I CAUGHT up with former Dover defender Mark Harrop on the evening of his 12th wedding anniversary.
"You get less than that for murder," his wife, Sarah, called out in the background as we settled down for lengthy reminiscing over Mark’s long football career which saw him finish playing under Jim Ward at Ramsgate at the age of 39.
"She's not sporty at all," said Mark of Sarah.
"She'd never been to a football match," said Mark. "When I took her to Gravesend (the club that Mark moved to in the summer of 1993 at the end of his time at Dover Athletic), we were playing Leyton Orient in the FA Cup. There were 4,000 people there.
"Then she came to the next match the following Tuesday and there were about 200 people in the ground," he said with a laugh “and she wanted to know where everybody was."
It was clear to me throughout the interview that Mark had enjoyed just about every moment of his football career.
The hour, or so, of our conversation was laced with anecdotes of his time in the game that were punctuated by an infectious laughter that was always hovering just below the surface.
"I started playing football at Canterbury City," he said. "My Dad was manager and I was 14 years old. It was a one-off game."
By the age of 15 he was playing at Ramsgate in the Kent League and by 16 he was with Margate, under manager Terry Morris, playing in the Southern League.
"I was busy at Ramsgate," he laughed. "I was playing school rugby in the morning and football in the afternoon. The school wouldn't let me off the rugby games."
Mark joined Dover Athletic as the new club was formed in 1983.
"It was before Chris Kinnear arrived," he said. "Alan Jones was manager."
And as several other players have said, in different contexts, a change of manager proved to be the catalyst for a corresponding change of direction in Mark's career.
"Steve McRae arrived and I went to Canterbury," said Mark.
John was accused of making an illegal approach for me. He told me later that I was only player who ever got Dover into trouble
It was Steve McRae's unorthodox training methods that sent Mark back to Canterbury City for one season before making the return trip to Crabble at the determined invitation of the then Dover chairman, John Husk.
"John 'phoned me'," said Mark still with the insistent chuckle hovering behind his story, "and he said that he really wanted me back."
Exploding with laughter, Mark said: "John was accused of making an illegal approach for me. He told me later that I was only player who ever got Dover into trouble."
It was, in the end, John Husk's approach that persuaded Mark to re-sign for Dover Athletic, quite unaware that before the week was out there would be a new face in the manager's office.
"Chris Kinnear was the best thing that ever happened to Dover Athletic," said Mark. "The club would never have got to where it got to without him."
And with more than a hint of conviction in his voice Mark said: "He was a winner."
Mark agreed with the assessments of other former players, including Tim Dixon and Jason Bartlett, that Kinnear had a gift for attracting quality players that he could mould together into a mutually supportive squad.
"He built from the bottom," said Mark, "and he built teams that he knew would play together for a few years.
"Look at Jim Ward at Ramsgate," said Mark. "His team won the Kent League and he kept them together.
"If you're good enough to win one league, you're good enough to finish halfway up the next one," he said.
And we trotted off the names of clubs like Ramsgate, Cray Wanderers and Maidstone United as examples of what can be done with a loyal and consistent approach to team building.
Mark believes that newly-promoted Whitstable are likely to make an impact next season on the Ryman League Division One South for the same reasons.
"You've got to have players around you who want to go up," he said. "Young local players are much more likely to stick around and play hard for the club because it's their local club. They will have a loyalty that other players who might just be there for an easy life and for the money won't have."
Of the successful Ramsgate side under Jim Ward he said: "Seven or eight of the players were young and they lived in Thanet.
"It's less about money at this level," he continued and he agreed with my suggestion that a successful manager has got to find players who, primarily, want to play, with pride, for the shirt.
"Dover Athletic shouldn't be in the Ryman League," he said with passion creeping into his voice that, for the first time, replaced the insistent chuckle.
"They should walk this league with the set-up they've got," he said agreeing that everything at Crabble screamed for a return, and quickly, to Conference status.
"When I joined in 1983," he said, "we didn't expect success. We certainly didn't expect the success we achieved in the way that we achieved it.”
The old cliché that "football is a funny game" took on a more profound meaning with the arrival of Kinnear at Crabble.
"I didn't play in Chris's first game in charge," Mark told me.
"I'd been a midfielder up to then," he said, "and Chris asked me if I fancied playing right back.
"I didn't care where I played," said Mark and, in an echo of Barry Little's determined comment on the same line, said: "I just wanted to be on the pitch playing.
"I started at Dover with players like Bert Davis," said Mark.
"Bert was a great bloke," he continued. "He had tremendous loyalty. Bert epitomized everything that was good about that Dover Athletic set-up.
"There was one year," said Mark. "I think it was the year we won the Southern League Premier Division for the first time, that eight players played 40 games. Bert Davis played 34 games as sub.
"I should be starting!" Bert kept insisting to Kinnear.
You don't normally associate club chairmen with kindness but John and Alan (Husk) were very kind
And I remembered Bert playing superbly at the back for a Whyteleafe side that had been taken apart by David Leworthy in the FA Cup in the 1990s almost begging, in the club bar after the match, to be allowed to return to Dover.
It was clear, throughout the interview, that although it is now 14 years since Mark left Dover Athletic's playing staff, his memories of his time at the club are still very strong.
He is clearly proud of his time as a player and of what his Dover Athletic side achieved and in this he is not alone.
I have not yet spoken to any former player from those years who has been, in any sense, reluctant to talk about his involvement with the club, who hasn't expressed the greatest admiration for Kinnear's management skills and for the distinctly human touch shown by the board of directors in general and by John and Alan Husk in particular.
"You don't normally associate club chairmen with kindness," said Mark, "but John and Alan were very kind. They cared about people and they made sure we knew it.
"It was unusual for a Kinnear side to lose," said Mark. "He gave us a winning mentality.
"There are several matches in particular that I remember," he went on.
"We went to Waterlooville the year we won the Southern League Southern Division. It was like the Alamo," he said. "It was the last game of the 1987-88 season and we fought out a 0-0 draw."
He followed up with Alvechurch in 1990.
"There were hundreds of Dover people there," he said. "We hadn't lost for ages and Alvechurch were bottom of the league.
"They scored after two minutes and we wondered what was going on. How dare they do this to us, we thought! And we turned it around to win 6-1.
"I don't drink," he said with another infectious chuckle, "but there was a long pub-crawl home. I think we went back to Dover by way of Coventry.
"I was injured," he said, "for that brilliant night against Bromsgrove Rovers at Crabble (in the early 1990s, with a crowd of more than 4,000 in the
ground and both clubs fighting for Conference status).
Tim Dixon, Mark Harrop and Leroy Ambrose training at Crabble in 1990
"The crowd was fantastic. I don't think Crabble's ever seen anything like it but it was, also, a great game of football," he said of the night on which fire-crackers illuminated the ground and the half-time transfer of fans from end to end was a logistical nightmare.
"I'd been in goal in the first match at Bromsgrove," he remembered. "Mo Munden broke his leg after about 10 or 15 minutes.
"We had a great defence," he went on. "There was Tony Dixon and Tony MacDonald in there. I think I had three saves to make. We won 2-1. It was an immaculate goalkeeping performance," he joked with another great laugh.
"Chris took me aside when we were promoted to the Conference," he said, "and told me that Gravesend had made an offer.
"Chris told me that I was unlikely to figure in the Conference team and he didn't want to think of me hanging around and not getting games," said Mark.
"He also said that there was no pressure," he continued. "I didn't have to go if I didn't want to."
But Mark, still wanting to be actively involved with a club that was keen to secure his services, joined a Gravesend and Northfleet side that was, itself, in mid recovery from a lengthy period of decline.
"I had three good years there," said Mark, "but my first love has always been Dover Athletic.
"I played more than 400 games at Crabble," he told me, proudly "with a side that achieved great things.
"The club will find it hard to repeat that success in the way that we achieved it," he said. "It was a really special time.
"That club is still a credit to John and Alan Husk," he insisted. "They were totally honest in everything they did and they were always honest with us.
"When I left Dover," Mark said, "John Husk wrote to me thanking me for everything I'd done for the club.
"I still see him from time to time at my golf club. He always speaks to me and says hello."
His stories, like the one of the club coach breaking down and the director's wife being left stranded while another Dover coach, that seemed to appear miraculously out of the evening mist, carried them home, always brought a burst of laughter with a keen memory that made it obvious he was re-living everything he said.
"After Gravesend I had three years at Margate," he said.
"We won the Southern League Cup and then I went to Ramsgate. We won the Kent League that year but then, suddenly, I stopped enjoying it," he said almost with a hint of regret.
And my strong impression was that the regret was not about the end of his playing career particularly but that a phase of his life that had, clearly, given him huge enjoyment, was over.
"I was 39-years old," he said and we agreed that he'd done well to keep going to that age.
Mark went to Hartsdown Park to manage Margate Reserves after leaving Ramsgate.
"There was me and two others at the first training session," he said.
Margate were in the Conference at the time and the reserves were playing in Kent League Division Two.
"The gap was too great," he said "and, after a couple of years, they got rid of the reserves and I went back to coach at Ramsgate."
During the conversation Mark confirmed that he had been a candidate for the vacant Dover Athletic manager's job.
I asked him what his priorities for the team would have been had I been talking to him as the newly appointed Dover manager.
You don't normally associate club chairmen with kindness but John and Alan (Husk) were very kind
And applying the lessons he’d learned under Kinnear, he told me that, among a whole host of other things, he would concentrate on players who were local and passionate for the club.
That he would build the fittest side in the league with a strong base of youth and reserves.
"The side that won the Southern League Premier Division was the fittest side I ever played in," he said. "We overpowered the opposition. We were very strong physically and mentally. We were natural athletes.
"Dover Athletic needs to build a structure that will ensure progression for the future," he said.
But, now, with the popular appointment of Andy Hessenthaler for what could well be a long-term managerial residency at Dover Athletic, Mark's immediate future in coaching seems rather uncertain.
It seems unlikely that he will continue with his coaching duties at Ramsgate but it, also, seems clear to me that it's only a matter of time before a former player with his obvious enthusiasm for the game is snapped up by a club with ambition to progress through the football pyramid.
Mark in our first Conference kit
There are several of them out there who would want Mark Harrop's guiding hand at the helm. Mark listed the non-league honours he'd won and they covered all of the non-league competitions except the Conference championship and the FA Trophy.It was an impressive list.
It is a regret, at least for me, that we never saw Mark Harrop playing for Dover Athletic in the Conference.
The club's first failed bid at promotion robbed us, as fans and Mark, of that experience but he is, clearly, a capable manager-in-waiting with a wealth of experience to offer the club that is, in the end, lucky enough to land his services.
Mark Harrop lives in Westgate with Sarah, his wife of 12 years and their two boys, Bobby, 10 and Billy, 7.
And, who knows, if the boys follow in their father's footsteps, they may leave their own marks on a future Dover Athletic side that could, again, make the boast that a Harrop had been part of the team's success.
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