When last these two sides met at Meadowbank, the second v first nature of the fixture was somewhat prematurely labelled a potential title decider.
That was late January and the game even then was considered big enough… now it’s massive. It may not be a title decider but the prize in a Promotion Final might as well be – and it most certainly is a decider!
For the Fleet, it’s not exactly new territory – Saturday will be the club’s fifth promotion final at this level but the first one away from home since we went to Farnborough and won 4-2 back in 2011.
But the excitement around North Kent is palpable – be it the first or the fifth promotion final, Fleet supporters are looking forward to it with unashamed eagerness. The 900 tickets went in the blink of an eye with demand outweighing supply by some distance.
Also keenly looking forward to it – but keeping their heads down and hard at work all week – are Dennis Kutrieb and his squad who delighted supporters with their win over Chippenham Town in the semi-final last Sunday. It marked the culmination of two seasons of work, starting from the points-per-game relegation from the National League, through the Covid-affected and ultimately abandoned season of 2020/21, to the long, winding road of this campaign – with the club now just 90-120 minutes away from reclaiming that place in non-league’s top tier.
“It’s a very big day for all of us but the job’s not done,” said Kutrieb after the semi-final. “And we’ll do everything to get the win, like we did last Sunday. We will go again so that every single supporter of this club can be proud of this team.”
The two meetings between the sides were vastly different – Fleet going toe to toe at Meadowbank until Sefa Kahraman’s quickfire pair of yellow cards upset the odds and Dorking made the advantage tell after finally taking a first-half lead. Back at the Kuflink Stadium, a goal apiece in an even first-half decided the game and although Dorking enjoyed their share of territory and chances in the second half, it was Fleet who almost won it late on with three good opportunities for Dominic Poleon.
There’s very little in the way of surprises either manager can spring on the other as they are more than familiar with each other’s shape and tactics. Dorking boss Marc White was an interested spectator at the Kuflink Stadium for the Chippenham semi-final and he goes into this final shorn of the talents of the injured Matt Briggs, who scored a hat-trick against the Fleet in January.
White has, however, welcomed back prolific frontman Jason Prior who previously earned Havant & Waterlooville promotion ahead of Dartford in what was almost the last kick of the 2017/18 season. Prior and Alfie Rutherford (who was carrying a knock midweek) will likely lead the line as they did in Dorking’s 3-0 win over Oxford City in the semi-final. There are few surprises in defence also with experienced skipper Barry Fuller in there, another ex-Havant man in Ed Harris and potentially Isaac Philpott.
Dorking’s midfield is a little more fluid – Darren Oldaker, who impressed against the Fleet back in January, missed the semi-final but returned midweek in the Surrey Senior Cup win. Wide man Nicky Wheeler is lacking a little match fitness but White made a lot of changes for the semi-final on Saturday and again for the county cup on Tuesday so there’s plenty of questions hanging over his potential picks for Saturday’s Promotion Final.
Former Fleet FA Trophy winner Luke Moore may have just turned 34 but he’s been back in the frame for a regular starting place at Dorking over the past five weeks or so, having also played against Oxford City last weekend. And there’s further Fleet interest, of course, with Bobby-Joe Taylor potentially going head-to-head with his former Maidstone pal and Ebbsfleet teammate Jack Paxman, although Taylor has had to get used to a mix of starting and bench-warming this season. Former Fleet youngster Kane Wills is another, now very much an old hand in the Dorking midfield, but with only six starts this season he’s unlikely to feature.
Arguably, Dorking haven’t faced much pressure since Maidstone moved into pole position for the title. Their second place was already fairly secure for a number of weeks so they perhaps haven’t played at quite the same intensity as the Fleet.
With this Fleet’s fifth such promotion final, it is Dorking’s first at National South level, although they did contest the 2019/20 semi-finals, losing to Weymouth. Their only previous final came in 2016/17 when Corinthian Casuals took them to penalties but lost as Dorking won promotion from the Isthmian Division One South.
Form-wise, there’s not a huge amount to choose between the sides, with Fleet top of the form table and Dorking third. Both sides’ defensive records are identical with 53 conceded each but Dorking’s plus-100 scoring record has been the eye-catching part to their season and they put that to good use with quickfire goals in the semi-final against Oxford City. With 22 goals from their last five at home, they’ll be hoping to get their crowd going early but Fleet’s 900, packed together in one end, will make plenty of noise to get behind their side in what is an intriguing promotion final.
Those Fleet fans have experienced it all in previous promotion finals, you name it, they’ve done it – elation, trepidation, gut-wrenching disappointment, heartache, triumph, pride, adversity and glory. And that probably only covers some of it! This Saturday, we’ll have more words to add to our playoffs lexicon – it’s been a mesmerising journey and it all ends 40 miles around the M25.
Get behind the boys for every second of those 90 minutes and let’s write a new chapter of history in our 75th anniversary season.
• Supporters travelling on coaches to Dorking Wanderers are advised to please park in Ebbsfleet International Car Park C as per matchdays. Read more here.