Yes… yes… Murphy’s on about bloody Kingstonian again. But this one’s important. No…really…
It may not seem like much of a legacy, I grant you. But when Isthmian League Kingstonian played out a nothing final game of the 2011/12 season, it highlighted just how few such games there had been in manager Alan Dowson’s seven-and-a-bit years at Kingsmeadow, which came to an end last week. Seasoned Ks watchers used to often joke about games having “an end-of-season feel” to them…in mid-September. And it would often be all-too-true. So for Dowson to virtually eliminate the concept was a huge achievement, alongside the fact that he left Kingstonian – on-field and off – in a demonstrably better state than that in which he found it.
Dowson took over a team drifting in the lower-mid reaches of Ryman Division One South and left one which finished second in the Ryman Premier and, if kept together to any significant degree, will surely among the favourites for promotion from it next season. Superficially, that represents solid but unspectacular progress. However, Dowson, and those he recruited to work with him, did more than that. He re-fashioned and rebuilt a sense of a proper football “club.” This had been lacking for years at Ks, for historical reasons with which I’ll not bore you here, and is something more tangible and important to football at our level.
First, though, the football. Ks had a slide to halt and reverse when Dowse came to Ks in January 2007, arriving with a reputation for building solid teams in his own image as a tough left-back with Football League experience, mostly at Darlington in his native north-east. He got Ks’ near-neighbours Walton and Hersham into the Ryman Premier in 2005 on the back of 18 (EIGHTEEN) one-nil victories, although the few times I’d seen them – including a three-nil dismantling of upwardly-mobile AFC Wimbledon in the FA Cup later that year – suggested a more expansive outfit. And 15 goals from his first Ks signing, Bobby Traynor, pulled Ks away from the relegation mire into mid-table respectability by the time the season ended joyously with a 5-0 thumping of Burgess Hill Town. Dowson spent over a decade at Walton, as player and manager. And Traynor was one of a number of former Walton players to follow their boss across Surrey. This loyalty was often returned by Dowse to people he regarded as “good club men.” This resulted in some team selections which lacked fan-approval. But Ks almost certainly made a net gain out of this attitude.
In Dowse’s first full season, Ks were on the fringes of the play-off places, with a typical Dowson Ks team. Never as defensively reliable as he wished, often infuriatingly so, but with individual talents papering over any cracks – and admirable workrate from the “good club men.” Traynor top-scored again. Occasionally mercurial winger Dean Lodge could be worth the admission money on his own. And combative workaholic Simon Huckle flew the clubmen’s flag. The team moved up the table from 13th to 7th (although there were, and remained, many critics of the playing style of Dowson’s teams, regardless of results – at times they were criticised simultaneously for being both directionless and too direct). And fans were soon drawing arithmetical conclusions when Ks made a magnificent start to 2008/2009. They didn’t lose a league game until November. And they recovered from a post-Christmas slump with six wins on the spin when it mattered most, clinching the title with a game to spare.
Dowson had shored up the defence with the acquisitions of experienced defender Adam Thompson and local favourite (especially, ahem, with the ladies) Max Hustwick. But it was their ability to score at any time, regardless of the run of play, which stood them out from the Division One South crowd. The wisdom of Dowson’s loyalty policy was called into huge question when Ks began Premier Division life by shipping 19 (NINETEEN) goals in their first four league games…those 18 one-nil wins at Walton never seemed further away. But Dowse quickly dismantled and rebuilt. A 3-0 win at Hendon was the immediate response, to which my immediate response was “play-offs, then.” And, though I was joking at the time, play-offs it was.
They only scraped into them, having followed a memorable home win over local rivals Sutton United with two points from their next five games. There followed an even more memorable win AT Sutton in the play-off semis, with a wonder volley by Traynor the highlight of an awesome second-half display. But the final was memorable for grimmer reasons, as Boreham Wood won two-nil after one of their fans got on to the pitch in the second half with the score still nil-nil and thumped Ks centre-back Francis Duku. The next three seasons were a downward slope. Needing a win at Margate on 2010/11’s last day to make the play-offs again, Ks led three-nil shortly before the break, only for Gate to pull one back just before half-time and, backed by a strong wind, force a three-all draw.
The hangover from two seasons of narrow failure was ghastly. Ks looked relegation candidates after seven games of 2011/12, including a six-nil loss at Billericay which very clearly hurt the defence-proud Dowson. Again his remedial action, this time by good use of the loan system, was swift and effective. But the pressures of management were beginning to take their toll on his health, which forced him to temporarily step down from the job in November 2011. After his return, however, thoughts of a late run for the play-offs soon emerged – placed in one Non-League Paper match report by an over-zealous sub-editor (me). But Ks fell away. And mid-table…and the first meaningless end-of-season games for four years…was their lot, with a London Senior Cup final not even offering the scant consolation of a minor trophy after defeat to London Cup zealots Hendon.
Despite it all, in February 2013, Ks were firm play-off contenders again. A 9-3 (NINE-THREE) win over Cray Wanderers was followed by an hour’s fine football in the next home game against play-off rivals Canvey. But from being one-up, Ks lost two-one and after that they couldn’t beat a carpet. Mid-table was their lot with a London Senior Cup final not even offering the scant consolation of a minor trophy after defeat to Bromley. And Dowse hinted that he had just one more season as Ks boss in him. But he had another rebuild in him. The individual bright spark of 2012/13 had been striker Andre McCollin. He was given a willing and able strike partner in Ryan Moss. And with rhyming centre-backs Matt Drage and Sam Page underpinning a…well…Dowse-like defence for about the first time in his Kingsmeadow tenure, Ks were persistent play-off challengers.
Regular readers will know how Ks jointly won a titanic play-off race. And their eventual second place was their highest in the pyramid for a decade. However, home advantage in the play-off semi was no advantage. They played their best 45 minutes of the season in the first half against AFC Hornchurch but didn’t score. And there was an inevitability about the Urchins grabbing the game’s only goal. Dowson’s resignation ten days later, despite what he’d said twelve months previously, was a mini-surprise. His immediate post-match interview was all about “going again” with this new and relatively young team, which was the right perspective. And someone else will now have the opportunity to build on this. Ks reportedly had over 20 expressions of interest in the managerial vacancy before it was formally advertised – a clear sign that Dowse has left a team in fine shape.
Likewise off the pitch. Years of behind-the-scenes division and financial struggle took a heavy toll on club spirit. But Dowse, with considerable help from long-time assistant manager Mark Hams, assistant coach Martin Tyler and numerous other backroom people, led a revival in that too. From soccer schools to social functions, he devoted huge time and energies to giving Ks a good name. He was extremely approachable to the press too, as I can confirm from personal experience. In fact he, Hams-y and Tyler were an impressive trio, dealing with the equally impressively media-savvy fans who have run that side of Ks in recent years. The boy Tyler, in particular, has a media future, I’m sure…
Dowse may have represented the club in a bizarrely increasingly incomprehensible Geordie accent (after nearly two decades in Surrey for pity’s sake) – and a way of saying “excellent” that sounds very energy-sapping. But he is popular within the game, with a contacts book which benefited Ks in more than one time of player need. He was generous to opposition managers too – it was typical that he should find time to praise Hornchurch’s Jimmy McFarlane in his last post-match interview as Ks boss. And one particular cameo last season was indicative of the man. Ks home game with Leiston was called off as the Suffolk side were stuck in traffic caused by a motorway accident. With my NLP hat on, I asked Dowse if this sort of thing had happened to him before. But his main answer was: “I hope no-one was seriously hurt in the accident.” And this generosity of spirit enabled him to instil a club spirit which has brought the best out of a lot of good people.
It is said that management careers nearly always end in failure and/or the sack. Alex Ferguson’s didn’t, although his parting gift of David Moyes as manager turned out to be a borderline-sackable offence. And Alan Dowson’s, rightly, hasn’t. Instead, he can leave Kingstonian with immense pride in, and our heartfelt thanks for, a job very well done.
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