By Matt Badcock
Alan Dowson wasn’t good enough to make the big time as a professional footballer. He didn’t think that should stop him from trying, though.
He would send letters to clubs asking for trials but because his writing wasn’t very good, he didn’t get many replies.
The trials he did get didn’t work out until a schoolteacher helped him get one at Millwall. Aged 15, he was travelling down from his native Gateshead to play for the youth team at weekends.
By 16, he was living in a room just off Old Kent Road when he was given an apprentice’s deal – in those days it included weeding the terraces and he would babysit for Mick McCarthy to earn a few extra quid.
“I was never a good enough player to make money,” Dowson says. “I just made apprentice because of my attitude. I just made it as a pro because of my attitude. I just got to the first team, I just got to Fulham – because I always knew I was going to be like that, the management side kicked in early.
“I knew what I lacked in ability there, I could maybe make up for later on in my life. So I always took note of what was going on.”
An hour in the company of Dowson at Hampton & Richmond Borough’s Beveree ground on Wednesday morning flies by. In his thick north-east accent he rattles out stories. Take how footballers are different nowadays.
“In our day at 16 at Millwall, you’d get battered,” he says. “I remember playing in a reserve game. John Docherty was the manager, Roger Cross was my youth team coach.
“I was helping with the bags onto the coach, we went to play a reserve game at Craven Cottage. It was 0-0, I didn’t do bad playing left-back. It was a 2pm kick-off, finished at 4pm. At 4.30pm Bob Pearson comes into the changing room and says, ‘Dowse, somebody’s pulled out of the youth team game tonight, you’ve got to play in that as well’.
“I’m thinking, ‘Well I’ve only got an hour to get back to the ground’. I’m 16, I’ve played in this reserve team game, I’m absolutely whacked. I had to dash back with someone giving us a lift, I had nothing to eat at all – no water or anything – got to the Den about 6.30pm, got in my kit and played against Chelsea in the Southern Floodlight Cup.
“Again, first half, I did OK, secondhalf it’s 0-0, I’m doing alright but my legs are starting to go like jelly because I haven’t had a breather. I remember missing a tackle, a lad crossed it, they’ve scored.
“In the changing room, ‘You f*****g idiot Dowse!’ You do it now, you have the mams up. They’re all little cherubs now, especially the southern lads. Everybody’s a lovely little cherub, you’re not allowed to shout at them or swear at them.
“I was 15 when I left home. At times it was hard coming back on the train to see my family and going back at Christmas time. But I wanted to be a player that much I sacrificed everything.”
Or how he gets into his players when they’re getting a massage.
“The lads laugh,” he says. “I say, ‘Get off man, sitting on the treatment table! I played at Walton & Hersham with a broken leg for 20 minutes’. Which I did do. But what the lads have now clocked onto is that I was in hospital for a week and I never played again! Never again!”
Dowson had a good Non-League career. As well as Slough, he played for hometown club Gateshead before returning back south to Walton & Hersham, where he took his first steps into management.
But it’s because of his background that the 47-year-old demands so much from his players. Hard work is the only path to success and it’s why everything is earned. It’s something that is running through his time at Hampton & Richmond Borough now.
“We’ll travel to Chelmsford on our little minibus,” Dowson says. “Sometimes I’ve got to drive, sometimes Bill Glassup, the kitman, will drive, sometimes Tracey from behind the bar drives. Malcolm, the kitman for 40 years, is massive for us and he drives a lot of the time.
“But we’ll go there on our minibus, we’ll hoy all our kit on, the local boys squeeze in the back. It’s not Crazy Gang. It’s how I was brought up in the game. You always respect you have to earn every penny you get. Why do we need a big coach to go 50 miles to blinking Chelmsford?
“We’re all from the same council estate here, that’s the best way I’d put it. If somebody gets kicked, everybody limps, it’s one of those. But we’re all together here. I know I’ve got to lead but everyone is important.
“Everyone in the community. The girl down the café, I go and have a cup of tea and a chat with her – if you haven’t got those people, you haven’t got a club. It’s as simple as that.”
Before we sit down, Dowson makes a cup of tea in the kitchen where his December Manager of the Month is housed. He gave it to the volunteers who put in the hours because he says everyone is important to the Beavers’ current success.
At every home game, after he’s given his players their instructions, he pops his head around every door to see how everyone is getting on. Sometimes he’ll buy a bottle of wine for each of them to say thanks.
Dowson is also in charge of bringing in extra funds. He’s organising a Paul Merson night at the Lensbury Club on April 6 – “£750 a table, £80 a ticket; three-course meal, the lot of it” – and will run the Hampton Half Marathon with members of staff to raise money for Hampton’s youth section.
As we talk, the Beavers are 20 unbeaten in the National League South and putting themselves in the promotion mix. He says the players have been “absolutely sensational, unique” but if they lose at the weekend then it all starts again.
It’s why ‘five-year plans’ amuse Dowson, who has promotions with all three of the clubs he’s bossed.
“You get these crackerjacks, they are absolutely nuts – they talk about projects,” Dowson says. “What’s a bloody project? That’s something you did at college man! And I never went to school much.
“But projects! I laugh, ‘What’s a project?’ The next five years and all that. But what’s the point in talking about the next five years if you don’t win your next five games. If you don’t win your next five games you’re sacked!
“I’m very close to my chairman Graham Wood. We talk three times a day and he’s a bloody good chairman. But if I don’t win my next five or six games I’m going to be like everyone else in this league and out of a job.
“So, plan, win your game on Saturday. Plan, win your game on Saturday. You haven’t got a two-year plan if you lose five games.
“I learnt early leaving school without any exams that even in football life you’ve got to survive every single day. That’s all I’ve ever done.
“Today’s another day to survive. I love coming in this morning, I like talking to you, I’ll like going to watch Charlton v Palace today, then I’m going to try and raise some money because we need finance in and that’s what my job is as well, then I’ll be coaching some kids tonight and I’ll come back down here and finish on a youth team game.
“I’ll go to 11 o’clock. People say, ‘Dowse that’s a long day’. It’s the best job in the world! Every day is a Bank Holiday. Pressures come into it, of course they do, but you’ve got to hold your nerve.”
Dowson always wanted to work under chairman Wood, who returned to the club last year after steering Gateshead from the Northern Premier League to the brink of the Football League.
Both are Gateshead boys, Wood went to the same school as Dowson’s mum and lived on the same street. They’re bonded by their passion to win.
When they lose, Dowson goes straight home and “sulks”. He makes sure the wins are enjoyed and jokes that because he’ll only have a drink when they do, he’ll end up in the Priory if they keep going as they are.
“I was pleased the other night when we lost to Wealdstone in the cup because it gave me a breather!” laughs Dowson, whose side made it 21 unbeaten at Chelmsford yesterday.
Throughout our chat, he reiterates the success is down to the people around him. His staff, including trusty assistants Martin Tyler and Ian Dyer, are a big reason why they’re doing well along with the players.
When he took over they were struggling in the Ryman Premier. Two seasons ago they were champions, with stars like Jamal Lowe, Nicke Kabamba and Moussa Diarra now in full-time football.
Last season they made the play-offs when Poole Town and Hungerford Town weren’t allowed to compete in them. It would be some achievement if the club just over a mile from Hampton Court and tucked alongside the River Thames made it up this time.
“I remember I said to Martin Tyler once, ‘Bloody hell, I don’t know if we can get out of this’,” he says about the relegation fight in their first season.
“Then I went to the Christmas village fayre where they had all the shops open and it was fantastic. I said, ‘Martin, we can do something here, look at all these people’. They’ve bought into it.
“We’ve tried to go into schools and get them into the club, we’ve got a nice youth set-up, we’ve got an academy and crowds are going up. We’re all very determined.
“But this club wouldn’t be here without Alan Simpson (the late famous comedy writer). Our chairman, Graham, was great friends with him and our Jack, the vice chairman, is his godson.
“He was here 50 years and people thought the world of him. I think he would be delighted with how things are going. We like to do well in his memory.”
*This article originally featured in The @NonLeaguePaper which is available every Sunday and Monday