*BS*Starting tomorrow at Bromley, Dover embark on three season-shaping matches in less than a week, hoping to keep up their good form as the games get more and more important.*BF*
Two crucial Ryman One South fixtures on Saturday and Easter Monday follow the chance to claim some meaningful silverware for the first time since 1993. This mammoth preview covers all three matches…
*BS*Westview Cup final preview*BF*
League Cup fixtures have usually been seen at Crabble as an inconvenience in recent years but the Westview Cup has brought light relief for Whites’ die-hard fans this term.
Whilst attendances have been poor as always for such fixtures, the stay-aways have missed out on some good performances and interesting games in this much-maligned cup competition. In particular, there have been some excellent showings from Dover’s youngsters, given their chance of first team football whilst the older players took a night off.
The stand-out performance for Dover has to be the penalty shoot-out victory at Ramsgate. Whites started the game with five inexperienced players in the first eleven. The likes of Lee Spiller, Craig Wilkins, Tony Browne, Glen Knight, Tommy Tyne, Byron Walker, Chris Chase and Danny Chapman were either rested or injured, while Craig Cloke, Matt Bourne and James Rogers started on the bench.
A central midfield trio of Shane Hamshare, Sam Vallance and Liam Quinn were outstanding against a near full-strength Ramsgate outfit. In defence Grant Bagley shone and is perhaps unfortunate not to have tasted first team action more this season. Dover’s most experienced player, John Keister, made it an even more inexperienced side in the 2nd half by kicking ex-Dover striker Shaun Welford and duly receiving his marching orders.
Even at 1-0 down in extra-time the youngsters did not give up though. Jack Tanner’s performance in an unfamiliar left wing-back role was superb, whilst Bradley Spice kept possession admirably in attack. Bourne, Rogers and Cloke gave Whites fresh legs and impetus, and in the last minute of extra-time Jimmy Dryden popped up to score the equaliser.
*Ppic1*Whites’ fans gathered as far up the pitch as possible for the penalties taken at the Ramsgate end. (The match was segregated for a crowd of 264!) And despite the experience of Ramsgate, with Welford, ex-Margate and Dover midfielder Mark Munday, Ollie Shulz, ex-Maidstone and Dover striker Mo Takaloo and Stuart Vahid to call upon, Dover’s penalty-takers stood their ground and calmly slotted in one after another.
Only Nicky Humphrey missed for Dover, blasting his effort over the bar and into a garden some way away, but Rams had missed their first penalty so it went to sudden death. Youngsters Quinn, Tanner, Rogers, Bourne and Bagley all converted and when former Dover reserve defender Will Graham saw his penalty saved brilliantly by Darren Smith, Dover’s travelling band of fans went wild.
What was expected to be a 2nd round exit in a meaningless cup competition had become a night to remember, particularly for the way Dover’s young team never gave in and took their penalties in such a calm fashion. An 8-7 shoot-out triumph in difficult circumstances for both players and supporters was a sweet victory indeed.
1-0 wins against Chatham and East Thurrock were pleasing, if not totally impressive or beautiful to watch. However, the latter at Crabble featured a stellar performance from Keister and the first real showing of the qualities possessed by Jon Wallis.
A long wait until the next round, after Leatherhead took their time to get through previous rounds. A 2-1 victory at Crabble was more comfortable than the scoreline suggests but the game was spoiled early on by a harsh sending-off, after the Leatherhead goalkeeper slid outside his box whilst holding the football. DAFCtv evidence later cleared the unfortunate Paul Borg from suspension.
That quarter final win set-up a semi final tie at home to Cray and produced another interesting night of football for several reasons. A crowd of 203 were treated to a good performance from Dover, who took their chances at the right times in a 4-3 win. Cray’s late comeback after being 4-1 down with five minutes to go owed more to a flurry of Dover substitutions than it did Cray’s quality.
The game was unfortunately marred by a broken leg to Cray centre back Matt Lee, who had to wait for an ambulance to arrive in a 30 minute delay to the game. The accidental collision with Dryden overshadowed four well-taken goals from Wilkins, Cloke, Tyne and Anton Innocent.
*Lpic1*That brings us to tomorrow’s final. Whites will be underdogs against Premier division Ashford (Middlesex) but current form and a full squad should give Dover every chance of lifting the cup at Hayes Lane.
Ashford lie 17th in the league. However, they possess a number of experienced heads and players with experience of higher levels of football. Defender Jason Chewins leads the way at the age of 36, after playing Conference football for Aldershot.
Wins at Tooting and Staines in the previous two rounds should sound a warning for Clive Walker. However, Ashford’s 5-1 loss at Bromley earlier in the season will ensure unhappy memories of Hayes Lane for Chewins and co.
For Dover, Clive Walker has a fully fit squad to choose from. Several changes may be made though to keep players fresh for the run-in, despite it being a cup final. Spiller, Smith and Walker are the most likely to take a place in the starting eleven if the Dover manager decides that others need a breather.
Two players who are almost certain to start are Wallis and Keister. Both have missed chunks of football this season, through lack of opportunity and suspension respectively. Keister’s red card on Saturday against Chatham was his third of the season, meaning he will be suspended for five matches. The usual two week delay at this level before the ban begins means he is available for the next three matches but will sit out the final four league games plus the play-off semi final, should Dover qualify.
Keister has been in good form and is likely to keep his place for all three matches, and while his suspension is a blow for the club, central defence is perhaps the best position for Clive Walker to lose a player at present due to the number of options he has there. The ultimate solution is likely to be a back three of Wilkins, Bourne and Humphrey for the final games of the season.
What Athletic cannot do without would be the loss of a key player further up the pitch. The losses of Daniel Braithwaite, Chapman and Dryden cost Whites dearly last season and while Chapman has arguably again shot his bolt, the arrival of Wallis completely negates that loss.
*Ppic2**BS*Ryman One South preview*BF*
It’s all going off around Dover in the league table. Dulwich v Fleet, Leatherhead v Tooting, Dulwich v Horsham YMCA and Tooting v Dulwich. Points will definitely be dropped by Whites’ rivals for the play-off positions over the next few games, simply because they’re continually playing each other.
Remarkably, however, that is not the end of the play-off place showdowns. Unfortunately for Clive Walker, Dover are also involved in two pressure battles on Holy Saturday and Easter Monday. The longest trip of the season is first, a game Whites can barely afford to lose against Fleet. Following that is a home game against Hastings, who have gone from relegation candidates in September to title challengers in April.
Both games are set-up for tense afternoons but luck seems to be swaying towards Dover. Fleet’s form is consistently inconsistent and Whites will be hoping for the same result as last season, when Jimmy Dryden grabbed two late goals in a 2-1 victory on the heavily-sloped Calthorpe Park pitch.
Fleet lost 3-1 at play-off rivals Tooting on Saturday but few sides have come away with anything from Imperial Fields this season. Before that, Fleet had won three on the trot. They have lost four times at home this season, all to top 10 sides.
In the form table, Whites are top with 14 points from their last six games. However, Fleet are in 8th and Hastings are 2nd so this Easter test is there for all to see. A positive outcome in one or both matches would see Dover push Dartford for third place.
Easter Monday’s opponents Hastings are clear favourites to finish in the top play-off spot, particularly as they have a decent run-in. However, they will be weakened at the back against Dover. Club captain, defensive stalwart, regular goalscorer and former Whites transfer target Sean Ray will be missing through a five match ban.
The bad news for Dover lies in the statistics. Hastings are unbeaten in their last nine away matches in Ryman One South and have scored in their last 18 away games (i.e. all of them apart from their first of the season!). They have scored in every league game they’ve played since 11 November.
After seven losses in their first 12 games, Hastings have lost just ONCE in their last 25 matches (and that was away to Maidstone). They have won 10 of their last 14 matches. An incredible record considering their start to the season and one which must make them a good bet to overhaul Maidstone for the title.
The size of the task on Easter Monday is therefore a huge one. Maidstone will be cheering on Dover, as the Stones glance over their shoulder. Hastings’ relentless form will be tested at Crabble and at home to Dartford the following Saturday. Whichever of the top two prevails in the title race, the other will be the team to beat in the play-offs.
*Lpic2*Another team whose promotion credentials will be tested this week after a long run of success is Tooting & Mitcham. Should the stripes make the play-offs, they will be hoping to bag third place to secure a home semi-final tie as their away form is terrible compared to their awesome home form.
At Imperial Fields, Tooting have won 12, drawn three and lost three but away they have won four, drawn eight and lost four.
The difference between their home and away form is that they struggle to score away from home. Their defensive record is actually better away but they have scored 15 fewer goals. This must be down to their manager’s tendency to settle for a draw on the road. This was evident at Crabble when Tooting had Whites on the ropes at half-time but sat back in the second half and were content with a point, despite dominating the first half and leading 1-0.
Tooting’s schedule over Easter is busy to say the least. Starting tonight (Tuesday) at eighth-placed Leatherhead, Tooting go on a run of four games in seven days. Corinthian-Casuals and Burgess Hill will further test their poor away form on Thursday night and Saturday afternoon before a titanic clash at home to Dulwich Hamlet on Easter Monday.
Should Tooting gain more than three points from those four matches, they will be odds-on to finish in a play-off place, as their last four games are against four of the bottom seven in the league. Any sign of an improved away record will put some fear into the teams above them.
The run-in starts tonight, with many vital top six clashes over the course of the next two weeks, setting up a real nail-biter of a run-in. It is becoming increasingly tight and exciting at the top of the Ryman One South table. Dover should relish the opportunity to be involved, after looking out of sorts just a month ago.
Renewed impetus in Whites’ squad gives them every chance of making the play-offs. Beyond that, will the strike-power of the likes of Tooting and Dartford or the relentless winning form of Hastings be too much when push comes to shove? Or will Whites finally live up to their billing and perform at the key moment?
Dover certainly have a spring in their step going into these crucial matches. Dare us fans hope for p… no, I’m not even going to say it.