Goals from Sean Shields, Danny Kedwell, and Matt Godden, all in the space of seven second-half minutes, condemned the Clarets to their first defeat in four games.
They had got off to the best possible start after just nine seconds when Billy Bricknell hammered home from outside the box, but they were punished for not making the lead more comfortable as a second-half onslaught from the Fleet followed.
They were off colour in the first-half but they showed why they’re top of the League after the break with precise passing, clinical finishing and blistering pace and trickery in the wide areas.
The Clarets were unbeaten in their three matches against them this season – including a fine 2-1 away win at Stonebridge Road – but this match was a step too far, although there are plenty of positives to take from their display in the initial 45 minutes.
Chelmsford made just one alteration from the side that put in a back-to-the-walls performance in their 1-0 win over Havant in midweek with fit again Bricknell partnering Jason Williams up top, meaning Bagasan Graham was forced to drop to the bench. The winger would eventually come on after only 25 minutes when Sandro Semedo’s afternoon was cut short with a pulled hamstring.
The match began at a frenetic pace and, before some had even taken their seats at Stonebridge Road, the Clarets were in front after only nine seconds. Mark Hughes’ long-ball was headed out and picked up by Bricknell, the striker hammering an unstoppable shot on the bounce that dipped over the outstretched arms of Nathan Ashmore, giving Kevin Maher’s side the start they wanted and it presented Bricknell, facing his former employers, with his 12th League goal of the campaign.
Ebbsfleet attempted to net an almost instant reply but were denied on two accounts by excellent goalkeeping from Christian Dibble, with the ‘keeper first diving low to palm away a driven effort from Jordan Parkes before racing out of his box to hack away Ashmore’s long punt up-field that Godden, the League’s in-form striker, almost caught on to.
Dibble was called into action once again when Sean Shields, who was on-loan with Chelmsford earlier this season, drilled a shot towards the back post that required his outstretched leg to tip it wide. The ball fell kindly to Parkes – another former Claret – but the midfielder blazed over from four yards with an open goal waiting in front of him.
Fleet fans began to grow frustrated, and understandably so, as John Paul Kissock attempted to pull the strings in midfield with limited success due to the impressive Mark Haines standing strong in the City defence.
They were almost gifted a goal though as Marvel Ekpiteta slipped after sending a back pass to Dibble, and the City shot stopper recovered well to hack somewhat unconvincingly clear.
It was Haines who ensured the Clarets’ lead was taken into the half-time interval with an excellent tackle in the box to deny Godden in stoppage time. He had to get it right and it was timed to perfection.
Fleet boss Daryl McMahon, who was in attendance for City’s win at Havant, reacted at half-time by bringing on former City winger Anthony Cook for Kenny Clark as the Fleet went to three at the back.
The change in formation almost paid dividends as Kissock’s volley from the edge of the area looked threatening, and it whistled inches over the bar.
Cook, making his 100th appearance for the Fleet, then had a penalty appeal turned down as he felt he was nudged by Hughes, but it mattered little as nine minutes into the second-half they were level.
Chelmsford failed to deal with a corner and when the ball broke to Shields the winger made no mistake in picking out the far bottom corner and firing in an equaliser.
Things went from bad to worse for the visitors as three minutes later they had fallen behind. Dibble did well to keep out Godden’s initial effort with his foot, but Danny Kedwell pounced on the save and tucked away from close-range to hand Fleet the advantage.
The Clarets never really turned up for the second-half and were always on the back foot against an Ebbsfleet side that were hungry for their three points in their battle for the title.
They cemented their foothold on the match with a third a minute after the hour mark when Godden stole the ball off McAuley after the centre-back dribbled into his own box. The Fleet’s star man rounded Dibble and coolly slotted home into the empty net for his 23rd League goal of the season and his fifth in two games to compound City’s wounds and seal the three points.
Chelmsford battled to try and force their way back into the match and reduce the deficit, but even live-wire Jack Bridge couldn’t create an opening with Williams a somewhat bystander in the last 45-minutes, although the Fleet could have made it even more comfortable but for Parks and Stuart Lewis fluffing their lines in the box.
What began as an afternoon of elation ended in frustration, and the Clarets will have to pick themselves up ahead of next Saturday’s winnable tie at home to Gosport Borough.
1. Nathan Ashmore
2. Matt Fish
3. Bryan Van Den Bogaert
4. Stuart Lewis
5. Kenny Clark
6. Tom Bonner (C)
7. John Paul Kissock
8. Jordan Parkes
9. Danny Kedwell
10. Matt Godden
11. Sean Shields
12. Charlie Sheringham (On for Matt Godden, 90')
13. Jonathan Miles (GK)
14. Dean Rance (On for Sean Shields, 82’)
15. Anthony Cook (On for Kenny Clark, 46’)
16. Sam Deering
1. Christian Dibble
2. Rob Girldestone
3. Marvel Ekpiteta
4. Mark Hughes (C)
5. Mark Haines
6. Rory McAuley
7. Jack Bridge
9. Jason Williams
10. Billy Bricknell
11. Bagasan Graham
18. Reece Prestedge
8. Timothy Monsheju (On for Jason Williams, 77’)
12. Bagasan Graham (On for Sandro Semedo, 25’)
14. Luke Daley
15. Marvin Ekpiteta
16. Harry Morgan
Referee: Mr. Ian Cooper
Assistant Referees: Mr. Stephen Bates and Mr. Daniel Richardson
Bookings: Ebbsfleet United: Stuart Lewis (32’, late tackle)
Chelmsford City: Bagasan Graham (31’, late tackle), Mark Hughes (58’, foul)
Scorers: Ebbsfleet United: Sean Shields (54’), Danny Kedwell (57’), Matt Godden (61’)
Chelmsford City: Billy Bricknell (1’)
HT Score: 0-1
FT Score: 3-1
City Man of the Match: Mark Hughes