Dover set sail for new Cup venture buoyed by Birchall's goals

Competition's top scorer this season gives the Kent town hope in their first third-round appearance
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The Independent Football

They are the lowest-ranked club left in the FA Cup, have a record in the competition which their own website describes as "embarrassing and abysmal, to put it mildly" and travel to promotion-chasing opponents who sit 72 places above them in the national hierarchy.

At first glance tomorrow's visit by Dover Athletic, who lie fourth in the Blue Square South table, to Huddersfield Town, who are fourth in League One, might appear to be a monumental mismatch. However, if Lee Clark, Huddersfield's manager, has spoken to his counterparts at Gillingham and Aldershot he will know that his team could have their work cut out.

Dover had never gone beyond the first round of the Cup until two months ago, when they travelled to Gillingham for a match that had more than local rivalry at stake. Earlier in the year the Gills had poached not one but two of their non-League neighbours' managers, Ian Hendon having taken up an offer to assist Andy Hessenthaler at the Priestfield Stadium just 18 days after succeeding him in the Dover hot seat. The result? An emphatic 2-0 victory for Dover, who went on to repeat the scoreline when they entertained Aldershot in the second round three weeks later.

Considering their status, Dover's personnel have a remarkable cup pedigree. Their manager, Martin Hayes, was Arsenal's top scorer in the 1986-87 season, when he played at Wembley in the League Cup final as George Graham's team beat Liverpool 2-1. He returned in the same competition the following year, scoring as Arsenal were beaten 3-2 by Luton. Hayes played briefly for Dover in 1995 and returned to manage the club last summer after 10 years in charge of Bishop's Stortford.

Barry Cogan, signed by Hayes from Crawley two months ago, has played in an FA Cup final. The midfielder was in the Millwall team beaten by Manchester United seven years ago and went on to play for the London club in the Uefa Cup.

Ross Flitney, Dover's goalkeeper, endured the frustration of sitting on the bench for Fulham in several Premier League matches without ever getting on the pitch, though he suffered even greater disappointment when playing for Barnet in the Carling Cup against Manchester United at Old Trafford five seasons ago. The biggest match of Flitney's career was ended after just 80 seconds when he was sent off for handling the ball outside his penalty area.

Adam Birchall, Dover's leading scorer, has also enjoyed his share of cup drama. The former Wales under-21 striker played in the Mansfield team beaten in the third round of the FA Cup by Alan Shearer's 80th-minute goal for Newcastle in 2006 and in the Barnet teams that reached the fourth round in 2007 and 2008.

It is 26-year-old Birchall's current form that will give Dover the greatest cause for optimism. Having scored in all seven of his team's matches in the competition, the former Arsenal trainee is the leading marksman in the FA Cup this season with 11 goals. He warmed up for tomorrow's big match by scoring five times in Dover's 7-2 thumping of Thurrock.

"Some Dover fans might think – just send Birchy up on his own," Hayes told BBC Radio Kent when asked about his likely line-up to face Huddersfield. "I think we'll score and, who knows, that might just be enough.

"We always look like we're going to score and if you've got pace and energy it always gives you a chance. It's going to be really tough and we know we'll have to work our socks off."

Dover's main goal is promotion back to the Conference, where they spent nine seasons until relegation in 2002 prompted a slide down the non-League ladder. Beset by financial problems, the club were at one stage in danger of going the way of their predecessors, Dover FC, who folded in 1983, unable to pay their debts.

The current club, who were formed in the same year and play at the same Crabble Athletic Ground as their predecessors, were rescued six seasons ago by a consortium led by Jim Parmenter, who had previously taken Margate into the Conference.

Tomorrow will be the first time in the 119-year history of organised football in Dover that the town's representatives have played in the third round of the Cup. No wonder 1,500 fans will make the 450-mile round trip.