on this occasion he didn’t. Ashmore got down to his left to pull off a stunning save to keep Fleet in the title hunt. It was a save which turned the tide of the contest. Andy Drury then curled past Pentney from the edge of the area before Dave Winfield forced the ball home from a corner late on.

A point was all the Magpies needed to take the title, and they put the visiting defence under tremendous pressure late on, but the brilliance and bravura of Ashmore denied them, not for the first or last time.

The final whistle sounded. The Magpies players dejectedly thanked their supporters, but there was also a steely look in all of their eyes. Fleet may have won this battle but the war was still there to be won.

The champagne was put on ice, but this fine Maidenhead United team had two bites at this cherry. And the second bite, at Margate a week later, tasted all the sweeter for the angst of this afternoon at York Road.

*See below the Maidenhead United match report from the day.

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Maidenhead United 1, Ebbsfleet United 2

MAIDENHEAD United’s title challenge will go down to the wire, and their final match of the season at relegated Margate on Saturday, after Ebbsfleet United came from behind to inflict a first home defeat of the season on leaders Maidenhead United.

Maidenhead still head the table by two points and will be favourites to lift the trophy when they visit already relegated Margate on Saturday, but Fleet’s second-half goals from Andy Drury and Dave Winfield – which cancelled out a first-half header from Dean Inman – ensured the Magpies’ title celebrations would stay on ice for another seven days.

The Magpies now know they have to go to Margate and win if Ebbsfleet get the better of Oxford City in their final home game.

For much of this match it looked very much like the Magpies would be celebrating a historic title win in front of an incredible 3,377 sell-out crowd at York Road. Having seen striker Sean Marks head the ball onto the underside of the crossbar in the 14th minute, they deservedly took the lead when Harry Pritchard’s in-swinging cross found the head of Inman who powered the ball beyond Nathan Ashmore to make it 1-0 on 21 minutes.

Ebbsfleet also had their moments, with Anthony Cook sending a dipping effort onto the top of the crossbar in the 18th minute and Drury sweeping a low shot from just outside the area onto the foot of Carl Pentney’s post.

The Magpies missed the chance which would surely have put paid to Ebbsfleet’s title aspirations when Tarpey collected Marks’ flick and thundered a shot on goal in the 63rd minute, only to see Ashmore pull off an equally brilliant save.

But Daryl McMahon’s side showed in the second half they aren’t willing to give up on the title without a real fight and momentum changed hands a minute later when Drury was afforded too much space on the edge of the area and swept a curling shot beyond Pentney.

A draw would have been good enough to see the Magpies crowned champions but their promotion party was put on hold in the 74th minute when a corner from the right by Sam Deering flew over everyone’s heads and Winfield escaped the attention of the Magpies’ defence to prod the ball in off the crossbar.

The Magpies appealed in vain for a foul on their keeper Pentney but the goal was given and York Road was temporarily silenced. Ebbsfleet’s delaying tactics frustrated the Magpies’ players, as well as the crowd, but the visitors held on to take the points.

Attendance: 3,377.

Maidenhead United: Pentney 7, Clerima 7, Steer 7, Parkinson 7 (Upward 75), Massey (c) 8, Inman 8, Tarpey 7, Comley 7, Marks 7 (Cox 66), Mulley 7 (Smith 78), Pritchard 7. Subs not used: Wiltshire, Peters.

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