This Tales article takes a trip back to a snowy day on 19th December 2009 when we first met Dover Athletic. After successive title winning seasons in the Isthmian League Division One South and then the Premier Division, Dover were back in the Conference (National League) for the first time since being relegated to the Southern League in 2002.
The Dover manager at this time was Andy Hessenthaler who was in his first spell at Crabble. The former Watford and Gillingham midfielder was player-manager of The Whites before taking a permanent seat in the dug-out. At the time of our journey to the coast, Dover were on a five-game unbeaten run that included F.A. Trophy wins over Thurrock and Havant & Waterlooville. Following victory at Fleetwood Town, Dover bowed out of the Trophy in the 3rd Round with a 4-1 reversal at Stevenage Borough. In the F.A. Cup the Kent side hammered East Preston 8-0 and then saw off fellow (Blue Square) South side Welling United 2-0 before succumbing 5-3 at home to Eastleigh in the final qualifying round.
Dover’s league form, however, had slipped a little and, even though they were second in the table to Newport County, they had won just two of their previous eight league games. Dover were already a distant ten points behind Newport while we, in 13th position, were a further nine points behind the Kent club with 21 games played.
The game had been thrown into some doubt as snow and ice took a grip in the county. The M20 was closed with delays of six hours being reported. Those caught up in the delays included City’s 6’5” central defender Justin Clayton who received a public dressing down from manager Steve Castle for not making alternative travel arrangements. Dover, though, sought to beat the conditions with a pitch covering that had been hired for six weeks at cost said to be in the region of £30,000. Dover must have wondered whether the expenditure had been worth it as only 593 people braved the chilly snap, this was 412 down on their previous lowest game at this point in the season. Just three Conference South matches beat the freeze that day.
previous game, the win over Havant, with Dean Hill coming into the backline for the suspended Matt Fish. Leading the Whites attack was Frannie Collin, the leading goal scorer for the previous two seasons, and Adam Birchall who would end this campaign as Dover’s top marksman.Dover made one change from their
Steve Castle was experiencing a difficult time in charge of the City, which had nothing to do with his efforts for the team but with behind the scenes matters at Clarence Park . Castle was without two of his senior players for the trip to Kent as injury ruled out Ryan Frater and a suspension gave Drew Roberts time to do some Christmas shopping. Adam Everitt returned for his first game in seven weeks and was named as City captain for the first time.
We went into the game on the back of three successive home Conference South matches that included wins over Basingstoke Town and Bromley. The latter game featured a goal by the emerging talent that was JJ (Jonathan) O’Donnell. He made his mark at Crabble too with a fortuitous goal that put City ahead just after the half hour – Shaun Welford notched Dover’s equaliser in a 1-1 draw just three minutes later.
O’Donnell limped off early in the second half with a badly swollen ankle, the injury coming just a few days after he had had his second run out for Luton Town Reserves. Also training with Luton at this time was fellow midfielder Godfrey Poku who was in outstanding form against Dover. Goalkeeper Paul Bastock (left) was in his second spell with the Saints and was on course to celebrate his 200th appearance with a clean sheet until Welford glanced a header past the 39-year-old custodian. At the other end of the appearances scale was 21-year-old Brisbane-born Angus McLachlan who played the first of his four games for the Saints.
An entertaining encounter had a lively ending that saw City go down to ten men on 86 minutes. Player-assistant manager Mark Peters received a gash on his leg following a challenge by Welford and responded by taking revenge at the earliest opportunity. ‘Rhino’ didn’t bother waiting for referee Paul Harris to brandish a red card before starting his lonely walk to the dressing room. Dover were unable to make their numerical advantage count during the time remaining but the point gained was sufficient to retain second place. The draw nudged us into the top half of the table.
Dover finished the season in second place, 28 points adrift of champions Newport County and facing fifth placed Woking in the two-legged play-off semi-final. The Whites went down 2-1 in the 1st Leg at Kingfield and a goalless 2nd Leg in Kent meant that there would not be a third successive promotion for Hessenthaler’s boys.
Given the testing circumstances at Clarence Park , Steve Castle did well to guide us to a 13th place finish. We were 17 points short of the play-offs and a comfortable 15 points clear of the three relegation slots. We featured in just three cup ties with first game defeats being suffered in the F.A. Cup (1-0 at Heybridge Swifts), F.A. Trophy (6-0 at Woking) and Herts Senior Cup (2-0 at home to Royston Town) – it was the poorest cup season in our history. Castle got through 44 players. Paul Bastock headed the appearance table with 40 games, during which he was twice dismissed. Next on the list were midfielder/defender James Fisher (39) and central defender Ryan Frater (38). Drew Roberts , on 14 goals, was way out in front as our leading goalscorer with Gary Cohen and Ian Dunn being the joint second highest scorers on five apiece. Left-back Peter Smith collected the Player of the Year trophy. Peter scored at Dover a year later when we went down 4-1 in what was his 73rd and final game for the club.
The leading appearance maker for Dover was midfielder Nicky Southall with 51 games while Adam Birchall was the top scorer on 18 (15 league) followed by Olly Schulz and Shaun Welford on 13 each. The Whites squad that season included one former Saint in the form of midfielder Tom Davis who played 113 times for the Saints including our one season in the (Conference) National League. Having joined Dover in the summer of 2009 from A.F.C. Wimbledon, Tom moved on in January 2010 to join Croydon.
Dover missed out on promotion this time around but finally made it into the top Division with play-off wins over Sutton United and Ebbsfleet United in 2014. As for us, we were relegated in 2011 but, just like Dover, enjoyed a successful promotion season via the play-offs in 2014 when we returned to Conference South after threes seasons in the Southern League.
Dover Athletic: John Whitehouse, Danny Walder, James Rogers, Dean Hill, Oly Schulz, Sammy Moore, Nicky Southall, Jon Wallis, Shaun Welford, Frannie Collin (Jerahl Hughes 64), Adam Birchall, subs; Jake Marsh, Andrew Miller, Jake Leberl, Lee Hook.
St Albans City: Paul Bastock , James Quilter , Peter Smith , Godfrey Poku , Adam Everitt , Mark Peters , James Fisher , Solomon Shields , Gary Cohen , Angus McLachlan (Lamine Sagna 88), Jonathan O’Donnell (Danny Johnson 51), subs; Ross Dedman , Ryan Magwood
Bookings: Walder, Smith. Dismissed: Peters. Referee: Paul Harris (Maidstone). Att: 593.