I’m a hypocrite. A rather large one, in fact. I have always taken an interest in non-league football, I have a non-league team that I follow and I will always fight the corner of football below the top four divisions, but when was the last time I went to game? Barring the FA Trophy Final, a show piece occasion which doesn’t embody the heart of non-league football, I haven’t been to a non-league fixture in what must be at least six years. The fact I’m struggling to give a definitive answer tells a story in itself; I don’t attend non-league games.
So when the opportunity arose to watch the non-league team that I follow, Dover Athletic, in action for the first time, at the home of my new local side Eastbourne Borough, my excitement was limited by dread. Eurgh, part time nobodies knocking the ball about on a cow field on a cold Tuesday night in front of 12 people with an average age of 83; not fun.
But, in a bid to rid myself of this horrible hypocritical trait I have, I thought I better practice what I preach and attend some non-league football over a night in front of my TV watching the Champions League. I also knew this could possibly be my only opportunity to see Dover, who I’ve grown attached to due to some Football Manager related exploits, play and I didn’t want to pass that up.
Even when my lecturer, apparently oblivious to how important it was for me to see the side who I won the Champions League with in the virtual world play in the real one, decided to reschedule a lecture to finish just 45 minutes from kick-off, I opted against using that as an excuse and made my way down to Langley Sports Club for the Conference South fixture.
It’s your traditional non-league ground; three standing areas, a seated main stand and the all-important tea hut. A very plush looking club house just outside the ground bolstered the facilities at Eastbourne’s disposal, but unfortunately my close to kick-off arrival time meant I couldn’t sample it from the inside.
A huddle of travelling fans had congregated behind one goal and I thought for a moment about joining them but, from fear of being an outsider and looking out of place, I opted to sit in the main stand on the halfway line. Just as the game was about to kick-off, a gentleman wearing a flat cap that wouldn’t look out of place on the head of the man this blog is named after sat by me. He too appeared to be an unaccompanied neutral.
The first ten minutes didn’t fill me with much optimism. To call the atmosphere flat would be an understatement and neither side could maintain possession in a very scrappy opening. Two excellent balls from Dover into the box from wide positions caused all manner of confusion in the Eastbourne defence, but the visitors couldn’t capitalise. Dover boss Chris Kinnear, standing just a few yards away from my vantage point, let out a cry of ‘do my strikers want to get into the box?’ in frustration. Thankfully for him, one of his wingers did.
A fabulous individual effort from Tom Murphy, cutting inside into the area from the wing and drilling the ball into the far bottom corner, gave Dover the lead after 13 minutes. It was the first real effort on goal of the game, and just what the previously lifeless affair needed. The contingent of travelling fans, who were now situated at the opposite end after the two sides switched halves of the pitch following the toss, celebrated passionately; I clapped once before realising I was surrounded by a bunch of elderly Eastbourne fans and thought better of it.
The 20 or so away fans were celebrating again just five minutes later as a cleared corner came back into the box and at the feet of Ricky Modeste, who poked the ball home at the second time of asking. His dancing celebration, something even Daniel Sturridge would have cringed at, took the shine off his goal.
Eastbourne were being torn apart at the back, and not helping themselves as they continued to rush clearances and lose possession, but they almost had a route back into the game as a delicious cross was put over the bar by Simon Johnson from close range. Johnson’s miss did little to calm the restless home fans; neither did Dover’s 25th minute third goal.
Barry Cogan’s corner was inviting, but it needn’t have been as the ball sailed straight into the net. Myself and the flat-capped gentleman turned to each other, sharing looks of disbelief at just how awful Eastbourne’s defending was and just how bizarre a goal we had both witnessed.
“Are you an Eastbourne fan?” He asked. I explained to him that I wasn’t, and that I was a newly moved in university student looking to take in some football who actually supports Charlton.
“My best mate manages them,” said the flat-capped gentleman in such a casual manner that it didn’t register with me. It wasn’t until he uttered the words “Chris Powell” in his next sentence that it finally occurred to me what he said.
“Powell is my hero, I absolutely love him,” I rather embarrassingly told him, which qualified me for a ‘good lad’ from the gentleman. Silence fell upon us for about 2 minutes whilst he went through his phone, before presenting it to me with the screen showing Chris Powell’s name and his mobile number, just to prove that he wasn’t “bullshitting me”. The names Kenny Dalglish and David Moyes were also shown to me. It didn’t occur to me to ask what the gentleman’s name was.
Eastbourne continued to find the going tough, and my neighbour explained to me that this game was ‘men against boys’ in terms of both players on the pitch and money in the bank. A brief guide from him on the non-league scene’s finances suggested he knew his stuff. Feel free to make your own mind as to who he was, as I didn’t speak to him after that.
Meanwhile, there was a game still going on, and a deflected shot from an Eastbourne player looped up and onto the top of the bar just before half-time. It seemed to be one of those nights where absolutely nothing goes right from an Eastbourne perspective.
That idea was made fact just after half time as Dover ‘keeper Mitch Walker pulled off an incredible reaction save from an Eastbourne header. Not quite Banks Vs Pele, but certainly a stop the best of ‘keepers would have appreciated.
But, despite Eastbourne’s chances, it was apparent Dover were a class above. The experienced Terrell Forbes was dominating at the back, full back and captain Craig Stone let few past him and was very composed on the ball, whilst Barry Cogan kept things ticking in the centre of midfield. His run into the box with 67 minutes played saw a loose leg send him crashing to the ground and leave the referee with no choice but to point to the spot. Cogan dusted himself down and coolly finished beyond Borough ‘keeper Craig Ross for his second and Dover’s fourth of the night.
Former Charlton youngster Liam Bellamy came off the bench for Dover with 20 minutes or so to play, but I’m afraid I can’t say I saw anything that made me think we made a mistake in letting him go. Also coming on was pineapple on his head striker Elliott Charles, whose introduction produced a chant of ‘if Elliott scores, we’re on the pitch’ from the Dover fans. Images of Bradley Pritchard with rather large dreadlocks brought a smirk to my face.
Both sides exchanged chances in the final 15 minutes, with an Eastbourne free-kick forcing another super stop from Walker, whilst Ross saved one-on-one to avert a pitch invasion after Charles broke through. Another save from Walker, this time from point blank range with his shins preventing an Eastbourne consolation goal after a corner, and an incredible block from Tom Wynter from the follow up effort were the final chances of the game. An exciting game that impressed me after my prior concerns, although not much of a contest in which Dover were comfortably victorious.
Whilst I left feeling rather frustrated that Eastbourne had done little to convince me that I should be parting with my meagre student budget to watch them whenever Charlton weren’t playing, I was also pleasantly surprised by just how efficient and exciting Dover were. The stand outs for me were winger Murphy, who not only had pace and strength put an excellent delivery, full backs Stone and Wynter, who kept popping up everywhere, and Cogan, who did much more than simply score a brace. I can leave this earth happy knowing I’ve seen my virtual team of choice in the flesh.
I will no doubt be giving Eastbourne Borough another go; everything but their performance on the pitch impressed me. And if I’m not attending for the game, it will be to hunt down the flat-capped gentleman.