‘I can leave this earth happy knowing I’ve seen my virtual team of choice in the flesh’ was my defeatist conclusion to the end of my previous blog piece. I had seen Dover Athletic, a club that I had grown fond to after leading them to Champions League glory on Football Manager, beat Eastbourne Borough, the side that will be my local club whilst I study at the University of Brighton, by four goals to nil just four days ago. It was wonderful to have the chance to see them play, but I presumed that would be that. Travelling to a Dover home game wouldn’t be practical or affordable and Charlton would no doubt take priority anyway.
But with Charlton not playing until Sunday, Eastbourne away and the prospect of a full day staring at a TV screen, I looked for a League game to attend on Saturday. Brighton weren’t playing until Monday, Crawley, the next closest league team, were away and I didn’t particularly fancy going into London two days in a row.
My search for football took me onto the long list of FA Cup 4th Qualifying Round fixtures. I quick browse didn’t show any local sides at home, but one club down to play at home did leap out at me. Dover were playing Oxford City at The Crabble Athletic Ground; there couldn’t be any harm in investigating how plausible a trip could be.
Reasonably priced train tickets, not a totally ridiculous travel time and cheap admission prices; I couldn’t say no.
Almost definitely without any legitimate reason to be, I was incredibly excited from Thursday onwards after making the decision to go. I had wanted to attend the home of the club I managed so successfully for some time, but I didn’t expect a realistic chance to pop up. Don’t worry, I know I’m mad and I know you’re thinking it.
However, my excitement turned to panic and frustration with 30 minutes until kick-off as my map app sent me around in a circle that at no point crossed with the Crabble; it turns out non-league grounds aren’t always signposted. Thankfully a caught the sight of man with a Dover emblem on his hat and found my way to the ground with ten minutes to spare.
The 25,000 all-seater stadium that existed in the virtual world was a world away from the real life Crabble, but it was certainly impressive for a non-league arena. Two electronic scoreboards and a lovely clubhouse complemented two seated stands, including one that ran along the length of the pitch and housed executive boxes, and two large terraces behind the goal. My only complaint was the Kenilworth Road challenging amount of pillars, which obstructed the view of the action from whatever stand based vantage point was taken.
But, with Dover’s most passionate fans occupying the terrace opposite the one I opted for, there was plenty of space for me to move side to side around the thick steel pole that made viewing the bottom right side of the pitch difficult. I had to do a lot of that in the opening minutes of the first half as Oxford started brightly and Dover, lacking the sharpness they showed on Tuesday night, struggled to get out of their half.
The away side had the first real chance of the game with five minutes gone as a ball into the box skipped off heads in the middle and came through to striker Jamie Cook at the far post, but Whites ‘keeper Mitch Walker rushed off his line and blocked Cook’s effort.
By this time, a small cohort of Oxford City fans, who had arrived late, were making a racket at the front of the stand. They sung continuously throughout the first half whilst barely repeating a chant. “You’re just a small town in Calais” became “You’re just a gateway to Poland”, which brought about a mixture of tuts and smirks.
But the Oxford fans should have had reason to cheer and celebrate 15 minutes in. Another excellent ball into the box caused havoc in the middle and came through to Cook, but he could only head against the bar when it looked easier to score and Dover cleared.
That proved to be exactly the wake-up call the home side needed as they quickly began to dominate. James Rodgers drilled a shot from a tight angle across the face of goal, but it skipped just wide with no Dover player able to divert the ball goalwards.
In their next attack, Dover took the lead in bizarre fashion with 24minutes played. Nathan Elder’s header looped over Oxford ‘keeper Victor Francoz but it didn’t seem to have enough pace on it to cross the line. Thankfully for the home supporters behind the goal their side were attacking, an Oxford defender, in attempting to clear the ball, rather forcefully helped it into the net. After opting to sit quiet when surrounded by Eastbourne supporters on Tuesday night, this was the first Dover goal I had celebrated; a small cheer and a prolonged clap along with the rest of the home fans around me would have to do.
Dover looked to have doubled their lead five minutes later, but Elder’s header was disallowed for offside after Tom Murphy’s half volley and dipped and hit the post. Another dipping effort, this time from Barry Cogan’s free-kick, brought the best out of ‘keeper Francoz as he dived full stretch to tip the ball away from goal.
Three corners in succession for the home side couldn’t be capitalised on, but Cogan was given another presentable free-kick opportunity in a similar position to his first. This time he opted to lash the ball into the far corner and a motionless Francoz could only watch as it flew past him and into the net to give Dover a 37th minute second.
The lively Ricky Modeste was forced off through injury just before halftime, giving me the chance to have a 45 minute look at former Charlton youngster Liam Bellamy. Whilst Modeste was down, a few of the more elderly spectators around me began to move, with one stating “they’ll all be coming down here second half”. I opted to stay put and a steady stream of shirt wearing Dover fans began to surround me over the interval.
Just before the second half was about to get underway, the drummer came and stood in front of me to complete what was now a rammed terrace; quite a contrast from the relatively peaceful surroundings and atmosphere created by the Oxford fans in the first half . I was quite looking forward to this.
But I found myself feeling quite a strange emotion of guilt. Here were all these absolutely bonkers Dover fans, who didn’t stop singing for the entire half, spent a lot of time literally bouncing off each other and even took their shoes off in support at one stage, and I was invading their habitat. All of them could probably be found at The Crabble every other weekend and most of them had probably supported Dover for quite some time; I’d picked them at random on a video game. I found it quite difficult to join in with the chants, despite one of the most passionate fans grabbing my wrist and telling me to do so.
Meanwhile, there was a game going on. A free-kick on the hour from Oxford crashed against the crossbar, but Dover were in firm control of the tie. With 15 minutes to play, Cogan’s free-kick from out wide caused confusion in the box as Francoz tried to desperately to keep the ball out, but it eventually fell at the feet of Sean Raggett. With his back to goal, the defender improvised at backheeled the ball over the line. Cue incredible celebrations from the Dover fans in front of me; I managed to join in with those.
Dover saw the game out and the match finished 3-0 with the Whites progressing to the first round proper of the famous cup competition. The players came over, lead by captain Craig Stone, to applaud their supporters and you could tell just how much getting through the qualifying stages of the FA Cup meant to everyone at the club. A fantastic achievement and, hopefully, an exciting tie against a Football League club is in store.
Once again I was impressed by the way Dover went about things. Given the stigmatism non-league football has, they play quite an attractive brand of football, with the first option always to attempt to find a winger. Modeste and Murphy were excellent, whilst Bellamy did a decent job after coming on. But there’s quality all over the pitch, and every played in a white shirt would have been happy with their performance come the full-time whistle. That’s not to say Cogan’s man of the match wasn’t deserved; he was superb and his set pieces caused havoc time and time again.
But my abiding memory of my first trip to Dover will be just how passionate the fans were. Some of that passion was drunken stupidity, but the vast majority of it was real love towards their club, not just people looking for something to do on an afternoon or, erm, a quirky affiliation. It’s strange observing that when I’m used to participating in it during Charlton games. It’s wonderful what football supporting does to people, even at non-league level.