Chris Haigh will see in the new season as an Ebbsfleet United man. That could be viewed as something of a coup for a National League South club, given the goalkeeper’s Wembley exploits earlier this year, but then the Fleet haven’t struggled in attracting impressive additions in recent times.

Man of the Match in Concord Rangers’ 1-0 FA Trophy final (2019/20) loss to Harrogate Town two months ago, the 24-year-old’s dejection was obvious when he spoke after the final whistle that day, but he had surely left a firmly positive impression on anyone watching. Far from just stepping up in one showpiece encounter, though, the former Heybridge Swifts stopper has been steadily progressing in recent seasons.

His switch to Ebbsfleet sees him join a side with immediately-recognisable ex-League names in the ranks (from Chris Solly to Lee Martin), and a cosmopolitan sprinkling, headed up by German manager Dennis Kutrieb. Coming from Colchester, there is nothing really to discourage you from assuming that their recent goalkeeping addition is anything other than an Essex boy born and raised.

You would, however, be eliminating thousands of miles from his family’s and indeed his own personal journey.

“I was actually born in Africa, so I lived in Angola for three years and Gambia for two years,” Chris explains. “I then moved initially to Kent, near Tonbridge, and then I ended up moving to Colchester; I’ve lived there since 2002.”

“My mum’s fully Norwegian, and my dad’s English, but his work is container shipping, so he used to work with shipping containers between Africa and the UK. He had an opportunity to go and work out there, and my mum had moved over from Norway, so she was quite happy to move.

“I speak Norwegian pretty fluently; my mum always spoke it to me as a kid. I went away with Norway a few times, Under-21s, Under-18s.

“My mum speaks a bit of Portuguese as well, having lived in Angola, but I didn’t manage to pick any of that up!”

If he had been unveiled by a club in the upper reaches of Norwegian football this summer, we would have known why. With age on his side, as well as the undoubted platform that impressing in a Wembley final brings, a step up to the National League at least would have likely been most people’s guess when it came to leaving Concord.

It is the time of year when the phrase ‘I had a few options’ almost makes it into as many new signing announcements as ‘it was a no-brainer’, but in Chris’ case, it would have been hugely surprising if that wasn’t the reality. So what was out there for him, in terms of level on offer, and where he would have figured in those particular teams’ plans?

“Yeah, a few from the level above and level above that, but none that really completed what we needed, which is to feel confident that we’re going to play or compete in a fashion where it’s going to be fair. Ebbsfleet was a really good offer, where it was obviously the same level, but a full-time opportunity, and it’s run as a professional club, so hopefully it should give me the best of both worlds.”

Alongside his non-league experience, the one-time Maldon & Tiptree player was also previously with Watford’s Under-21 set-up. Upon joining Ebbsfleet, he was keen to highlight how key the standard of player welfare at the club came across in discussions.

Chris details how and why that was so impressive.

“From the chats that I’ve had with the gaffer, and also with Damian (Irvine), the CEO, a lot of what they spoke about was looking after the player. Even just little things, like talking about how they want to look after us mentally and make sure we’re in a good place.

“Those little things, and then also when you come into the club, you’ve got so many people saying ‘welcome’ or just wanting to have a chat. Everybody’s so friendly and it’s a joy to be in the club, to be honest.

“The staff make an active effort to make sure we’re in a good place, they’re always asking how we are and what’s going on with us, so they seem to care about more than just what happens on the pitch.”

There is a sense too that he strongly fits the bill for the character profile that his new manager identifies. The success that former Tennis Borussia Berlin boss Kutrieb had enjoyed back home went hand in hand with the intensity and detail of his work. As the man himself put it when he featured on this site recently: I know that I’m very crazy sometimes and obsessed with football. I’m very demanding, I have high expectations.”

As Chris shares what he feels from a manager enables him to thrive, it certainly appears to match up.

“I definitely thrive off feedback; Danny (Scopes), the gaffer at Concord, will testify to this. Whether I was playing really well or poorly, every few weeks he knows that I’d be on at him asking what I could do better or what I need to focus on for the next few weeks.

“I’m really big on just constantly trying to improve on the next thing, so somebody that gives me feedback on how I’m doing regularly is important. Not even just how I’m doing but what the next step is.

“In terms of whether someone’s shouting at you or giving you an arm around the shoulder, that doesn’t make too much of a difference for me. Someone can shout at you, but as long as you know that they want the best for you, it’s very different to someone just shouting at you for the sake of shouting.

“I think you have to adapt to that, because there’s a good chance you’re going to play under both types of manager! As long as you feel like you’ve got the backing of the manager, that’s the most important thing, for sure.

“Pre-Ebbsfleet, definitely Scopesy, and also Julian (Dicks) at Heybridge, those two definitely stick out in my mind as people where you got the feeling that they backed you, and always gave you feedback. They were really good as well in the fact that they trusted their goalkeeper coach a lot.

“They knew that they weren’t goalkeeping experts, so to speak. They knew what they wanted you to do with the team, but in terms of trusting opinions, they’d always go to the goalkeeper coach.”

It was Liverpool fan Chris’ aforementioned former Heybridge Swifts boss who scored the last Reds goal in front of the standing Kop at Anfield – three years before Chris was born! His time working with the West Ham icon is again in his thoughts as he considers his most enjoyable period in football so far.

“I think over the years of Heybridge and Concord, those three years. At Heybridge when Julian came in, we were 15th or something, and then ended up winning the (Isthmian North) play-offs (though were denied promotion due to the planned pyramid restructure), so doing well in that and saving penalties (against Maldon & Tiptree), that was really big.

“Then going to Concord and having a great first year, getting Player of the Year and saving pens again! That whole period was unbelievable for me.

“Obviously last year was a bit rubbish, with COVID, but ended it on a high with Wembley and playing really well. If someone had said to me I’d have those three seasons, I would have snapped their hand off.

“Hopefully this year’s another one to remember.”

A Canary Islands trip during the off-season is not at all out of the ordinary for a footballer, or anyone seeking a break in the sun. To head out there to train, though, is somewhat less typical, as Chris did after signing for Merstham four summers ago.

“I was just prepping for the season and then I got a message from Lee and Mark Robinson, they’re called The Modern-Day GK, on Instagram. They said they were going out to Tenerife to do some training and filming, because they put a lot of content out there, and they just asked if I wanted to come.

“Never met them before in my life but I was like ‘yeah, course I do’. I brought one of my best mates out with me (Greg Cundle, now also at Ebbsfleet), who was a pro at the time (with Gillingham); he’s a striker so he was doing some fitness work with the fitness coach, and I was doing goalie work with the goalie coach.

“We got together and did some finishing stuff, it was amazing. They set me up so well for that season.

“I think we were out there for about six or seven hours a day!”

His recent progress is testament to that sort of application. Logic would also say that a player who has had setbacks and rough moments to overcome will have far more to draw upon than someone whose route has been smooth sailing.

Chris reflects on what he feels has been his most difficult spell as a player up to now.

“When I was at Merstham, I was a young lad, and to be honest, got scapegoated massively. I was backed when I was playing well, and as soon as I wasn’t playing well, I was thrown under the bus, or even if I was playing okay.

“Looking back on it, it was definitely really good character-building for me. Non-league can be one of those places where you end up sinking or swimming.

“At times, you feel like you’re sinking, and then if you come out the other side of it, you’re definitely much better for it. That was definitely testing, for sure.”

On the subject of testing a keeper, it generally gets overlooked how the introduction of different match balls in a new season can take some adjusting to, with a specific flight to get accustomed to for those in goal, especially in challenging conditions. Chris offers his take on what he has noticed in recent years.

“When I first went to Concord, we had these JAKO balls, and they were about a size ten! They were like beach balls, but you can absolutely boom them, they go miles.

“When you get shots against you, they move all over the place, they’re horrible. Now we’ve got these New Balance ones, they go nowhere near as far, they’re not very nice to strike, but the strike on them is a little bit truer.

“When you’re at a pro club, you play with Mitre balls; they’re always good, but the best I’ve had in non-league are from the year before last, the yellow Mitre balls in the Isthmian League. By far the best.”

The list is long for clubs who had an arduous time to negotiate last season, with Concord Rangers certainly among them. Having had a consistently-disrupted National League South campaign chalked off early, their belated FA Trophy final was the shining light at the end of it.

The Essex side had reached the semi-final all the way back in March 2020, before beating Halesowen Town last September to make the final – a game that would be played a further eight months later, against a Harrogate team by then out of non-league and safe in League Two. Around a week on from their day at Wembley, long-serving chairman Ant Smith and manager Danny Scopes were among those who would bid farewell to the club.

For Chris and the team immediately after the final, was there any sense that they were having their last moment together as a group?

“That came later, to be fair. On the coach and after the game, I think everybody was just focused on the game and obviously a bit gutted.

“I felt that we could have won the game if chances had gone our way, so we were a little bit gutted about that. I think the overriding emotion for everyone was ‘what an achievement’, and we didn’t know about anything that was then going to happen, until it happened.

“We found out when everyone else did, so there was none of that ‘this is the final game together’ kind of thing.”

The club were certainly unfortunate not to have their Non-League Finals Day with spectators, with a partial return permitted when the 2020/21 finals took place just under three weeks later. A goalkeeper, especially in non-league, could be forgiven for enjoying the mostly empty stadiums of the past year!

There are of course various examples to the contrary, but when the interaction between fans and players is creative and in good spirit, it is as great as any characteristic of non-league football. Has Chris ever heard any particular pearlers from the terraces towards him to raise a smile?

“I’ve got a man bun so I get loads of stuff about my hair which is quite funny; saying that I look like the missus or whatever! Obviously you get a lot of abuse, but having no fans for over a year, I’m craving a bit of abuse behind the goal at the minute!

“I’d like nothing more than to get battered by a set of away fans behind the goal.”

For standout characters from his time in the game that actually were on his side, a couple of recent teammates quickly spring to mind.

“I’d say Jack Cawley was one of them; he’s a character to say the least. He’s an absolute nutcase, he’s great.

“James Blanchfield at Concord, you can’t spend a minute with him without laughing. Manager-wise, Julian (Dicks), for slightly different reasoning; him being who he is, you expect him to be screaming and shouting, but I don’t think I ever heard him scream or shout.

“The team plays poorly and you come in the dressing room thinking ‘oh, here we go, this is gonna be fun’, and he’s calm as anything. That was really interesting but he’s not someone that you want to let down.

“The way he talks to you, in his tone of voice, he’s almost like a disappointed father figure!”

Alongside Chris in that Trophy final, defender Cawley is also among the first names he mentions when asked about teammates he has felt a particular understanding with on the pitch, along with another ex-Concord Rangers man, Tom Clifford. However, when a singing initiation calls for a player at a new club, even the closest of connections can’t help you!

“Singing has been mentioned in Ebbsfleet! I’m not sure what I’m going for, to be honest.

“Yeah, I’m not looking forward to it! I’m quite a confident lad, but if you get me with a microphone, I’m not great.

“I did it at Concord; I sung a bit of Drake ‘The Motion.’”

Painful introductions apart, a new season most definitely brings a sheen of freshness and optimism – new kits, new signings, new beginnings – and we can all do with some of that after the last 16 months. With all focus on competing for his place in a considerably strong squad at Ebbsfleet, Chris tells where you might generally expect to find him, away from his 18-yard box.

“I get a bit more time off over the off-season, obviously, so I’ve played a bit of golf. Apart from football and coaching, that’s it, or I go to the gym.

“I’m really big on doing my extras. I really enjoy going to the gym and seeing how my vertical jump, or my power or speed, can improve, so I’m doing that all the time; I’ve got a PT that I see quite regularly.

“So yeah, golf, coaching and football!”

Interview/article by @chris_brookes

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