It’s tight at the top of the National League at the moment. With eighteen games of the season played, there are just six points between the very top of the table and Hartlepool United, down in twelfth place, and realistically anyone down to Eastleigh, who are in eighteenth place but are just eleven points off the top of the table, could realistically consider themselves to have some chance of getting to the top of the table by the New Year with the right wind behind them. At present, though, it is a slightly surprising name at the top of the table. In amongst the former Football League clubs with ambitions of reclaiming their former status and moneyed parvenus with aspirations of reaching the promised land, it is a relative stalwart of the non-league game, Dover Athletic, that has risen to the very top of the league table.
At the weekend, Dover made one of the more daunting trips of their league season to Tyneside to play Gateshead. Even setting aside the distance that they had to travel for this match, the International Stadium, with its athletics track and single huge stand can be a tricky place for away teams to visit at the best of times, whilst the home side were also welcoming a new manager, Steve Watson, who’d replaced the Port Vale-bound Neil Aspin. For all of this, Dover came away with a goalless draw – not the win that they might have would have cemented their position at the top of the table, but a decent enough result from a tricky afternoon away.
It’s reasonable to say that manager Chris Kinnear keeps something of a low profile. Despite having been involved in non-league football for more than thirty years, Kinnear’s Wikipedia page runs to just the one line and information on his career is similarly sparse elsewhere. We know that he’s not related to swearing’s Joe Kinnear, and we also know – somewhat more significantly – that this is his second spell in charge of the club. He was previously the manager of the club between 1985 and 1995, a spell during which he took the club from the Southern Division of the Southern League to the Football Conference, and also that he achieved similar success over eleven years at Margate, taking that club from the Southern Division of the Southern League, before financial troubles saw that club drop back to the Isthmian League.
Dover Athletic is the latest iteration of a story of non-league football that stretches back to the end of the nineteenth century. The original Dover FC was founded in 1894, but folded in 1901, 1909, 1933 and 1947, with a new club being formed on each occasion. The final version went to the wall in 1983, with Dover Athletic taking its place in the Southern League. The club won promotion to the Premier Division of the Southern League in 1988 and would have done so again after winning the Premier Division two years later had it not been for the notoriously harsh Football Conference ground grading rules of the time. This promotion was achieved in 1993 and the club managed to stay at this level until 2002 before getting relegated back again.
Again, though, the club found itself in financial difficulty and the club’s supporters trust had to run it for a while after the club’s directors resigned en masse. With debts totalling £400,000, the club agreed a CVA to pay off creditors in 2004, but by 2006 the club was in Division One South of the Isthmian League, but found its way back to the National League by 2014, beating Ebbsfleet United away from home in the National League South play-off final. Since arriving back in the National League Premier, however, the club has consistently performed strongly in this division, finishing eighth, fifth and sixth in their three seasons back. Their best performance came with that fifth placed finish at the end of the 2015/16 season, which sealed the club a spot in the end of season play-offs for a place in the Football League. On this occasion, however, they were narrowly beaten by Forest Green Rovers over two legs in the semi-finals.
The club’s home, the Crabble Athletic Ground, is one of the more unusual in the National League. It’s set in a hillside, with large covered terraces behind each goal and smaller stands along each side. The club has carried out a lot of work to bring the ground up to scratch over the last quarter of a century, but there has been a degree of unhappiness on the part of some supporters at how its current layout has affected the atmosphere on match days following the building of a new stand on one side of the ground. The counterpoint offered to this criticism has been that crowds are not really big enough to sustain the atmosphere that regular Dover supporters would like, but to an extent it is perhaps inevitable that attracting the crowds required to support the level of football that all involved at the club are aspiring towards will always be an uphill battle.
For all of its international fame, whether for its cliffs, its castle or as a ferry port, Dover is a surprisingly small town with a population of just 31,000 people. As such, the question of what the highest level of football that the club may be able to support is a valid one. The history of football in this particular town is littered with the corpses of previous incarnations of football clubs that failed financially and even the one that is performing so well right now has, as we’ve seen already had its close shaves with extinction in the past. None of this should temper the ambitions of the club, but it should surely be a matter of common sense to bear in mind that the most important thing of all is that Dover Athletic survives and that it remains solvent.
These concerns have come and gone in the past, and it is to be hoped that the Football Conference’s robust financial rules are ensuring that all clubs are living within their means. At present, though, it only feels right to note that Dover Athletic’s arrival at the top of the National League is the result of several years of improvement for the club, both on and off the pitch. The team has been one of the most consistent performers in the division for several seasons now, and that the team is there on merit, with the other, bigger clubs below them having to match them if they are going to take or retake a place in the Football League come the end of the season. We’re more than a third of the way through the National League season, and there remains all to play for.
Photo credit: ChrisTheDude at English Wikipedia [CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons.