Wednesday, 28 September 2011

Help! I've joined the prawn sandwich brigade!

Another Tuesday evening, another drive along the A2, tracking the red British rail signs on the overhead green boards until it's time to leave the rush hour traffic behind and steer towards Ebbsfleet International Station. Of course, it's non-league football rather than high-speed rail service which has tempted me to embrace the industrial skyline of north Kent once again, retracing my steps to Stonebridge Road, a ground which has become something of second home for me ever since I walked through the turnstiles to cover my first Ebbsfleet United game.

Tonight is different, though. No laptop, no notebook, no smartphone, no Twitter. The same friendly faces greet me as I make my way into the ground, but I'm not headed to the press box - not immediately, anyway - rather, my name's on the guest list for the Fleet Lounge, where members rub shoulders with the match sponsors and injured first-team players. Even as Phil Moss hands me a free drinks voucher and ushers me towards a vat of chicken soup, I find myself scrutinising the team-sheets which have just arrived, scribing imaginary tweets about the apparently defensive side selected by Fleet manager Liam Daish, who has left Ricky Shakes, Scott Ginty and Lanre Azeez on the bench for a game against Bath City, the bottom side in Conference Premier. Soup and roll devoured, I'm off to voice my concerns in the more familiar surroundings of the press benches before the game gets under way.

With nothing but a programme resting on the desk in front of me, I'm able to give the game my undivided attention. My experience of the game lies somewhere between that of an exasperated home fan and studious journalist, with two sides low on confidence serving up fare less appetising than that which awaits me at half-time. Over more soup and a pre-ordered drink, the lounge guests are generally of the opinion that Calum Willock's headed goal won't be enough to see Ebbsfleet win at home for the first time this season, although the Champions League scores flashing up on the flatscreen TV seem to hold greater interest. The second-half's started but I'm still deep in coversation with former chairman Duncan Holt behind the terracing. I've well and truly crossed the line from press corps to prawn sandwich brigade.

Full-time brings meatballs and spaghetti, as I leave the reporters to glean Daish's post-match musings. The home side have won 3-0 and the manager's got reasons to be cheerful. Ebbsfleet captain Paul Lorraine arrives in the lounge wearing a beaming smile to collect his bubbly after being voted man of the match by tonight's sponsors. Photos taken, autographs signed, the defender stops for a quick word with us before heading out into the darkness. It's great to see the skipper back after his injury lay-off, but I can't help feeling Michael West was unlucky to miss out on the award. Come to think of it, I can't fathom how the midfielder's been overlooked, given the thrusting runs which troubled Bath all night, bringing him one goal and a further assist. Still, who am I to question my fellow soup-slurpers?

Monday, 26 September 2011

The day Martin Hayes and I lost our jobs

We always knew it would come to an end sooner or later. Neither my time with the Kent on Sunday sports desk or Martin Hayes' tenure as Dover Athletic manager seemed destined to be long-term marriages, but what chance both of us embracing the world of unemployment on the same autumnal morning?

The warning signs were there in each case, although an element of shock always seems to come as standard with these sort of things. In my case, a batch of New Year redundancies was not enough to satisfy the number-crunchers and a second editorial cost-cutting cull left me clearing my desk once the final deadlines had passed last week. For Hayes, questions over his ability to lead Dover into Conference Premier had rumbled on for months and Saturday's 1-1 draw with Havant & Waterlooville proved the last straw. That the final nail in Hayes' coffin should be an unsatisfactory result in front of the ├╝ber-demanding Crabble faithful was apt, given that the former Arsenal winger picked up only 20 points from a possible 81 at home during his time with the club.

Things hardly went according to the script from the start. Dover chose Ian Hendon to replace Andy Hessenthaler as their manager in May 2010, but Hendon was off to Gillingham as Hessenthaler's assistant just 18 days later, without taking charge of a single game. When Hayes was unveiled, Dover chairman Jim Parmenter insisted he had been on a 'shortlist of two', but the fact remained the Whites had missed out on their number-one target.

Such a turbulent pre-season left Hayes playing catch-up when the Conference South season got under way. Fine form on the road was undermined by anxiety at Crabble, as the Whites reached Christmas with only two home league wins to their name. A run to the FA Cup third round was always likely to buy Hayes more time with the Dover fans, although regular visits to the online fans' forum revealed that for many, his face simply did not fit, irrespective of results.

From a reporter's perspective, Hayes was as good as any other Kent manager. Rarely difficult to contact, always willing to analyse success and tackle criticism with equal vigour, he was a thoroughly pleasant interviewee, but the fact remained he simply was not picking up enough results to drag the club into the play-offs. A 4-0 defeat at Dartford extinguished the flickering hopes of a late jump into the top-five and turned up the heat on Hayes, who had been offered a new contract back in March.

Key players moved on in the summer. Jon Wallis, hugely popular with the Dover fans, left to join Dartford, while Ross Flitney and Matt Fish rejected contract offers before joining Gillingham. Priestfield was also the destination for Adam Birchall, the subject of a very different transfer tale, although Dover's over-reliance on the prolific striker last season begged the question of how exactly the goal-scoring void could be filled. To his credit, Hayes assembled a squad unrivalled in the division during a hectic close-season. Dover's ambition was a big draw for the likes of Ed Harris, Michael Corcoran, Billy Bricknell and George Purcell and back-to-back 4-0 wins to open the campaign suggested Hayes' summer business had been hugely astute.

The next nine games, though, were to prove Hayes' last nine in the Crabble hotseat. They yielded just one win, seven goals and nine points and while abusive anti-Hayes chants left Parmenter unimpressed, dwindling home gates prompted a reaction. Only 735 turned up for the visit of Havant, just over half the 1,385 inside Princes Park to watch Wallis and Dartford beat Tonbridge Angels. The chairman's pre-match programme notes read: "If adjustments are required they will be made, but only if and when the board decide it is necessary."

That 'adjustment' was quick in arriving. This week, for both Hayes and I, suddenly takes on a different complexion. Meanwhile, Dover are looking for their fourth manager in 16 months. Ah well, it was fun while it lasted. Good luck, Martin.