Dover Athletic returned to the Conference Premier for the first time in 12 years as Nathan Elder returned to haunt the Fleet, grabbing the only goal of the game to separate two sides whose destinies seemed to have been interwoven all season.
Elder’s second-half header broke Fleet hearts in a poor game that failed to live up to its pre-match hype – not that Dover’s travelling support cared a jot as they celebrated in the rain to see their team lift the trophy.
There were three changes to the Fleet’s starting line-up from the Bromley game, with a centre-back pairing of Paul Lorraine, in his final game for the club, and Shane Huke replacing the injured Anthony Acheampong and Osei Sankofa. Michael Corcoran returned from his suspension to fill in for Dean Rance’s own enforced absence.
But with 4,294 fans packed inside Stonebridge Road expecting a humdinger, they got anything but. The first-half was drab stuff, with neither side mustering much of note until the closing stages. Ricky Modeste had the first shot inside three minutes as Elder charged down a clearance, but he pulled it wide of the post.
There was little to savour in the opening period and Fleet didn’t threaten until 10 minutes in, when Billy Bricknell got goal side of Sean Raggett but hooked his effort off target. Fleet attempted to take the game to Dover and were marginally the more adventurous as Bricknell headed a Daryl McMahon corner over and Lorraine had space in the box to attempt an ambitious overhead kick, but it was cleared.
McMahon’s 22nd minute free kick whistled just past the post before the half’s only real talking point saw Preston Edwards flattened by a Nathan Elder challenge that left him laid out on the Stonebridge Road turf for several minutes before groggily getting to his feet with a bandage applied around his head.
The break didn’t lift the game into life any further though Fleet had two additional chances, both falling to Ben May. The first saw May glance a header just over the bar and then a pacy cross from Cook just eluded the Fleet No.9 as he rose beneath the crossbar.
It had to get better in the second half and it did – but only for Dover fans. Still both teams played a cagey game, neither willing to expose their back line to direct attack. On 51 minutes Tom Wynter’s cross eluded everyone in the penalty box as it skidded across the grass with the goal gaping while Fleet’s afternoon was summed up by a Cook free-kick that sailed into the Plough End.
But Fleet lost the game on 56 minutes. Aiden Palmer was wrestled off the ball by Modeste as he attempted to clear and Dover earned their first corner as Edwards parried the resulting shot. Modeste took it and Elder headed it home. Simple stuff… and certainly simple enough to win this final.
That should have signalled a Fleet onslaught but it never quite came. Dover proved adept at running the clock down and soaking up the scant pressure that the home side applied. Michael Thalassitis replaced Bricknell, but it was Dover who almost grabbed another goal when Moses Ademola had two shots blocked by Edwards, who minutes later had to stretch as a misjudged bounce threatened to creep into the top corner.
Fleet’s best – and perhaps only – chance to equalise followed. Good work from Cook found Palmer down the left and he hoisted a cross to the far post where Osborn rather snatched at the shot in his eagerness and fired it into the side netting.
That was his last contribution as Stacy Long replaced him but Fleet seemed to have nothing left in the tank. May laid a ball into Corcoran’s path on the edge of the box but his shot went wide and then May drew the first save of note out of Mitch Walker as another chance fell away.
Dover, understandably, took their time about proceedings and Fleet had no answer, with even Edwards’ foray into the visitors’ half for a late spell of pressure yielding nothing for the home side. And after a long, hard season, it was nothing they got as the final whistle went and Dover celebrated promotion.
The post-mortem will of course start as Fleet pick over the bones of this one, but they couldn’t have come much closer. As Dover know so well after their own promotion final defeat, the only thing to do is come back, keep going and try again.
TEAM: Edwards, Howe, Palmer, McMahon, Lorraine, Huke, Osborn (Long 71), Corcoran, May, Bricknell (Thalassitis 64, Sessegnon 90), Cook. Subs not used: Hall,