We’re now only a day away from the return of competitive football to The Avenue, so normal service with blogs covering depressing defeats in the arse end of London and how a sense of optimism can be crushed by 1515 will soon resume. But before that, we have one final lookback (for the time being…) and having done the previous title winning seasons of 1979-80 and 1986-87, we finish this little series with a review of the record breaking 2002-03 campaign that saw us win the Dr Martens Eastern Division title.
In many ways this is a totally different triumph to the previous two that have been mentioned. Firstly, the preseason expectations in this season were to gain promotion and this is very much in contrast to the two other successful seasons. Relegation had preceded the 1979-80 triumph and it should also have preceded the 1986-87 season but we were reprieved due to a substandard ground from one of the would-be promoted sides. This was not the case in this successful campaign though, as we’d finished an agonising third, five points off the promoted Hastings and Grantham sides. So where as consolidation had been the order of the day in other years, promotion and being in the title picture was the minimum expectation this time around. After relegation in the 2001-02 season, manager Mark Morris had totally rebuilt and changed the personnel and ethic of his Dorchester side. The deals players were on had become much more performance related, a lot of the players involved in the relegation had departed, a core of young and hungry players had joined and the spine of the side was very strong.
Matty Holmes was a key part of the side and remembers both this and the previous season well; “It was no bad thing really that we didn’t go up in the previous season. It gave us a chance to build on finishing third and we had a really stong spine to the side. We had quality in depth and were able to go into games knowing we’d score, and with Skunk (Andy Harris) and Michael White at the back we had a quality centre back pairing.”
Building on that near miss of a season wouldn’t require major changes to the squad with Matt Hann and the returning Martyn Shepherd being the key additions to supplement a squad that was close knit and had already shown it was capable to being genuine contenders as well as being very physically fit and well drilled. With players such as Holmes, Hann, Shepherd, Matt Groves, Justin Keeler and Marcus Oldbury in side, goals shouldn’t be a problem. And with a backline marshalled by the excellent Mark Ormerod that included Andy Harris, Michael White, a young Mark Jermyn, Jamie Brown, Simon Radcliffe, Carl Poore and many others who would make vital contributions, we looked set for a season that could match our high expectations.
This would inevitably see us draw our first game of the season away at a Spalding side who would get relegated with a tally of only 18 points. Shep and Keeler penalty getting us off the mark in terms of both goals and points on what was a boiling hot first day. A 1-1 draw at home to Newport IoW with another Keeler penalty helping us take a share of the spoils in front of a crowd of 427 would follow that, and our first three points would come in a 3-1 win at home over Banbury with another Keeler penalty added to single strikes by Shep and Phil Andrews. A 0-0 away at Bashley on August Bank Holiday would precede a 5-0 FA Cup win at Porthleven (Harris, Shep, Keeler, Oldbury, OG), but we would lose two players in and around this time. David Elm would move to Bashley for an alleged £10,000 (it was a different time),and Matt Lonnon would sadly see his season ended as he would injure his knee ligaments in the FA Cup win at Porthleven.
No replacements were signed given the depth in the squad, but the start of the season after five games was DDWDD, which was slow by anyone’s standards, and more was expected in the league. The fifth game was a 2-2 with Rothwell (Holmes/Shepherd) but it was the next game when the first glimpse of what was to come was seen with the 5-1 demolition of promotion contenders Salisbury. Shep, Hann, a Keeler brace and a first strike of the season for Matt Groves would see us brush our visitors aside in emphatic fashion. It was a game Matt Holmes would we “bossed” and gave the team a much needed boost after a slow start, but defeat away at Clevedon in the FA Cup and a 2-2 draw at Tonbridge in the league would see us take a backward step after the forward momentum the Salisbury win gave us.
But the disappointment of the Tonbridge result would result in the first real turning point of the season as Matt Groves (who netted both goals in that game) would recall;
“Tonbridge was a game we really should have won. We drew 2-2 and got the mother of all bollockings from Mark Morris afterwards. Then a few beers later on the bus and it turns out he’s off on holiday to Spain and misses the next game anyway!”
And it was that next game that would prove a pivotal moment in the season as we would travel to another promotion contender in Eastbourne on the Tuesday night. With Mark Morris away in warmer weather that the Sunshine Coast of Sussex, he would select Matty Holmes to take charge of the team with Benji assisting. The gaffer for a day remembers it well;
“Mark had asked me to take charge for that night and left his instructions for it and I remember starting really well and being 2-0 up. Once we got the third I subbed myself off quickly but my record as Dorchester manager is played one and one won so I’m happy with that record!”
Ever wondered why Matty is yet to manage us full time? Why risk that 100% record. The Eastbourne task was made difficult by the sending off of Andy Harris after half an hour with is 2-0 up, but we’d see the game through comfortably enough as single strikes from Shep, Groover and a rare Mark Jermyn strike would see us home. Both Matt’s Holmes and Groves would identify this game as key fixture in the season and it’s easy to see why. We’d win nine of the next 10 games in the league (exciting both the trophy and the league cup, but who really cares) in a run that saw us remain right up there, with a 2-0 home defeat on Boxing Day against Bashley bringing our run to a halt. But 28 points from a possible 30 from late September to Christmas was an excellent return.
In that run we would really hit our stride going forward. The 8-1 home victory over St Leonards would include four goals from a rampant Shep (would would chose that as one of his favourite games in the recent ‘players choice’ pieces), five goals in a 5-2 mauling at Corby, and a 4-0 win at home versus Chatham. The smallest margin of victory was 2-1 with the only dropped points coming in a 0-0 away at fellow promotion chaser Salisbury. As Groover would remark;
“We played with no fear, knew we were a good side, knew we’d score and we knew we’d get promoted. We just got stronger every week.”
With that said, we’d then go on a most typical of Dorch runs as including the Boxing Day defeat, we’d lose five of the next seven in the league. Defeats against Banbury, Rothwell, Burhman and Stamford would see us fall a bit off the pace, with a 2-2 at Kings Lynn as a 1-0 win over Erith and Belvedere being the only points gained in the run. In the piece on the 1986-87 title win, Pete Morrell would say how there was less pressure on the side in the run in as “we weren’t up there to be shot at” all season, but had the pressure of expectation got to us this time around? If it had, we’d shake it off in quite spectacular style.
It would start with a 5-1 home demolition of Tonbridge with Hann, Jem, Groover and a Keeler brace doing the damage, and although a 0-0 away at Fleet would follow, what was to follow was remarkable. Wins against Fisher, Ashford and Spalding would come by scores of 2-0, 5-1 and 9-0 (N-I-N-E) with goals and confidence now flowing again. Does Groover remember the emphatic wins by margins of 8-1 and 9-0 well? Of course he does, but not for the reasons you may think…
“Of course I remember them, I was only a goal bonus and didn’t score! I tried so hard and it didn’t happen. The harder I tried the worse it got, I must have been the only bloke not to score and Shep must have got about six or seven! I had my mates there watching me and they took the piss all night after that!”
Shep did indeed fill his boots with a hat trick against Spalding to follow his four against St Leonards. Matt Hann would also bag a hat trick in the 9-0 win as his profitable season continued, but it was the next game, a rearranged clash away at Histon in midweek that would prove more memorable in terms of importance for the pair of Matthews;
Groves; “It was a Tuesday night and it was a long trip. The coach would leave at half one in the afternoon and I remember we got back and got dropped off in Bournemouth at two in the morning on Wednesday. But we won 2-0 and it was a big win that really showed the team spirit.”
Holmes; “I remember we were two thirds of the way there on the original date in December when it got called off and it’s a really long journey. It felt even longer midweek but we played really well and got a big win. There was a lot of travelling that season and that was a long trip getting back early in the morning, but it was a great result.”
It was goals from Hann and Keeler that would secure the points and since the Stamford defeat, it was five wins from six. That would become six from seven as another goal glut would come as Erith and Belvedere would become the latest victims, a margin of 6-2 seeing our goal difference increase to a quite ridiculous number. Mark Rawlinson would net his first goal for the club in his third appearance following his arrival from over the Ridgeway, a rare piece of transfer activity in a very settled squad. But this wouldn’t cause issues with team spirit and the mentality of the side being so geared towards team rather than individual success. The work ethic and spirit created came from a huge respect for the manager who was someone who players would run through walls for.
Groves; “Mark made sure everyone understood their jobs. He had high expectations and if you didn’t work hard then you wouldn’t play. He could except mistakes but not a lack of effort, and that’s why we won the league.”
Holmes; “Mark would get right into people if needs be. He was respected and you really didn’t want to let him down. We were well organised and I remember doing shape sessions with him in pre-season which was pretty much unheard of in non-league. You wanted to play for him.”
Wins at home to Corby and a victory overseas on the Isle of Wight versus Newport would precede a disappointing draw at home to Dartford. This would see our midweek fixture at home to league leaders Eastbourne take on extra importance as we sat in third place, points and a place off the promotion slots. A draw would have been of much more value to the visitors who had a healthy points at that time. But despite the fact he cannot remember his performance or anything particular from the game, Matty Holmes would be the driving force behind an absolutely vital win. With Ollie Cherrett and Micheal Walker replacing the injured regulars of Andy Harris and Simon Radcliffe, we’d take an early lead through a Matt Hann header following some excellent work down the left by Holmes. A rare error from the usually faultless Mark Ormerod would see Eastbourne level, but a Holmes strike with six minutes to go would prove to be the winner. His left footed shot from 20 yards would squirm under the keeper and creep over the line and send those stood in the rain behind the goal mad. Three vital points and we were right back in the title and promotion shake up.
Things would only get better from there and not always due to our own actions. A 4-0 win at home over Chatham would see us move into the second promotion place as Salisbury, who had occupied that spot, fell to a 3-1 defeat at Kings Lynn, and Salisbury’s misery would be compounded as they were docked three vital points for fielding an ineligible player in an earlier game. Eastbourne would also drop points at home to lowly Corby Town in their game in hand, and all of a sudden we were second place with a gap to third and only three points off Eastbourne in top spot.
Any questions about our ability to handle pressure and sustain our form were rather emphatically answered with wins over Histon, St Leonards and Fleet leaving us needed a victory away at Fisher to secure promotion back to the Dr Martens Premier. An 5-1 trouncing of our hosts would see promotion secured, with goals from Shep, Michael Walker, and own goal and two from a Groover (one after only 15 seconds) seeing us canter home. A more competitive match than the football would see Groover and Mark Morris battle it out for the last beer on the bus home.
Matt Hann; “I remember that before we got to out of the M25 we had to stop for a refill on beers as we had drank the supply dry as they were already gone! I even remember Mark fighting Grovsey for the last beer at the back of the bus (only one winner there). Great memories, of the football, yes, but of the lads much more.”
Matt Groves; “I do remember that! It was a great journey home and we needed to restock on beer pretty quickly. I gave as good as I got but I don’t think I was winning that one! It just shows the teams spirit, Mark would always be good for a few words on the bus and that was a great trip. We played like a promoted side.”
Sadly for Groover, he’d injure his ankle in the game (not in the beer battle) and would miss the final game of the season against Kings Lynn. And with promotion secured, a win would see us win the league regardless of Eastbourne’s result as even though we were level on points, our goal difference was so far superior. A lone Justin Keeler strike from a free kick would bring us the three points and the title as the celebrations would carry on long into the night with the fans and players. Keeler’s goal would be our 114th league strike of the campaign, a record only bettered by the Dinky Curtis inspired Magpies of 1960-61. We’d also win the Dorset Senior Cup courtesy of a 2-0 win over Weymouth making this our most successful season in recent years, as well as setting a record that still stands of a season high points tally with 93.
Rarely has a Dorchester side played with such confidence and it really was a team effort with everyone in the squad playing their part. We’d have three players with 20 goals or more as Groover (20), Shep (24) and Keeler (26) would all enjoy excellent seasons, and the supply line of Holmes (seven) and Hann (16) would add a combined 21 goals as well as countless assists. Jamie Brown and Mark Rawlinson would share the midfield duties with Marcus Oldbury often being used as Matty Holmes replacement, and the backline that usually comprised of the excellent Ormerod marshalling a back four of Jermyn, Radcliffe, Harris and White that was ably assisted by vital squad members such as Carl Poore, Ollie Cherrett, Michael Walker. In truth, everyone that wore the shirt played their part in the season, the close nit nature of the squad being proved by the fact that many of those who played are still in touch to this day. With a core of ten or so players living in Bournemouth, the social side was as successful as the on field side with a very much work hard and play hard feel to it. Matty Holmes would say it was the best Dorchester side he played in and many fans will likely say its the best Dorchester side they’ve seen. Looking back, it’s not difficult to see why.
So there you have it, the final historical piece of (this) lockdown done. If you’ve enjoyed looking back and reliving some of the memories then don’t forget, the season starts again so why not get down The Avenue and support club. We can’t promise a romp to the title like this, but it has to be better than the months of endless zoom quizzes and efforts to master the art of baking that many seem to have endured over the past few months. Up the ale house cloggers, here’s hoping I might end up writing a blog on this coming campaign in a positive sense in the not too distant future. SV.
Thanks to Matty Holmes and Matt Groves for their memories, Idris Martin for his excellent photos, and Sam Welch for having the time to dig out the stats from the programmes.