*BS*EVEN as the old Dover FC was slipping, inevitably, into insolvency, local businessman John Husk was emerging as the reluctant and unlikely godfather of the new Dover Athletic FC.
*BF*”Former director Terry Clear had asked me to get involved about a year before the old club went under,” said John during our chat on the morning of the first league match of the 2006-07 season at Molesey.
And it was the Dover FC Chairman, John Shearn, who finally persuaded John that his business and financial expertise would be crucial for the future of semi-professional football in Dover.
“We only just got through the 1982-83 season,” said John. “My first board meeting was in October, 1982 and the old club finally went under later in 1983.”
There was a strong body of opinion that took the view that Southern League football was vital to the town’s economy.
Even Southern League chairman David Setterfield, who was, also, a local businessman and, then, chairman of Folkestone, was to argue the case for continuing Southern League standard football in Dover before the district council hearing that considered two applications for the use of the Crabble facility in the running of the new club.
“David joined the Dover board some time later,” said John.
Rival local businessman John Ullmann (“Diesel Johnny”), then chairman of Dover Demolition and active for many years in local football, had put together a consortium that tendered the second application to run the new club.
*Q1*”The council meeting took place during July 1983,” said John. “There was quite a debate about the future of football in the town.”
And, nearly a quarter of a century later, there was still a sense of achievement in John’s voice when he told me: “We got the vote.”
He said: “The council agreed to guarantee us one year’s use of Crabble at a peppercorn rent of £1. Then we had to go back to them and justify our progress and continued existence.”
The first two seasons for the new club were difficult to put it mildly.
“We finished second from bottom in the Southern League Southern Division in our second season,” said John. “We were one league place away from going back to the Kent League.”
And, at that time, nobody was daring to look too far into the future.
The day, some years later, when Dover Athletic would finish sixth in the Conference and be rated as the 98th best team in the country remained, in the darker days of the mid-1980s, a fevered dream.
My own re-acquaintance with Crabble and my introduction to Dover Athletic came at some point in the 1985-86 season.
The match details are unimportant and, anyway, are long forgotten.
What I do remember, as I told John during our chat, was arriving at the ground and being shocked by the abysmal state of disrepair that I found there.
There were even no stewards waiting to take my money for admission to the seated area. It was, indeed, a sorry scene.
“The council told me,” said John, “that they would not talk to anybody from the old management. They would negotiate with me but they wanted a completely new team on my side.”
And with this condition put on negotiations for the new club’s future, John set about putting a team of directors together.
*Q2*He was looking for people with good business experience and financial skills who, also, had a strong interest in football in general but in the success of the new club in particular.
“I approached John Durrant,” said John, “then got Gordon and Alan Goodacre on board. Ken Stamp agreed to help out as well as Denis Hammond.”
Then the old club’s secretary, Mike Taylor, agreed to stay on at my request,” said John “and the council seemed happy with that.
“We had to put a manager in place and get a team ready.
“I was in contact with Alan Jones (a legendary Dover striker of the 1960s) and I invited him to take the manager’s job.
“The team was, mainly, the reserves from the year before with a few first teamers who stayed on.
“We struggled through the first two years and, then, about September 1984, Alan Jones was released,” he went on with a hint of regret in his voice.
“I wanted to break out of the Kent merry-go-round of managers hopping from one club to another so Steve McRae, who was assistant-manager at Gravesend came in.
“My brother, Alan, and I discussed the situation after the second season. We agreed that we needed to get some decent players in. We finished just off the bottom of the league with around 150 fans in the ground. We couldn’t continue like that. It was a waste of time and effort.”
The first bold move was to sign Frank Ovard from Folkestone.
“And it developed from there,” John said. “We agreed that success has to start somewhere and, usually, from ostensibly modest beginnings.
Perhaps, no-one could have foreseen the significance of the Ovard signing and what it was to lead to.
It still stands, at least in my mind, as a metaphor for the incredible ingenuity that was to characterise the next ten years.
“I met Bill Williams at that time,” John remembered. “Maidstone United were flying at the time and I wanted to know how they’d achieved it.
*Ppic1*”With my brother, Alan, and Alan Goodacre, I went to Maidstone to talk to Bill. We had lunch with him and spent the afternoon talking about Maidstone’s success.
“Bill said that he had enough players for two teams. He gave me a list of players he was releasing and one of them was Chris Kinnear, who I approached.”
The initial meeting took place in Maidstone.
“Chris told me that he couldn’t commit at that point. He was about to get married and then they were going off on honeymoon. He asked me to contact him when he got back. But then I went on holiday.
“When I got back Alan, my brother, told me that Chris had been in touch. He agreed to play in the pre-season friendlies so that we could have a look at each other and, after that, he signed.”
During the November of the 1985-86 season, Steve McRae was released.
“Chris agreed to take on the role of player-manager,” said John. “But he felt, at least initially, that the offer had come five years too early.
“But a broken leg was the turning point,” John continued. “He agreed to take on the job. There was no contract. We agreed with a handshake. He said he would give it six weeks and then we would talk again. We didn’t sign a contract until later.
“Chris had several things going for him,” said John. “He was based in north Kent. He had good Conference experience and was a London teacher with good player contacts in the city.”
At this point John agreed that the town’s geography will always be a factor in the team’s ability to sign good players.
“The better players live in the cities,” John said. “We had to make it worth their while to come here. It wasn’t easy.”
Chris Kinnear was, later, to admit that the signing of Frank Ovard was a major factor in his agreeing to come to Dover Athletic.
I told John that each of the former players to whom I had spoken in past weeks had been generous in his praise of Chris Kinnear.
“He changed everything in months,” said John. “The whole set-up became much more professional. He was a very effective manager on all levels.
“Chris dealt with any problems with the players in the first instance and, only when he thought it necessary, issues were referred to me.
“He completely re-organised away-day routines, the training programme and the way in which players presented themselves.
*Ppic2*”To be perfectly honest,” John admitted with a chuckle, “I wasn’t even aware of the football pyramid structure in those days. I just wasn’t aux fait with things at all.
“I think, initially, Terry Clear and John Shearn wanted my business experience and financial acumen,” admitted John.
“We were football people,” he went on, “and long-term football people. We’d followed Dover and Sunday League sides. We used to go and watch Spurs a lot in those days,” John said and, with a chuckle, added, “Can’t do that now, of course, we’re retired.”
After a moment’s thought, John said, “One of the great unsung heroes in those days for me was Dave Walker.
“He was 18 when he came to us. He’d just been released by West Ham and turned out to be one of the best players Dover Athletic had. He gave everything for the team.
“The team that Timmy (Dixon) played in was the best we’ve ever had. In seven years we went from nothing to the edge of the Conference.”
And, clearly, the failure to achieve promotion after the record 102 points haul of 1989-90 still rankles.
“It’s still a record,” said John proudly with the energy clear in his voice.
“We appealed against the decision (by the Conference to refuse Dover’s promotion) and we went to a full FA hearing. It was the Conference versus us,” he said.
“The ground was ready and up to standard,” he went on “but the FA ruled in favour of the Conference.”
The underlying sense of injustice and double standards was still implicit in John’s tone and when I made reference to the sorry state of other Kent grounds whose teams were enjoying Conference status at the time those feelings burst out.
*Q3*”Exactly,” he said. “It was obvious that Crabble was up to standard and in a better condition than at least one north Kent ground I could name. It was ready by mid-July. We even produced photographs as a comparison but we just hadn’t achieved the improvements by the due date.
“It was a false dawn,” he said. “We were gutted. We explored every avenue we could.”
Looking to the future John said: “Ambition is important but we have to be realistic and patient.”
And when I suggested that football management, like business, was about taking risks, he answered, “Of course it is. None of us would be where we are without that. It’s about setting targets and speculating to get there.”
“But,” he went on, referring to the Conference and beyond, “Running a football club is expensive at that level. Rushden and Diamonds and Canvey Island are proof of this. You need gates in excess of 2,000 regularly if you want to run a successful Conference side.
“Weymouth are on their way back but it’s harder now. Look what they’ve had to do to get there,” he said, referring to Weymouth’s full-time professional status.
“They’ve got a millionaire down there.”
*Lpic1*”We played Corby at Crabble,” he said, “towards the end of the 1992-93 season (in a match in which Mark Lawrenson dominated Corby Town’s central defence) and we got 1,900 people into the ground. A year later, against Kettering in the Conference, we drew a crowd of 900. You just can’t go on like that.”
We agreed that football fans are both fickle and a club’s greatest assets.
My own view, for what it’s worth, is that professional sport is, essentially, a branch of the entertainment industry.
In the end, people will pay for good entertainment. As in all business so it is in football: success breeds success.
And the measure of success, fuelled so powerfully by the media, is not sound financial management but a winning team.
“We struggled to maintain our Southern League average gate in the Conference,” John admitted and, at that point, I remembered Iain O’Connell’s claim that, if the team is not in the top six by the autumn, sponsorship dries up.
“Countrywide Derv was the main sponsor for several years,” said John. “We couldn’t find anybody else to put money in.”
“But in 1997 I sold the company and retired,” he went on. “I had to find somebody else to take the club on.”
It was just before these events that Dover Athletic and Chris Kinnear parted company.
“It was a sad day,” said John. “Chris had personal problems which compounded (and were compounded by) the football problems.
“I travelled up to his home to see Chris several times to talk things through,” John admitted.
“Nigel Donn was still with us. I suggested to Chris that Nigel take over so that Chris could get his life in order. We were happy for him to step down for as long as it took. But Chris said that he didn’t want an assistant. He insisted that he could do it without that.
“Trouble was that there were problems on the pitch and Chris wasn’t in a position to sort them out.”
“I think,” John said, “that if we’d got through that Chris would, in all probability, still be here but, in the end, I had to release him.”
Jim Gleeson took over as chairman of the club before standing down – and eventually Mick Kemp took over that role, before Jim Parmenter and his consortium took over the running of the club.
*Lpic2*It is well-documented that John and his brother Alan were the majority shareholders and Jim had to do an 11th-hour deal with them to save the club from almost certainly closing down in January 2005.
“Obviously Jim needed a controlling interest and a deal was struck,” said John.
“Recovery from where the club is now will be hard work.
“Part of the agreement with Jim was that I would stay on as president. It’s an honorary position and I’m not directly involved anymore in the running of the club.
“I knew a clean break was needed. I just told him to get on with it and wished him good luck.”
“Life’s a circle,” said John. “We all have ups and downs. We had a good time running the club and I’m very proud of what we achieved.”
John still visits Crabble in his capacity as club president.
“We all meet in the bar from time to time and chew the cud,” said John.
He is optimistic about Dover Athletic’s ability to climb back to where they were at Conference level and beyond.
“But we have to be realistic,” he said. “It will take time; possibly a long time.”
There is no doubt, however, that recent developments at Crabble: the clearing of the club’s CVA debt in a generous gesture by the new chairman and his wife, Sally, has started to clear the way for revival.
Jim’s vision for Dover Athletic is, clearly, Football League status.
“Good luck to him,” said John.
An excellent sentiment, which all true supporters of the team will echo.