Dover Soul – The Fall & Rise Of Dover Athletic

By on Apr 8, 2009 in Non-League | 7 comments

It’s almost Easter weekend, which means that some of you are probably driving yourselves insane, poring over league tables and fixture lists and working out every conceivable permutation of how your team’s season could end up. A couple of days ago, we pondered how badly things seem to be going for clubs on the south coast of England, but there is one small corner of Kent which has spectacularly defied this trend and romped away at the top of their league, becoming champions and earning promotion before even March was out. This year’s “Football Steamroller” award goes to Dover Athletic, of the Ryman League Premier Division.

Dover’s recent history is a story of rebirth, after a close shave with extinction and the dreaded Blue Square Premier ground grading inspectors. Founded as recently as 1983, following the extinction of Dover FC, who had been stalwarts of the Southern League since the late 1950s. Dover had struggled financially for several years before finally folding, and the new club also took a little time to establish itself in the town, with home crowds averaging little more than a couple of hundred during their first few seasons. Their fortunes began to improve in the late 1980s, and in 1990 they won the Southern League championship, only to be denied a place in the Football Conference after falling foul of ground grading rules. Three years later they were champions again, and this time were admitted into the Conference.

They acquitted themselves reasonably well in the Football Conference, although they were fortunate to avoid relegation in 1996, when they finished in one of the relegation positions but were spared the drop after the Northern Premier League runners-up Boston United failed to complete their application for promotion in time for the Conference’s deadline. In 2000 they had their best ever season, finishing in sixth place in the Conference, but such success was coming at a price, and the price proved to be a very heavy one. In 2001, the club’s entire board of directors resigned and running of the club was taken over by its supporters trust. They lost their Conference place in 2002 and were effectively relegated again in 2004, when the shake up created by the formation of the Conference North & South placed them in the Ryman League Premier Division. With the club sinking under the weight of an unsustainable £400,000 debt, administration and a CVA were the unsurprising outcomes, and relegation followed again to the Ryman League Division One South.

At this point, Dover’s fortunes started to look up. Former director Jim Parmenter took over the running of the club, and his involvement has seen a dramatic turnaround in their fortunes. They were unfortunate to fail in the play-offs for two successive seasons to local rivals, Tonbridge Angels and Hastings United, but were promoted back into the Ryman League Premier Division, and this years promotion takes them back to where their supporters will feel as if they belong. In a potentially tough Ryman League, their performance this season has been little sort of extraordinary. They have won thirty of their thirty-eight league matches this season, and have lost just three times.

What, then, has been the key to their success? The key would seem to be manager Andy Hessenthaler. Hessenthaler took Gillingham to their highest ever Football League finish in 2003 but was sacked the following year. He was out of management for three years before accepting the Dover job in 2007, and has now overseen two successive championship wins. More remarkably still, he still occasionally turns out for them at 43 years old. He was joined by veteran striker Giuliano Grazioli last year. Grazioli has unfortunately had to retire at the age of 34 because of injury, but his influence within the the club seems to have been a positive one.

Other than those two, Hessenthaler has used his contacts within Kent football cleverly. Striker Francis Collin was rejected by Gillingham having played just nine games for them but he has scored thirty-eight goals in seventy-two matches for Dover, whilst 19 year old midfielder Jerahl Hughes was picked up by Hessenthaler following a trial after he had been released by Crystal Palace and Yeovil Town, captain John Keister is a former Sierra Leonian international and Grimsby Town once paid £150,000 for midfielder Alan Pouton. There are few star names on the squad list – it is clear from merely a cursory view that Hessenthaler values building a strong squad above everything else and, considering their form over the last two years (they have lost just seven league matches in the last two seasons), it would be difficult to argue that he hasn’t got it right.

When Dover take their place in next year’s Blue Square South, they will start the season amongst the favourites, and with good reason. Last year’s promoted sides from the Ryman League, AFC Wimbledon and Chelmsford City, sit in first and fifth place in this year’s BSS table and, with the BSS seeming to be largely inhabited by clubs without a great deal of ambition to better themselves, there is plenty of scope for another ambitious side in the division to do well, and Dover have averaged crowds of 1,300 this season, which should be enough to keep them self-sufficient for the time being. One cannot help but feel that we haven’t heard the last of Dover Athletic just yet.

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    7 Comments

  1. Another good piece…they will do well next season. Look forward to visiting Dover with Lewes next season….oh and I’m sure you no doubt mean ‘When Dover take their place in next year’s Blue Square SOUTH’?

    Badly Stained Boy

    April 9, 2009

  2. *cough* *cough*”

    I’m disappointed that you have not considered Scarborough Athletic FC for the prestigious Football Steamroller” award. We clinched promotion from the Northern Counties East League Division One on 21st March, and wrapped up the title the following Tuesday (24th). We’ve currently got a goal difference of +95 with 2 league games left to play, and have scored 160 goals in all competitions to date.

    Seriously – it’s great to see Dover back up there again!

    Simon Cope

    April 9, 2009

  3. I wonder who’s paying for it this time?

    Martin Drake

    April 9, 2009

  4. Tosspot Drake, you know nothing about what happened before so keep your snide comments to yourself.

    Mark Andrews

    April 9, 2009

  5. Poole Town haven’t done badly this season, either.

    WHITE ARMY!

    Lily White

    April 9, 2009

  6. Simon,

    Yes Scarborough have had a great seaon as well, and whilst wishing you all the best I still have to grate my teeth at the handball on the line from your defender that the ref let play on… That effectively killed us off in our last conference season (well that and a whole lot more!!).

    Martin,

    Yes, the club has had financial problems in the past and yes we did enjoy a level of football we couldn’t sustain. Funny thing is though that we never “bought” promotion as some say. We got into the conference on merit and without debt but couldn’t sustain that level once two important backers pulled out. Anyways, in answer to your question and according to the club chairman the club is now self financing.

    Madrid Dovorian

    April 9, 2009

  7. Great report, it’s been a fantastic season for Dover Athletic

    OLED the Slayer

    April 10, 2009

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