Dover Athletic 3
Ashford Town (Middlesex) 2

Ryman League Premier Division,
Crabble Athletic Ground, Dover
6th September 2008

Neither side had caution on their minds in this top of the table clash, three goals in the first eleven minutes set the scene for what was a superb advert for non-league football. Ashford made three changes from the team that defeated Heybridge in midweek, the Harris brothers, Scott and Warren, returned in place of Gavin Smith and Brett Cooper respectively and Gavin Bamford replaced the suspended Adam Logie. Dover reported that they were at full strength.

Some of the Dover people expressed surprise that a “small” club like Ashford could be at the top of the Ryman Premier League, genuinely enquiring how they can compete with big clubs like themselves, Chelmsford, AFC Wimbledon etc. it’s not the first time this season that other clubs have questioned Ashford’s credentials for playing in the top flight of the Ryman League let alone being among the front runners (“a two bob pseudo Sunday League pub team” was one of the more eloquent descriptions by a fan of one of Ashford’s previously defeated opponents). As Mark Butler’s boys have shown, that with great team spirit and a willingness to fight for each other, you don’t need to spend big to produce success and, although losing this match by the odd goal in five, the team showed that they can match any team in terms of ability and spirit.

An explosive start saw the visitors take an early lead only to have it cancelled out some 23 seconds afterwards. Warren Harris advanced down the right and had two attempts at crossing the ball, the second cross was headed clear but only to the waiting Paul Johnson who met the ball well, his goal bound shot being deflected past Dover keeper John Whitehouse.

Straight from the restart the ball was played out to the Dover right where right back Matt Fish was waiting in acres of room. Fish made some 40 yards without being challenged before crossing where Frannie Collin rose to head firmly past the diving Paul Burgess.

Dover midfielder Sammie Moore’s match lasted just 7 minutes before he was forced off with a blood injury that required hospital attention, to be replaced by James Rogers.

The frenetic action continued with Ashford regaining the upper hand in the eleventh minute. A long throw by Stuart Bamford was headed on by Byron Harrison and headed clear, again, to the predatory Paul Johnson who hit a sweet left-footed volley to Whitehouse’ right and into the net.

Two minutes later a good cross from the left by Dover’s Dean Hill found Shaun Welford in space but Ricardo Josephs’ well executed tackle cleared the danger then a good run by Ricky Wellard gave himself space to fire in a shot which was deflected away to safety.

Dover began applying sustained pressure to force the equaliser but it looked as though Ashford’s dogged resistance would hold out so it was very disappointing when Lee Browning was allowed to run unchecked into the penalty box and fire into Burgess’ right hand corner of the net.

Burgess came to his side’s rescue, and not for the last time, in the 35th minute when he managed to parry Collin’s fierce shot up into the air but Welford missed the ball as it descended and the chance was lost. Fish was enjoying plenty of possession on the right and using the ball well, causing consternation in the visitor’s defence at times.

A good ball forward by Josephs was latched on  to by Scott Harris and fed into the path of his strike partner Harrison but, just as the Ashford man was about to pull the trigger, Hill got back to clear the danger.

Ashford went close on the stroke of half-time. A free kick on the right was played into the feet of Harrison by Johnson, Harrison hit a sweet shot on the turn obliging Whitehouse to pull off a good save at the foot of his left hand post at the cost of a corner.

Brave keeping at both ends started the second half, Whitehouse from the feet of the rampaging Scott ‘Hatchet’ Harris with Burgess reciprocating at the other end, making an identical stop at the feet of Welford before Hill supplied the ammunition for Welford, once again, but the Dover striker fired over.

Whitehouse denied Wellard a superb goal in the 58th minute when the lanky Ashford midfielder (pictured), put through by an astute pass from Stuart Bamford, attempted to take on the whole Dover side on his own with a mazy run that carried him into the penalty box. The keeper managed to get a hand to Wellard’s firm shot and deflect the ball narrowly past the right hand post.

Dover went straight down the other end to force a brilliant save out of Burgess from Collin but Welford picked up the loose ball only to see his shot cannon off the bar to safety but Dover were enjoying another period of domination and a free kick from Jon Wallis and a header by Collin went close.

Gavin Bamford was cautioned for a body check on Wallis, who went to ground a little too easily, with the subsequent free kick being headed into Burgess’ arms by Ollie Shulz, then Wellard attempted to replicate his earlier run with another that carried him into a similar position but his shot suffered the same fate, this time deflected off of a defender’s ankle.

Just as the visitors looked to be gaining ground on their hosts, Dover scored, what turned out to be the deciding goal. Browning was put through by a long ball forward, controlled the ball well and laid it back to the supporting Rogers who gave Burgess no chance from the edge of the box.

Fish went close after good work on the right by Wallis but it was Ashford who upped their game in an attempt to find the equaliser. Gavin Smith replaced Scott Harris and Scott Todd came on for Warren Harris for Ashford while Sam Jones replaced Welford for the home team.

Todd wriggled past Fish before being bought down, with the free kick amounting to nothing, then Todd, again, found his way past Schulz before losing out to Whitehouse before a quick ball up-field to Jones, with Ashford pushing up, gave him the opportunity to find Collin unmarked but the Dover striker headed wide.

Gavin Bamford saw two long range shots sail over Whitehouse’ bar as Ashford strived to share the points and Dover substitute Jerahl Hughes should have put the game firmly beyond Ashford’s grasp when he shot over while unmarked.

The twenty or so supporters that Ashford took to Dover were at their vociferous best but the huge Dover support of some 1000 gave their team a massive lift when Ashford looked to be getting on top. In the end, the result was probably the right one as Dover shaded possession on the day but it could easily have been 6 – 6 had both sides taken a higher percentage of their chances. If the return match at Short Lane is as good as this one was, I can’t wait..