CRAIG CLOKE was in tears when Whites’ fate was sealed after Saturday’s epic at Tonbridge.
Clokey – who must be odds-on favourite to scoop the Player of the Year awards this season – could not believe that his beloved home-town club had sunk to the fourth step of non-league football.
He said: “I was just in shock. This club means a lot to me. I’ve grown up either watching or playing for Dover Athletic – and it was just too much for me when the ref blew his whistle at the end.
“It brought many tears to my eyes. I remember, when I was a kid, watching David Leworthy score goals for fun for us when we were in the Conference. I remember all the big crowds and the buzz of knowing that Dover Athletic were one of the top non league clubs in the country.
“Now we’re in Ryman One – and I was just so gutted because we really believed we had a chance of pulling off a miracle escape.
“I just stood there crying and didn’t want to go back to the dressing rooms. I waited outside for a while with the Dover fans, who have been brilliant this season. Braz (Daniel Braithwaite) put his arm around me and consoled me – as I’m just a young lad.
“For me Dover Athletic means everything. I am a Dover boy and have come through the ranks. To see us drop down three divisions is heartbreaking.”
However, Clokey insists that the mood in the dressing room is a united one and the message from the players to the fans is – “We’ll be giving everything we’ve got to get Dover Athletic promoted next season.”
You could have heard a pin drop in the Whites changing room immediately after the match. The great fight was over after a brave effort since January to claw back a 15-point gap.
Ultimately, it proved too big a challenge for the young players.
Yet Clokey, who is still just 20 himself, said: “We were soon talking about next season and pre-season. The lads cannot wait for the summer and to get back into pre-season training. We want to right the wrongs of this season and give it a real good go at getting us back into the Premier Division.
“But, to be honest, we want to take the club higher than just the Premier. We want to take Dover all the way back up to where it should be, which is the Conference.”
The Whites kid has ambitions to play in the Football League but is happily committed to Dover’s cause next season. He believes his best chance of playing at the highest possible level will lie in helping Whites to promotion next season and the season after that.
Ideally, he would love to be playing Conference football with Dover in a few seasons, when he will still only be 23.
With that experience under his belt, he will be a much better player. And, although it seems a million miles away at the moment, it is possible.
He said: “There are always scouts watching, even at this level. I just want to go out there and help Dover Athletic. I am a Dover fan. If a big club comes in for me, then of course I’d have to look at it. I’d hope no-one would stand in my way but I wouldn’t just leave to go to another non-league club.
“I’d like to stay and help Dover get all the way back up the leagues. It can certainly be done and, with the board we have at the club now, it’s more possible than perhaps it was last year.
“The directors of the past regime have come in for a bit of stick but ultimately it’s us players who are responsible for the position we’re in.
“Although I must say Clive has made a big difference. He is such a legend and helped my game enormously over the years I’ve known him. He makes you work harder and go that extra yard for him. That is often the difference between winning and losing. He’s a great manager.”
Clokey was also moved by the tributes to Paul Sykes, who sadly passed away last Tuesday evening at the age of 28 after collapsing during Folkestone’s Kent Senior Cup semi-final against Margate.
The Dover fans chanted “Syko’s” name at Tonbridge throughout Saturday’s game – and that moved the Whites defender.
He said: “What happened to Syko puts everything in context. When the Dover fans were chanting his name, it really moved me. It was, I guess, a moving day all round. But Syko is a huge loss to Kent football. He was a real blood and guts kind of player and was superb.
“I knew him personally and he had a big influence on my career. When I first got into the first-team squad, Syko was here and I got to know him a bit from being on the bench with him. He used to give me many tips that would help me when I started games for the club.
“He definitely taught me a lot and the atmosphere has been a bit down this week as most of the lads knew him well. Syko was a hero at Dover and he has a lot of friends over here.
“We were all gutted when we heard about it and just hope we can make the Kent Senior Cup final against Margate a fitting memorial for him.”