NICKY HUMPHREY cannot wait to play against his former club Tonbridge at Longmead on Saturday in a match that will decide one team’s fate this season.
This local derby is a big one for Whites and probably even more so for Nicky. The losing team will almost certainly be relegated but Dover’s central defender does not fear his old club.
Nicky said: “I’m really looking forward to it. I haven’t played against them before so it will be an interesting experience but I’m very confident we can get the win we need. All the players are confident.
“I have read on their forum that they didn’t rate me so that adds a bit of incentive. I know I can prove them wrong.”
With Dean Readings suspended for the Tonbridge and Wealdstone away games, Craig Cloke is likely to partner Humphrey in central defence. This isn’t a problem according to Nicky.
He said: “Clokey is a really good player. There won’t be a massive difference. We’ve played together a few times before and I’m sure we’ll have no problems on Saturday.
“Hopefully Sam Vallance will return at right back. He’s been playing well but struggling with a knock and a bit of tonsillitis, which is why he didn’t play on Saturday against Hampton and Richmond, I think.”
Nicky is not the only Whites player facing his former club on Saturday. Anthony Hogg and Craig Wilkins have both played for the Angels, with Hogg starring for them earlier this season.
Humphrey said: “We know them inside out. We won’t have a better chance to win than this. We know what to expect from them.”
When the two sides met at the Hoverspeed Stadium in October, both Humphrey and Hogg were playing for Tonbridge.
Nicky said: “I thought we (Tonbridge) did well that day. Dover probably had more possession but I thought we were solid and would have got something but for some dodgy decisions.
“Clokey won it for Dover with two penalties but the first one was a bad decision. However, it’s a good result for me now! It was a nice day anyway, with a big crowd and playing at Dover.”
Nicky was playing his second stint for Tonbridge at the time. He played there as a youngster before being brought to Dover in 2002 by Clive Walker. This was when he met and played alongside Paul Sykes, who tragically died on Tuesday night after collapsing on the pitch during Folkestone’s Kent Senior Cup semi-final against Margate.
“It’s frightening to think that it can happen, with no warning. I knew Syko personally. He was a joker and kept everyone entertained.
“As a player, he knew he wasn’t technically the best but he wore his heart on his sleeve and was 100 per cent committed. Sadly, I didn’t play many games with him, as we both suffered injuries that season.”
While Sykes struggled with niggling injuries at the start of the 2002-03 season, Humphrey was playing at the heart of the defence in Whites’ great FA Cup run.
However, four days after helping Dover defeat Woking in the fourth qualifying round to book Athletic a place in the first round proper for the first time in the club’s history, Nicky broke his ankle against league-leaders Tamworth. This kept him out of the rest of an excellent season for Dover, when the club finished third in the Dr. Marten’s Premier.
After returning at the start of 2004, Nicky struggled to regain fitness and form in a difficult second half of the season, when Whites were relegated under the management of Richard Langley and Mark Patterson.
Nicky said: “That was a very difficult time for me. I knew I could play better but I was lacking fitness and confidence. I am always committed but confidence is a big thing for me, as it is for many footballers. I perhaps applied myself badly at times, which led to bad decisions and costly mistakes.”
Nicky stayed loyal to Dover, despite relegation and friends leaving the club, but his fitness and confidence were still low at the start of this season. His time at Dover seemed to have come to an end when former boss Steve Browne made it clear that he wasn’t in his plans.
Nicky said: “I made the decision for him and left. I needed games and was pleased to be given the chance to go back to Tonbridge. However, that didn’t really work out either! The squad wasn’t very strong and I didn’t enjoy it as much as my time there before.
“Dover were going through a transitional period, which was very sad to see. Thankfully there is now a strong board in place and Clive is back. When he asked me to play for him again, I jumped at the chance.
“Clive was the key factor for my return but the set-up here and the great support is also important. Playing in front of big gates, sometimes bigger than a few Conference teams, is a great experience. Our travelling support is also something to be proud of.”
Clive Walker is the clear factor for the upturn in fortunes on the pitch this season, with many players praising the manager’s methods and inspirational qualities. For Humphrey, it is the confidence that his manager gives his players that has made all the difference.
Nicky said: “The confidence he instils in you is fantastic. For me personally, he has always believed in my ability and his one-on-one chats are a great boost. He breeds confidence, which leads to good results.”
This confidence was glaringly obvious last Saturday, when Whites defeated Hampton and Richmond 2-0. Narada Bernard was a deserved man-of-the-match but Nicky was a close second in many fans’ eyes.
Nicky said: “That’s nice to hear. I’m still nowhere near full fitness. For that, I’ll need a full pre-season and a long run in the side. It’s just great to be playing again though and in some sort of form.
“After Alan Devonshire’s comments before the game, which Clive pinned up in the dressing room, we were even more up for it and wanted to shove his words back in his face. I think we did that!”
A key factor for Whites in Saturday’s win was a strong and resolute defensive display by everyone at the back, especially with a player of Richard Pacquette’s quality in attack for Hampton.
Nicky said: “We’ve improved defensively over the last three games. Deano and I have been pretty solid. However, we let Hampton in a bit at the end, when we gave away some chances. We were too flat at the back and allowed them to control play and come onto us.
“However, for most of the game we stopped them playing. We frustrated them and didn’t allow any good service to Richard Pacquette. We don’t focus too much on individual opponents though. We just try to stop the team as a whole. It’s great for confidence that we did that against some decent players.”
After the sad news of Paul Sykes’ death this week, it has been a time for looking back and remembering what he brought to Kent football. However, Syko would no doubt want everyone to look forward and Nicky is confident that Dover Athletic has a bright future.
He said: “With the new board and Clive back, the club is in safe hands. I was delighted to sign a new contract, whatever league we’re in next season.
“However, we desperately want to stay up. It would be a huge boost for the club and fans if we could avoid relegation. I’m sure Clive would get us competing at the top of the league, as our recent form would suggest. This is a big club and doesn’t deserve to be where it is now.”