West Leigh Park, Havant
When the fixtures were published in the summer this one, four weeks in, felt like it was going to be important both as a challenge and as a marker of how far we’d come following last season’s disappointments.
Dover have been widely tipped as this season’s Conference South champions for three reasons. Firstly, they have the respected former Gillingham gaffer Andy Hessenthaler in the dug-out. Secondly, they won the Ryman League last year, virtually by Christmas. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, theys got sponds, and lots of ‘em.
A few quid in the tin goes a long way in the Conference South, as the likes of Weymouth, Lewes and Salisbury have shown. However, once the quids is gone, you’re f*cked. As Weymouth, Lewes and Salis…, oh well, you see what I’m getting at. I just hope we’re being as frugal with our well-gotten gains as it appears from the outside.
Keeping on a vaguely business-head theme, then I’d say over the 90 minutes of this game with Dover then we got the best from the resources at our disposal. We had to make our assets work for us, and they did, putting in a spirited attacking performance in the first half and putting heart and soul into the second half defensive effort.
For us it was a tale of two penalties. Two not very good penalties, both taken by Manny Williams, who can score astonishing goals but appears to struggle when removed from the cut and thrust of defensive attention. Perhaps it was the weight of the Conference South Player of the Month gong around his neck.
Now Manny might be a much more instinctive goal scorer than Luke Nightingale, yet Luke took astonishingly good penalties, slotting them into the top corner well out of reach. However Luke is being kept out of the side by the more prolific boots that we’ve bought in during the summer.
Still, for all the criticism, both penalty kicks, by hook or by crook, led to goal fun. The first pen, in the fourth minute, was saved easily by Dover keeper Lee Hook, but the ball spun invitingly into Manny’s follow-through and he managed to tuck the ball in before Hook made it back across. Then, with six minutes of half left, Wes Fogden was felled in the box and Manny took responsibility again.
Behind the goal, we had to hope that he had learnt from his first attempt. If he did, he hadn’t learned much. Yet whilst it might not have been great, it was good enough, the ball bending Hook’s fingers back like a thirsty beer-gut crashing through a saloon door.
Having already taken a talking to earlier in proceedings, the second penalty saw the departure of an incensed Hessenthaler from the dug out. At the best of times he looks like a man who’s just finished a tour of provincial theatres in a production of ‘Gremlins 2: The Musical’ and forgotten to take his make-up off, so this merely added a few more lines to his prematurely well-creased mush.
Despite all these deficits, the Dover support sang throughout and were a great credit to themselves and their club. They even made a drum sound good which, ordinarily, is never the case, particularly in non-league grounds. Perhaps it was merely the fact they thought to bring along someone who actually knows how to play it. Not many clubs with travelling percussion show the same courtesy. We can just about stomach them when they’re played more like early Adam & The Ants, and less like a bored kid repeatedly kicking a bin.
Like I say, in the second period, we didn’t have things our own way nearly as much as we did in the first, as a no-doubt apoplectic Hessenthaler sent his team back onto a field he himself was no longer allowed to step onto with a motivational rant worthy of Buddy Rich. Yet, we still played good stuff, and dug in when necessary.
There was one error punished, but largely our unfeasibly youthful central defensive partnership of Ryan Woodford and Sam Pearce were terrific, as they have been all season, despite being third and fourth choice on paper. Aaron Howe also made a couple of wonderful stops and vital punches when called upon, he also has grown quickly into being a very reliable custodian.
However it was another young player that should really take the man of t’match plaudits for us today, with Steven Walker rolling forward the years to put in a mature and vital shift in midfield, almost scoring an audacious lobbed shot late in the second half.
Yet, for all the enthusing for the young ‘uns, it was a whole team effort, particularly in a hairy last few minutes when Dover pressed for an equaliser and our team took to throwing themselves in front of the ball like bodyguards in front of bullets. Indeed, but for Wes Fogden trapping the ball in his belly button on the line, two minutes into injury time, only a point would have been ours.
So, a very good performance, and a big, big home win – at last something for this season’s inflated home attendances to feast on, after all the victories on the road in front of the already converted. The early pace-setters have been vanquished and yet, due to a quirk of goals being scored in other games, we have managed to do that rarest of things and win a game yet go down a place in the league.
Still, we remain with the chasing, heel-nibbling peloton. However at this exact same point last season, I determined that we were “ideally placed…as a stalking horse” in 7th after a big win over the favourites (Tickle Me Chelmo), so I’ll keep the eager pronouncements to a bare minimum, except maybe for this – let the good times continue to roll!
This posting also appears on ' Bin Man 87', one of the many blogs on the Conference South Guide site.