20 July ~ My team Dover Athletic will soon be starting a second season in the Blue Square South, a league our chairman Jim Parmenter has described as "a no-man's land" he'd like us to leave inside the next two years. While it's difficult to put your finger on exactly what's missing, there are times when you can see his point. The two divisions directly below the Conference came about as a sort of half-way house between the regional and national levels. It's Conference football of sorts, but doesn't come with the major benefits. We don't get the money-spinning visits of the big boys like Luton, Oxford et al but do get the mind-boggling expense of travelling distances that aren't a great deal less at a higher level.
In one year, we went from the Ryman League, a division in which it seemed that every other game was a Kent derby, to one in which we travelled over 4,600 miles (and that doesn't include the games that were postponed just after we got there). Travelling support at our place, with two or three honourable exceptions, ranged from negligible to non-existent. Statistics are open to interpretation, of course, but when traditionally well-supported clubs such as Woking, Chelmsford City and ourselves show, on average, a 20 per cent decline in attendances – despite all three making the play-offs – it's clear we can't shrug our shoulders and just blame the credit crunch.
Our Boxing Day "derby" game took us to West Sussex to play Lewes. And with the respect that should be afforded to nice people who showed us a good time before battering us 6-2, that's hardly a fixture that gets the pulses racing for fans of either club, at a time when everyone else is welcoming their biggest gate of the season.
Still, we mustn't grumble, given that the last three years under manager Andy Hessenthaler will be remembered as halcyon days. Since Dover left the Vauxhall Conference the wrong way in 2002, there have been two more relegations, daily battles against liquidation for a couple of years and three unsuccessful attempts at the play-offs – followed by back-to-back championships in the Ryman League.
Even though Hess recently returned to manage Gillingham with best wishes ringing in his ears, the sense of expectation his reign produced is still tangible. Given that the promotion and relegation issues have largely worked out to our benefit, we'll have more derbies this year and won't be spending anywhere near as much on petrol. Whatever its faults, Blue Square South remains a novelty that hasn't worn off. Yet. Mark Winter