It’s not the richest and it’s not the most watched, but there’s certainly an argument to be made for the Conference North/South play-off finals being as important as any other game in England’s league structure.
The gap between the sixth and the fifth tier is as big as they come. The Conference is littered with former established league clubs and professional outfits, whilst the North and South are largely full of semi-professional sides. For the winner in the Conference South play-off final between Ebbsfleet United and Dover Athleitc, there would be Bristol Rovers, Wrexham and Grimsby; for the loser, there would be Basingstoke, Wealdstone and Concord Rangers. An all or nothing scenario if ever there was one.
With that in mind, you could understand the nerves around Stonebridge Road before kick-off, especially from those of an Ebbsfleet persuasion. The Fleet were widely seen as the favourites; their 4th placed finish was something of an underachievement considering the finances available to them. In fact, the Kent club have helped themselves to a number of men previously at Dover, including last season’s top scorer Ben May, the enemy of Dover fans Billy Bricknell and Fleet manager Steve Brown, previously assistant boss at the Crabble.
“You’re only here for the money,” sung the vocal travelling supporters in the direction of their former players as they warmed up. They would have been just as nervous as those in the home ends, especially after they lost the play-off final to Salisbury last season, but Dover were fortunate to be here. Whereas Fleet have been in the top five for much of the campaign, the Whites sneaked in on a dramatic final day with a win over Hayes and Yeading and results elsewhere going their way.
But picking a clear cut favourite appeared risky; both sides, Ebbsfleet with a win over Bromley and Dover hammering Sutton 4-1 despite playing with ten men for much of the second leg, had compressively beaten opposition in the semi-finals they were expected to lose to.
And so, although mixed with caution and fear, there was some optimism. At the very worst, there was hope. For Ebbsfleet, it was the theory that their XI was better on paper, for Dover, their away record was credible, they’d beaten Ebbsfleet before at Stonebridge Road this season and lucky underwear was being worn by most.
There was also hope the forecasters would be wrong and a rain storm wouldn’t make the afternoon slightly uncomfortable for those in the uncovered away end; myself amongst them. But all was well as the game kicked off in dry if not summery conditions in front of a large crowd; the Liam Daish Stand barely able to cope with the demand for space.
An early chance fell the way of Dover’s Ricky Modeste, but he dragged his shot wide from distance, whilst Daryl McMahon, another former Dover player, fired a tame effort at visiting ‘keeper Mitch Walker as the contest got underway to the tense start you would expect in these sort of occasions.
Bricknell, heavily booed and heckled by his former supporters, headed over from a corner for Ebbslfeet and McMahon lashed a free-kick from distance comfortably over the bar, but this was a half lacking openings and quality. There was as many chances five minutes either side of a stoppage in play whilst Ebbsfleet ‘keeper Preston Edwards received treatment for a head injury as there were during the delay.
In fact, the highlights in the opening period were somewhat disconnected from on the pitch matters. A thunderous clearance from defender Richard Orlu, dominant throughout, damaged Stonebridge Road’s guttering, two passionate sets of supporters were intent on making an atmosphere and Bricknell warmed himself further to the hearts of Dover fans by sending an offensive gesture their way.
At least, minus the shortest of showers, the rain had stayed away.
But, as Walker did well to cling onto a rare shot, deflected on its route to goal, the weather gods decided this dire half of football wasn’t enough punishment for the hardy souls open to the elements in the away end.
This was rain of biblical proportions; noteworthy events might well have taken place in the closing stages of the first half but my contact lenses didn’t take too kindly to the intake of rain water.
The weather calmed down in the final few minutes of six added on at the end of the half, in time for an Ebbsfleet corner be headed just over the bar by May, to the delight of the drenched supporters behind the goal.
There was a smattering of applause for the players as they headed off the pitch, but most were too busy drying off or praising a higher power for finally bringing the first half to a close to worry about showing their appreciation to any player. The assessment from young fan near me, ‘terrible’, summed it up perfectly, whilst another supporter helpfully pointed out that ‘this isn’t the best advert for non-league football’.
Whilst that was true in one sense, the sense that I’d just stood through the worst 45 minutes of football I’ve seen since the first half of Charlton Vs Reading at The Valley, it was wide of the mark to some extent. The energetic support from both ends, irrespective of the game and the weather, was a perfect showing of just how much these sorts of clubs and these sorts of games mean to the fans. Greg Dyke would want you to believe otherwise, but football at this level is far from irrelevant and certainly doesn’t need tampering with.
Now what was needed was some reward for the resilient and brilliant support; an upturn in the game’s quality and a Dover goal wouldn’t have gone amiss down my end.
Thankfully, the second period got off to a bright start, both on the bitch and in the skies. Dover now looked more composed on the ball and found a way through just three minutes in. The impressive Tom Wynter, who got better and better as the game went on, delivered a stunning cross that somehow evaded the clutches of Edwards and the outstretched foot of Modeste.
Although in what had been a game of few chances, some may have viewed that missed opportunity as costly, there was a sense that Dover were intent on being a stronger forward force in the second period, and they had another chance five minutes later.
The lively Modeste shrugged off his man and broke free on goal with minimal effort, but, regardless of the away fans’ expectant gasps, the angle was always going to be too tight to finish from. The legs of Edwards blocked away the low strike.
The Dover fans were now well up for this, even those who were quiet previously were raising their voice and applauding their side. One of those raised voices exclaimed that Dover’s following corner looked ‘a good one’ as it hung in the air. Nathan Elder proved the supporter right, rising highest and powerfully heading beyond Edwards to give his side the lead against his former employers. Cue Carnage. There might not have been that many of them, but these supporters were celebrating Elder’s goal like the decisive strike in a Championship play-off final.
However, this was far from decisive; 35 minutes remained for Dover to hang onto their slender advantage.
But Dover, buoyed by the goal and their vocal support, weren’t intending on sitting on their single goal lead. They now looked much the better side, and Raggett’s header wasn’t too far away from doubling their lead, floating just wide.
There was almost an expectancy that the Whites would add a second, especially when Wynter combined with Moses Ademola, setting the latter free. But the forward’s shot was blocked well by Edwards, a former Millwall ‘keeper, and the resulting goalmouth scramble failed to turn the ball home.
But, especially with chances going to waste, Ebbsfleet were far from out of the tie. In fact, one side of the ground thought the hosts had equalised when Alex Osborn was picked out at the far post, but his fiercely stuck effort had only found the side netting.
With Fleet now pressing forward and Dover looking less than invincible, the nerves in the away end were clear to see, and feel. There was just over ten minutes left when Walker pulled of a stunning save from May’s deflected strike; it may have kept the lead intact but it did little to ease the nerves.
But Dover, led by Orlu’s aerial ability and Wynter’s, well, ability, were standing firm at the back. Fleet flung several balls into the box and attempted a handful of breaks forward, but the Whites weren’t keen on giving up their lead.
With the game in stoppage time and Dover’s support breaking into a chant of ‘we are going up’, Fleet were awarded a late corner. Heads were in hands and fingernails were being bitten, and that was just me, as Edwards raced forward to join the attack but, at the third attempt, Dover dealt with the danger.
In fact, with Edwards still forward, Ademola had the chance to round off Dover’s victory. Instead he rather embarrassingly curled his effort away from goal by some margin, giving Edwards a momentary reprieve. But it counted for little as the final-whistle blew soon after. A final-whistle that was met with wild celebrations from both supporters and players; arguably players more so. I can’t imagine the fans and players of Stoke B celebrating with such passion.
Nor would they have hung around for the trophy presentation, which took an age to finally happen whilst the rain, heavier than before, returned. But, despite the rain and the wait, the celebrations remained almost as passionate as they were in the seconds after the final whistle. “If you’re all going to Wrexham clap your hands,” they sang.
And Dover had earned their right to visit North Wales next season. It was a second half dramatically better than the first, and Dover’s performance, especially the character shown to determinedly hang onto the lead, was impressive.
It was arguably a reward for the supporters, who were excellent all afternoon. With one final cheer as the trophy was lifted by captain Craig Stone, they were off to find a towel or two, and then celebrate promotion properly. Achieving promotion to the conference is, after all, an A* achievement for Dover. Not a B in sight, and nor should there be when the current league structure produces this sort of passion and somewhat irrational love.