Daish scenting Dons shock
All the talk ahead of AFC Wimbledon's FA Cup first round replay at Ebbsfleet United on Thursday - live on ESPN HD - has been of the Dons' potential second round clash with their arch nemeses MK Dons, or at least it was until the latter's penalty shoot-out defeat to Stevenage on Tuesday. Slipping under the radar suits Fleet boss Liam Daish just fine.
"That's what we've been doing," he says. "We've had two league games in between, and we've won at home to Welling and drawn away at Maidenhead, so we've remained focused on what we're doing."
It's easy to understand Daish's detachment. He has been at the helm at Stonebridge Road since February 2005, but the 42-year-old former Republic of Ireland international has lived through a lifetime's worth of changes at the club. The club turned professional later that year when it was still plain old Gravesend & Northfleet, changed its name to Ebbsfleet United in 2007 to link in with local regeneration plans and, most controversially, was formally taken over by MyFootballClub in February 2008.
MyFootballClub was a web-based initiative, pooling the funds of subscribers - at £35 a pop - to take over a professional club and vote on its key decisions as owners. Initially it saved Ebbsfleet from financial ruin, and the first members' vote allowed a relieved Daish to retain control of team selection and transfer targets.
But the utopia didn't last. Subscriber interest waned, with membership tailing off from an initial 32,000 to just 9,000 at renewal time in 2009. Significant budget cuts followed, as did relegation from the Conference in April this year. Today, around 3,000 MyFootballClub members remain.
Daish is phlegmatic. "Over the past two or three years, we've had to start again each pre-season player-wise, for one reason or another. We went back to a part-time basis after relegation and went and got players which I felt could handle that league fairly well and knew it a little bit. Before, when we were full-time, we had to work with very young lads. We've still got a fairly young squad but we've also got lads who've played Conference National and that's helping."
It recently seemed the coach may have to cede control of transfers to MyFootballClub, but any potential revolution seems to have blown over. "It's gone back to what it's always been," Daish confirms. "When we've bought or sold players where fees have been paid - there haven't been many, but, say, the John Akinde situation where we sold him to Bristol City for £175,000 - it's been put to a members' vote, just as it was when we sold Michael Gash to York for £55,000. That's still in place, but I can't see us paying fees for players in the near future."
If the boss has one tinge of regret in the whole bumpy ride, it's that he hasn't had the opportunity to construct the dynasty hinted at when Ebbsfleet lifted the FA Trophy in 2008, within months of the takeover. "There's been a big turnover in players, which is not ideal," he says. "We've developed a lot of players who've moved on. It's just a shame that we haven't been able to retain many players at the end of each season and build something, because the players that have been here and done well have all moved onto bigger clubs and a better standard."
One of those is Wimbledon's Luke Moore, a Fleet youth product who will make his second return to his old stomping ground in the replay. "It's a shame that we haven't managed to keep them," Daish says, "because I felt that if we had done, we'd not just be in the league above, but pushing for Football League status."
Rebuilding is going well, with Fleet well placed to challenge for the Conference South play-offs with a settled-line-up. "I concentrated on trying to get a good spine, from Paul Lorraine, Preston [Edwards], [former Watford midfielder] Clint Easton, Derek [Duncan], Calum [Willock] to Ram Marwa in midfield. We've got some good youngsters coming through in like Tom Phipp and Michael West, too, and there's a good spirit amongst the lads at the moment."
There's plenty of cause for Kentish optimism in the FA Cup too. Ebbsfleet gave a strong account of themselves in front of a big crowd at Kingsmeadow in the first game, where they had Terry Brown's Conference National leaders worried for long periods. "It was a strange game," Daish says. "We played very well, but the two early sending-offs changed the game a bit. To be fair to our players, we had chances to win it, but you have to take them. But it was always a difficult tie away from home, and it's great we've managed to bring them back to our place."
After the financial dramas of recent seasons, Daish knows the promise of a further televised tie in the second round is potentially a huge shot in the arm for his gradually recovering club. "It's important for all clubs at this level. Finance is very tight, and cup runs help that. It has stuck a plaster over a wound, and hopefully it'll give us a bit of momentum and ease the pressure a little bit. We're seriously desperate to progress and reap the benefit."
Daish hopes to pass on some of his own cup knowhow as player and manager. He has succeeded twice in Wembley finals since reaching successive FA Cup quarter-finals with then-Third Division Cambridge United in 1990 and 1991. "It's been good experience. I captained the Birmingham side at Wembley [winning the 1995 Football League Trophy] and managed the Ebbsfleet side at the new Wembley and won, so I've enjoyed the FA competitions."
So for those already lining up their dream second round tie, there's still a substantial slice of FA Cup action to come first. Liam Daish and Ebbsfleet are determined it will be a memorable one.