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Excellent Dover Increase Hopes of Downing Eagles

Few things would please Charlton fans more than Alan Pardew’s first game in charge of Crystal Palace ending in an embarrassing FA Cup defeat to lower league opposition.

And on the basis of today’s showing from their opposition, it’s not an impossibility that the Eagles will crash out of the cup.

For Dover Athletic, the non-league club I have something of a soft spot for, were excellent in their 2-0 win over Welling United at Park View Road.

Of course, even with the home advantage the Whites will have when they welcome Palace on Sunday, beating a very poor Welling and overcoming Premier League opposition are two completely different things.

And the performance itself, however good, isn’t enough to give a real indication that Dover may well have it in them to cause an upset.

It’s more the fact that Chris Kinnear’s side are playing with confidence and self-belief; the sort needed to put in a once in a lifetime performance and beat a club operating four divisions higher.

The two goal victory means it’s now a staggering 16 games unbeaten for the Whites; a run made all the more impressive considering they were tipped for an immediate return to the Conference South having achieved a somewhat unlikely promotion through the play-offs last season.

Unlike some clubs who are promoted to the Conference, their rise has not been supported by a wealthy backer. In fact, some of their better players left the club before last season to join former assistant boss Steve Brown at Ebbsfleet; Dover unable to compete with the finances they have available.

And that relative lack of funds is part of the reason they were expected to struggle in England’s fifth tier. While Eastleigh, promoted alongside Dover, can attract James Counstable, the Whites’ summer additions were less glamorous. Players let go by other non-league clubs made up the majority of their signings, and make up the majority of their squad in general.

But the win at Park View Road has moved Dover 17 points clear of the bottom three, and only four behind fifth place Eastleigh. With relegation now unlikely, an extension of this unbeaten run will start to make supporters believe a challenge for a play-off place isn’t completely out of the question. Nonetheless, all but securing their Conference status in January is a huge success in itself.

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I wouldn’t have expected to be able to say that after the last time I had the opportunity to watch the side who are effectively my second club in action. Their FA Cup run began at Eastbourne Borough, and it was gruesome.

Defensively, Dover were sound. Eastbourne unable to break down a solid back four. But going forward, there was absolutely nothing. It made Charlton look like a potent attacking force.

With no composure in midfield, the passing erratic and a final delivery non-existent, not that a good delivery would have made a difference with dubiously labelled forward Jake Reid outrageously bad, a goalless draw followed.

And although Dover progressed through the replay, I still feared for them. They looked like not only a side without the calmness in possession, pace and penetration to score goals, but also one that lacked confidence. You could predict from the opening 20 minutes or so at Eastbourne no goals would be scored.

So even with the knowledge of their recent results in mind, which actually include a few victories thrown away late on, and the tameness of Welling, I was still shocked by just how well Dover played, and by how confident they appeared.

A part of it came from a change in personnel. The ineffective lump Reid replaced by Stefan Payne, a pacey and hardworking forward who is perfect for Dover’s sometimes direct football, while Barry Cogan, who only made a sub appearance at Eastbourne, provided a calmness in midfield.

But there was a clear change in attitude, and a change in style.

Against Eastbourne it was less long ball football, more random punts forward in order to bypass a woeful midfield. In the first half against Welling, you could almost accuse Dover of overplaying at times.

For the Whites, completely dominating the central battle, often found themselves comfortably in control of possession in the final third, but opted to look for another pass when a delivery into the box might have been more appropriate.

In fact, Dover’s best chances came when the ball was sent forward early. Payne running onto a long ball and just shooting over the bar, before the forward turned provider, crossing for Cogan to head wide.

Nonetheless, it was fantastic to see the visitors playing so well. Nicky Deverdics and Tom Murphy, who ran forward with intent whenever the ball was played to him, among the constant bright sparks for Dover.

So when the two sides went in at the break level, it was somewhat difficult to know how Dover hadn’t managed to turn their possession into a goal or two. Wondering how they hadn’t scored a complete contrast from wondering how they were going to score at half-time in the Eastbourne match.

In the first 15 minutes of the second-half, it was a similar story. Dover playing superbly, the midfield dominating and the occasional opening being created, but still the crucial goal proved elusive.

A side without confidence may have grown frustrated, but the Whites continued to play. In search of that goal, the ball was put into the box more quickly, resulting in a half-chance or two, but they still knocked the ball around with authority.

And finally, just past the hour mark, Dover got the goal their performance deserved. A corner turned in emphatically from Sean Raggett giving the Whites, given Welling’s lack of threat, a lead that would result in victory.

But Dover still had work to do. Part of Welling’s lack of threat was owing to how strong the backline they were up against was. Four strong, old fashioned defenders that, led by centre-back Richard Orlu, operate right on the border of fair play.

On the one occasion Orlu, who Dover fans dream of a team of, was beaten, Kieron St Aimie’s shot was superbly blocked by Tom Bonner. Such strength, determination and application at the back will be what gives Dover their best chance of beating Palace.

This game, however, was soon wrapped up. A half-cleared corner fell to Cogan, whose well-struck effort crept in off the post.

Dover continued to press forward in the closing stages, and four or five wouldn’t have flattered them, but the Whites had to settle for just the two goals. For this outsider, the performance, style of play and confidence shown as important as the result.

That especially true with Palace just around the corner. The Dover fans sung ‘bring on the Palace’ towards the end of the game, and you can see why they are heading into Sunday’s game without trepidation.

You would imagine the players feel similar. They looked to be playing with enjoyment, and won’t fear the Premier League quality Palace, apparently, have.

I’m certainly not predicting a Dover victory, and the most likely outcome remains a comfortable Palace victory. But, in such form, you wouldn’t put it beyond the Whites to make Pardew suffer.

At the very least, playing with such strength at the back and the self-belief to be potent in attack will mean the former Charlton boss will have to work for a win.

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