DOVER, England -- There were only 486 supporters there to see it, on a night when the mist from the English Channel rolled in and out of the tiny Crabble Stadium, but after 364 days that have seen them become, statistically at least, the worst team in England, Dover Athletic finally won a game.
Alfie Pavey's 59th-minute goal on Tuesday night was the first time Dover had taken the lead in front of their home fans all season -- a season in which they'd lost 20 and drawn four of their previous National League fixtures and failed to win any of their three cup ties. In the end, Eastleigh became the first team to lose to Andy Hessenthaler's side since Barnet suffered a 3-1 defeat here on Jan. 26, 2021.
Two fans were pictured wearing T-shirts under their coats bearing the words "I saw Dover win." They'd been wearing them to games for the past three months, in hope rather than expectation, as the worst run in the side's history grew longer and longer.
Despite the obvious punchlines, Dover's predicament is no joke for those involved with the club. A team of part-time players, attempting to compete in a league that includes the likes of Wrexham, who are owned and funded by Hollywood actors Ryan Reynolds and Rob McElhenney, Dover have been anchored to the foot of the National League all season. They were even deducted 12 points, and fined £40,000, for failing to fulfill fixtures last season due to the financial impact of the pandemic.
"We were set up to fail this season," Jim Parmenter, the Dover chairman and owner, told ESPN. "So I decided that we would only spend what we could afford this year because we were never going to succeed with a 12-point deduction.
"This league is getting so tough now. The money being spent by some clubs is unbelievable. Wrexham have just paid £300,000 to sign a player from Wimbledon -- two leagues higher than us -- with a £200,000 signing-on fee and wages of £4,000 a week. We can't compete with that, so we set our stall out to be prudent. I just want the club to be here for the town and function at whatever level we can afford."
Despite Parmenter's determination to ensure that Dover have a future, being the only senior team without a victory in British football -- the National League feeds directly into the Football League (EFL) -- has been a draining and unenviable distinction for the club.
"In all my time in the game, I have never known anything like this in terms of how long it has gone on," manager Hessenthaler told ESPN. "It hasn't been easy and I was beginning to worry that the win wouldn't come."
'It's always been a struggle'
Dover has a romanticised reputation because of its White Cliffs, the distinctive chalk rock face that greets those heading to the United Kingdom from Europe. Only 21 miles separate Dover from Calais in France, and as a result, the town has long been the gateway to the continent for trade and travel. But an ongoing migrant crisis -- and associated protests -- has seen the town become a focal point for refugees from Africa, Syria and Iraq attempting, sometimes with tragic outcomes, to make the hazardous journey from Europe to the U.K. via the shortest possible route.
It is also a geographical outpost and a town enduring tough times; a 2021 survey conducted by Loughborough University revealed that 35% of children in Dover live in poverty. The pandemic, and end of free movement between the U.K. and Europe because of Brexit, have hit Dover hard; as a result, the football club has seen pre-COVID attendance fall from around 1,200 a game to an average of 800 this season.
"Dover is a struggle because we have a 180-degree catchment area and a population of 30,000," chairman Parmenter said. "It's always been a struggle. In a good year, we will get crowds of 1,400 or 1,500, and can survive quite well on that. But we are getting 700 to 800 at the moment, and it's just not enough."
It is because of Dover's financial realities that Parmenter, who runs a fruit and vegetable distribution company, took the controversial decision to furlough everyone on the club's payroll last January. As a result, Dover could not fulfil their fixture obligations and didn't play beyond the end of January last season. "Last year, we didn't start the season on time," Parmenter told ESPN. "There were no crowds allowed, we couldn't have any functions to raise funds, so the National League negotiated grants from the government for us all to start the season.
"The grants were to last until December if we started in October, and when I asked what would happen if we still couldn't have crowds or functions in December, we were told that we would get further grants. But when it got to December, the grants weren't there and the League held a vote to decide whether the stop the season or continue. Thirteen clubs out of 23 in our League voted to continue, but to do that, we would have had to take a loan from the government of between £500,000 and £1 million.
"I wasn't prepared to do that haven't spent 16 years getting this club into a good financial position, so I put everyone on furlough and wrote to the League to say that we couldn't continue to play. They charged us with not completing our fixtures, fined us £40,000 and gave us a 12-point deduction for this season because they couldn't relegate us as all the Leagues below us had stopped playing.
"Ours was a measured and thought-out process -- we'd very carefully planned for the club to survive. But I was surprised by the treatment we had because I thought it was unjustified and unfair."
In a statement issued at the time of the sanction, the National League said that Dover were fined and docked points having considered the "integrity of the competition" and due to the costs incurred by the other 22 clubs to continue the season behind closed doors. Despite the punishment -- the club also lost their appeal last June -- Parmenter is unrepentant and believes his decision safeguarded Dover's future.
"We have always been prudent, never had debt and I make sure that the club's books balance at the end of every year," he said. "We have players on £250-a-week up to about £600. Compare that to £4,000 a week at some other clubs. It's real-world money.
"I've been really heartened by conversations I've had with other clubs and supporters who come up to me and say that what we did was right, but it doesn't change where we are. All the sympathy in the world doesn't improve our plight."
'I didn't want to miss it when we finally won'
Andy Hessenthaler played more than 500 professional games for Gillingham, Watford and Hull City after initially combining a part-time career with a job in the building trade. Now 56 with more than 20 years in management, he drives the kit van to games with Richard Harvey, a Brisbane-born former professional cricket coach who has four different roles for Dover.
"We all muck in," Hessenthaler told ESPN. "I do it because I love the club. It's my second spell here, but they are fantastic people and they are having a rough time right now.
"But it's very difficult. For the players to keep turning up for training -- we train at night for two hours on a Monday and Thursday at a local school -- when you are losing games, it is very hard to keep motivating yourself to go onto the pitch and give your all, knowing that you can't stop losing."
The losing stopped on Tuesday, though. Eastleigh are a full-time outfit with a squad of professional players, while Dover are a team of loan signings and players who have full-time jobs in teaching and construction. Reserve goalkeeper Alexis Andre Jr. is a model with a massive following on Instagram and TikTok, while defender Sam Wood once supplemented his football income by serving as Lionel Messi's body double in commercials.
Hessenthaler's team have lost 13 games by one goal this season and Ryan Hanson, a Dover-born midfielder, says that maintaining belief and hope has not been easy. "I'm not going to lie: it is difficult to keep going and find motivation," Hanson told ESPN. "But what has kept us going is that we have been [competitive] in games most weeks. Going so close [to winning] has kept us going, but to finally win felt really, really good.
"Some people were beginning to believe we would go a full season without a win, but we all believed in ourselves."
Some Dover fans had given up. "It's been awful," Frank, 56, told ESPN. "You turn up to watch because it's your club, but we never seem to get any lucky breaks."
Another fan, Josh, 27, said, "I only continued to come to games because I didn't want to miss it when we finally won, but I thought I would be next season because the winless run had seemed to become a psychological problem.
"Even when Alfie scored against Eastleigh, there was still so long to play -- and then six minutes of stoppage time -- that it seemed inevitable we would throw it away. We didn't, though, so this was one of the really good nights."
Pavey's goal, a close-range strike after his initial shot had been saved, came against the run of play and led to a lengthy period of Eastleigh dominance, but Dover held on. At the end, there was an awkward sense of nobody knowing what to do with it being so long since they had last won.
Some players punched the air in relief; others walked towards the home fans to celebrate with those who had shared their misery for so long. But within five minutes of the final whistle, the ground was empty and the floodlights had been switched off. They need to keep the electricity bill down.
One fan joked to his friend that Dover "would make the BBC News that night," while match winner Pavey looked at his phone to find congratulatory texts and one "from the missus because I want a lie-in tomorrow." For Hessenthaler, it was quickly back to business and the next challenge of ensuring that this win is the start of things rather than a flash in the pan.
"We're on minus five points now, so let's get past zero and get to plus," he said. "That has to be the aim. We don't want to end the season on minus points."
As he set the target, Hessenthaler's assistant, Nicky Southall, walked past.
"Thank f--- for that," Southall said. "Let's get to the bar and have a couple of beers."