‘Fate’ is a word that has been bandied about a lot this past week. After a summer of acrimonious words between the two clubs and their fans, it was perhaps fatalistic that Fleet and Dover were thrown together from the first week of the season and now get the chance to go hammer and tongs once again at the very end of it.
Throw a little more fate into the mix – the May 10 date of the Promotion Final coincides with our FA Trophy victory in 2008, Fleet having clinched their play-off place in Essex and in the penultimate game of the season for the second time running – and you have enough column inches to fill a couple of pages of Spirit & Destiny magazine.
But Dover will surely feel the twist of fate, too. Having lost half their play-off side of last season to a rival, and seemingly dead and buried in the race in the latter weeks of this season, they now come face to face and against the odds with that same rival for the right to play Conference Premier football.
Make no mistake, Dover’s seemingly inexorable push into the play-offs and from there into the final shows a steely determination. Two late goals after being one down at Concord kept their hopes alive through April and then an even later penalty at Hayes in the final game of the league season remarkably clinched fifth place. And then, with 88 minutes to play of the second leg against Sutton with only 10 men, they somehow dug themselves out of that hole to reach the final – and by a comfortable margin.
While Fleet’s 4-0 win at Priestfield in last Monday’s Kent Senior Cup Final will likely have zero bearing on Saturday’s final, it has at least gone part way to exorcising the demons generated by Dover’s two league victories – in particular their 2-0 win at Stonebridge Road.
But this will be a different Stonebridge Road, one packed to the rafters as perhaps it has never been since that night against Canvey Island 12 years ago when an estimated 5,000–6,000 squeezed into the stadium and filled every available space. For those who weren’t there, it will likely come as a surprise as to just how much more full it will seem than even the more crowded matches of recent years, such as against Dartford or Aldershot in the Trophy semi-final.
There are unlikely to be any real surprises in team selection for either side. Both managers know each other’s players inside out, while the players themselves have either played alongside or against each other in various previous play-off campaigns.
For Fleet, the main quandaries are over injuries to Anthony Acheampong and Ben May. If the former is out, Paul Lorraine and Shane Huke stand ready. That, of course, depends on who replaces the suspended Dean Rance – with the returning Michael Corcoran most likely, but Huke also capable of filling that hole, having played in midfield earlier in his career. He was given a runout in just such a position on Monday.
Michael Thalassitis will have done his selection chances no harm with an exuberant display at Priestfield should May fail to recover in time, while Stacy Long’s performances since his return from loan give Steve Brown another option.
There is certainly a buoyancy in the Fleet camp, with Anthony Cook declaring that if he and his teammates “empty the tank” on Saturday, nobody can live with them. Cook’s determination to rid himself of disappointing play-off memories are mirrored by Daryl McMahon, whose form and eye for goal have risen considerably in recent weeks.
McMahon’s play-off history is an interesting one. He was an unused substitute for Cambridge, who defeated his former club Stevenage in a semi-final before losing to Exeter at Wembley. He then lost to his future club, the Fleet, while at Farnborough in 2011. Fast forward to Dover last season, and he helped defeat another former club in Eastleigh in the semis before being red-carded and losing the subsequent final. A year later, he’s back in the final – and against yet another former club. One would think, if we’re talking about fate again, that it’s about time the cards fell in his favour.
For every Cook and McMahon, however, there’s a Ricky Modeste. Two unsuccessful play-off campaigns with Chelmsford and one with Dover mean he needs little encouragement for Saturday’s final, particularly since enjoying something of a rejuvenation since his return from injury. With two goals at Sutton in the semi-final to bring his season’s total to eight, the winger – good friends with the Fleet’s Cook, Aiden Palmer and Billy Bricknell – carries a threat from the flanks.
Dover’s resilience is well documented – as is their away form, which was the best in Skrill South this season. Indeed with 13 wins, the Whites’ away form is identical to the Fleet’s home form and Brown’s men certainly don’t want to be letting Dover get their noses in front the way they did back in December. The Whites had a sixth-minute head start at Crabble and an even quicker one at Stonebridge Road and Fleet must roll out the resolve on their own patch that has seen them go eight games without conceding a goal.
Up front, Dover have perhaps a greater spread of strikers to choose from than the Fleet. Former Ebbsfleet striker Nathan Elder needs little introduction, though his seven goals this season are some way short of his haul for Fleet in the Conference Premier. Top scorer is Tom Murphy with 13, one of those the winner against the Fleet at Crabble back in August.
Jeff Goulding has scored nine in only 18 games since his arrival midway through the season, while Barry Cogan – suspended for the final – has 11 from midfield. Then there’s Moses Ademola, many Dover fans’ first-choice for the front berth – though Chris Kinnear has tended to disagree, starting the ex-Woking hitman only 16 times this term for a return of four goals.
With Terrell Forbes and James Rogers in Dover’s lineup at Priestfield, it would suggest they might have to settle for a place on the bench, and that could see another former Fleet favourite in Liam Bellamy starting for the Whites. His energetic display at Stonebridge Road back in December, alongside Chris Kinnear Jr’s ability to break up and frustrate the Fleet rhythm, should see the two of them in place to do the same again this weekend.
Quite apart from this season, Fleet’s record against Dover has never been the best. Since the Whites’ reformation in 1983, Fleet have won just five of 26 meetings, losing 17. But the good news is that four of those five wins have come in one-off cup games.
One thing’s for certain, nobody will actually pay any mind to these statistics come 3pm on Saturday. Fleet fans believe that if their side performs like it has in recent weeks and can maintain the fortress mentality that has shut out eight teams in succession at Stonebridge Road, then their team will be back in the Conference Premier for a third time this century.
Equally, Dover fans are convinced that their single-minded resolution, unsurpassed away form and seeming good luck in recent weeks will see them through.
Only one group will be going home happy on Saturday. So don’t blink. You might miss something.