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.