After turning it around when it looked over and out against Leyton Orient, we now find ourselves in the playoff final.
Our opponents in the final are Chesterfield, who also got promoted from National League last season through the playoffs. No matter the outcome, the winner will get back-to-back promotions and go from the National League to League One in two seasons. A possible fairytale ending for both teams.
Chesterfield often plays in a 4-2-3-1 with a double pivot in front of the defence and a vicious front four led by top scorer and striker Kabongo Thsimanga. This season, he scored 29 goals in 44 games and is one goal behind Alfie Rutherford.
They have Liam Mandeville, and Armando Dobra on the wings, who are 3rd and 5th in the league in dribbles made this season.
We have a big job of stopping those two from getting space to set up Thsimanga.
They finished above us in the league and placed 4th with just three points up to direct promotion. We’ve scored six goals more than them, but they have conceded 52 whilst we’ve conceded 66. If both teams are at their best, they should be two even teams in the final. In the league, we won one game each. We beat them away from home in October after a brace from Rutherford and their goal scored by Thsimanga.
They beat us 3-2 at Meadowbank after two late goals in January. Elliot Thorpe, their attacking midfielder, scored a brace against us and eleven league goals throughout the season. However, they have other goal threats than Tshimanga, so we can only partially focus on stopping him.
They also have a solid duo in the heart of the defence in Lawrence Maguire and Paul Kalambayi, who the bought from AFC Wimbledon in January. They also have Louie Annesley, formerly Blackburn, as a shield in front of the defence. Annesley is a full international for Gibraltar, with 38 games for them. That’s 38 more international games than our team combined. With no injuries, they can field their strongest eleven against us.
In the semi-finals, they beat Bradford City on penalties after each team won a leg 1-0.
Chesterfield is a bigger club with a bigger budget and possibly a stronger squad than we do. They’re the odds favourites before the final, but that suits us well. We like to come from behind and surprise.
Over to our side, we have a similar way to the final, but possibly a more exhausting and nervous one.
Injury-wise, we have three regular starters out of the final James McShane, Niall McManus and Sam Beard. Our first-choice wing-backs on both sides out with injuries have forced us to play a 4-4-2/4-2-4 with fewer demands on the wing-backs as we don’t have any real backup. On the plus side, we make the most out of Matt Briggs when he can play as a winger on the right, so that’s probably the formation we land on going into the final. It worked wonders for three halves against Leyton Orient, so why play with the one that sent us three goals behind?
The day before the final, we got the news that club captain Barry Fuller had hung up his boots. He announced his retirement earlier in the season and signed a pre-contract to become manager for the U21s, but to hang up his boots one day before the biggest game of the clubs’ existence is something else. You’re done with the last training session, every preparation for the final is done, and all you have to do is play the match itself and hang up the boots after a potential win in the final and promotion to go with it. Instead, you do it the day before. That’s our captain.
We have to adjust and find a right back within the club in the next 24 hours, no problem. I also had to find a new captain, and Archie Procter gets the armband after a fantastic season and development since he arrived.
There are no big expectations for us ahead of the final, and the board and supporters expect a defeat. No pressure on us, and no matter the result, we have outdone ourselves and punched way above our weight this season.
Over to the final, it was a real surprise to find Kabongo Thsimanga on the bench and Joe McGlynn starting up front for Chesterfield. He has done well when called upon, but it’s weird to place their top scorer on the bench.
I decided to trust Isaac Philpott on the right back because I had no real options other than him. With James McShane still injured, Alex Chudy also starts the final on the left wing. The 16-year-old has done incredibly well in his first season with the first team. With 12 goals and eight assists in all competitions, I trust him to produce something for us. He has come on leaps and bounds as a footballer this season and is now one of the best players in the team—all that before he’s old enough to turn professional.
We won the coin toss and kicked off the final in front of 51,752 in the stands. Chesterfield started the game best with two long shots within the first five minutes, they didn’t manage to test Dan Lincoln, but they have the momentum. In the ninth minute, Lincoln made a superb save after a header from McGlynn, and the ball was on its way to finding the net when Cameron Black swiped it off the line. So close, but we keep going!
With Chesterfield controlling the game, we won the ball in our half, and Alfie Egan found Bobby-Joe Taylor rushing forward on the left. With a cross from the deep, through Chesterfields’ box, he found Matt Briggs, who hit the post! Of course, we must take clear-cut chances to win this, but at least we created one.
Armando Dobra came close after 17 minutes after a corner when he got the ball all alone on the far post. Luckily, his shot went straight on Lincoln, who cleared it to a corner. Four minutes later, Black brought the ball out of the defence and found Briggs in the Chesterfield box. Briggs ran with the ball towards the line, and his cross touched Laurence Maguire. That didn’t help much as it found Ryan Seager, who made no mistake with a header to make it 1-0!! What is Barry Fuller doing today? I hope he’s enjoying the first day of his retirement…
We gained momentum after the goal and continued to produce chances. First, Rutherford came close with a shot tipped off the bar in the 27th minute before Black had a header outside the post on the following corner. The rest of the first half didn’t have any big chances or happenings, as it was mostly a battle for possession in midfield. Both teams had long shots, and Black came close again after a free kick. He’s a monster in the air, that lad!
When the ref blew for halftime, we will knowingly know that we’d been the best team for the first half and had been producing the best chances. 1.88 vs 0.46 in xG in our favour confirms that.
During the break, I told the lads that we were doing well-getting shots away and creating chances and urged them to keep going. No substations are needed yet, but with a yellow card on Chudy and Rutherford, we need to observe them. Chesterfield didn’t make any changes and is still keeping their top scorer on the bench.
The second half started where the first one left off, and both teams looked slightly nervous about making any mistakes. After 50 minutes played, Alfie Procter sent a long ball out on the left to find Chudy. Chudy sent away a pass between two defenders, who found Alfie Rutherford in front of the goal. With a first-time shot, he made no mistake, and the keeper had no chance of saving it. 2-0!!
Around the hour, we made two changes when Seb Bowerman replaced Alfie Rutherford, and Jack Jebb came on for Josh Taylor. Chesterfield made three changes and changed all three behind their striker, but still no Thsimanga on the pitch.
And it might be a good reason for that. After 65 minutes played, Ollie Banks sent a ball over or defence and found Joe McGlynn, who made no mistake against Lincoln and scored with a composed finish. Black may be a monster in the air, but he’s not that good on the ground and was easily passed by McGlynn in that situation. 2-1!
Five minutes later, McGlynn came close again when he put the ball in the net but was correctly disallowed for an offside. With twenty minutes to go, Chesterfield has the momentum, and we’re struggling to produce anything, and it’s even problematic keeping the ball. Philpott is struggling to perform on the right back, so I took him off and replaced him with Brodi Rieger.
The next ten minutes didn’t have any chances, and keeping the ball for both teams was a struggle. Chesterfield is tiring, so I brought on Dan Gallagher for Egan. Gallagher is perfect for scenarios like this with his work rate and determination. Nicky Wheeler replaced Ryan Seager, who is exhausted after running like a maniac all game. With ten minutes to play, it’s all about keeping our lead.
Wheeler isn’t a natural striker, but he can do a job with fresh legs. One minute before full time, he got the ball from Chudy on 20m and curled it beautifully in the top corner, just being disallowed for an offside. A close call, but it looked like it was correct.
With five minutes of added time, this was set out to be a nail-biting five minutes. It’s essential that we manage to finish our attacks and re-group rather than being hit on the counter. In the 92nd minute, Taylor came around on the left and found Chudy with a cross. His header was perfectly timed but somehow hit the bar and went over. That was the last chance of the game, and after that, Chesterfield gave up. The following three minutes were just us controlling possession and waiting for the final whistle. We’re promoted for the second time in two seasons!!!
Taking a newly promoted team from the National League to League One in two seasons is some achievement, I tell you that. Please bare in mind it’s the same squad. Sam Beard and a few graduates from our academy are the only additional players. It sure will be hard to compete at an even higher level, but we will also make that work. For the academy part of the save, it’s a significant step to offer our young start League One football, at least for a season.
Another fantastic by Alfie Rutherford and Ryan Seager. It’s the third season in a row for Rutherford with 30+ goals in the league, and he is now the leading goalscorer in the history of Dorking Wanderers. It’s also worth mentioning that two academy graduates are in this season’s best eleven, with Cameron Black taking place in the defence and Alex Chudy pushing James McShane out of the best eleven. McShane lost 20% of the season due to injury. However, he did play 38 games in all competitions, which is a big testament to Shudy’s quality.
For the second season in a row, we had an intake that has the potential to become a golden generation.
With six players deemed elite talents, it sure will be fun to follow these guys’ development in the future.
Antonio Lettieri is an up-and-coming attacking midfielder or striker with all the abilities to become a first-team player at the club. With great vision, technique and flair, he has an excellent fundament to build on and will probably get his debut next season.
Shane Hanlon came in the youth intake as a blessing considering Barry Fuller’s retirement. He needs to learn how to play full-back, something I believe will come over time with enough minutes in the position. Great natural fitness, teamwork and decent pace make him a good prospect for us.
Steve Stewart is comfortable in a position we lack coverage, so his way to the first team will probably be short. He needs to develop all aspects of his game, but his bravery, good decisions and natural fitness can take him a long way.
In the leagues, the U18s won the National League Football Academy North East with a good margin, while the U21’s got a tough year in their first season in U21 Division 3. They finished last with 16 points, proving that they had a rough year and are far away from competing against teams like Watford, Reading and Brentford.
The best U18s will play with the U21s to get better matching, and for every season we progress, we will possess higher quality.
There were no investments in the youth setup this season due to the significant investments in going full-time, expanding Meadowbank and investing in the training facilities.
Eleven players got their debuts for the first team, and three were promoted. Alex Chudy, Cameron Black and Brodi Rieger are now permanent members of the first team.
Thank you for reading and following along. I hope you enjoy the journey!
/ FM Veteran