Ahead of a potentially career defining match, in which the ultimate prize of the Football League is just an arm stretch away, few could be blamed for feeling nerves under the sense of the occasion.
Nonetheless, ahead of Sunday’s National League play-off final clash against Tranmere Rovers at Wembley, Forest Green striker Christian Doidge revealed the feeling of excitement that has swept the club’s training ground since Sunday’s semi-final victory over Dagenham and Redbridge.
“Everyone’s really, really excited. It’s a great opportunity for the club and us players.”
It was perhaps a bitter sweet moment last weekend, as Doidge scored the ultimately decisive goal against his former employers.
“Obviously I knew what a lot of their boys were about”, he said, when discussing the two legs against his former side, for whom he finished his final season as the club’s top scorer in League Two. “I still speak to them quite regularly and consider a lot of them as mates.
With the second leg finely poised after a 1-1 draw at Victoria Road, it was the 26-year-old’s second-half strike at New Lane which opened the scoring of an eventual 2-0 outcome in the hosts’ favour, securing the club’s passage to Wembley for a second successive season. He continued:
“I worked under John Still towards the end of the season and took a real liking to him, so it was a difficult two games. But, it is business, and we managed to get the job done in the end, and luckily I was able to help by scoring a goal.”
This is of course, the second time Forest Green will travel to Wembley in as many seasons, having suffered play-off heartbreak at the hands of Grimsby Town in May 2016, a game that finished 3-1 thanks to an Omar Bogle double.
This clash against Grimsby was only Rovers’ manager, Mark Cooper’s, third game in charge, after his predecessor Ady Pennock was sacked just one week before the club’s play-off semi-final against Dover Athletic.
Following the disappointment that came with defeat in London, Doidge became one of Cooper’s first additions at the club as he sought to build a team capable of going one further ahead of the 2016/17 campaign.
Having decided to run down his contract at Dagenham, the Welshman made the move closer to home by joining the Cotswold club. However, having been born in Newport, his childhood roots were not the only pull factor when weighing up his future.
Indeed, the ambitions held by Forest Green, despite being a relatively minuscule club based in the quaint town of Nailsworth, are clear for all to see. Unsurprisingly, this left a lasting impression on Doidge as he pondered his next move:
“I sat down with the manager Mark Cooper and he told me the vision for the club and the direction that they wanted to go in. It was going to be a real journey and definitely something I wanted to be a part of.
“The owner has got such great ambitions of where he wants the club to go. It’s an exciting time to play for Forest Green.”
Doidge has recorded a career-best goal scoring campaign in his debut season at The New Lane, with 26 goals in 43 league appearances, repaying the faith Mark Cooper showed in him when bringing him to the Cotswold outfit.
The 6’1″ striker has thrived under his new head coach, who has implemented a visually appealing style of play, built around possession football and passing opponents out of the match, similar to that which he instilled at Swindon Town during his two year tenure.
Praised by Cooper for his “pace, work-rate and attitude” upon his arrival, Doidge has slotted seamlessly into the manager’s game plan, proving he is not just an aerial threat, but also an astute finisher in front of goal:
“It’s definitely helped my game. Before I was at Forest Green I played for Dagenham, who were very route one. As a centre-forward all I seemed to have been doing was running down channels and flicking balls on for other people.
“It’s nice to play in a team who try and keep the ball and create opportunities for you, allowing me to show another side to my game; that I’m good on the floor as well as flicking balls on and running channels.
“When I dropped down into this league, I wanted to show everyone that I’m good in front of goal. I definitely wanted to make an impact. “
And make an impact, he has. On a personal level, this season has been a huge success for Doidge, who set himself a target of “20-plus goals” prior to joining Forest Green. “If I don’t score that many I’ll be very disappointed”, he told the club website as he put pen to paper in signing a two-year contract.
He has since smashed this tally, becoming the division’s second-highest scorer in the process – only outdone by the remarkable achievements of Dover Athletic front man, Ricky Miller, who has recently signed for League One outfit Peterborough United.
However, in spite of his triumphs in front of goal over the last 10 months, Doidge explained it would all mean nothing if Rovers fail to win at Wembley against Tranmere on Sunday:
“I set that target at the beginning of the season and I’m really happy that I managed to reach it and score a couple more. It’s been a really good season for me so far, but it doesn’t really mean much unless we get promoted, as that’s what we set out to do.”
His impressive form throughout the campaign saw him collect no fewer than four awards at Rovers’ end of season presentation last month, as he was named Player of the Year by both his teammates and the club’s supporters. Meanwhile, he scooped the Top Goal Scorer accolade, as well as Goal of the Season.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, it was the supporters’ award that filled the Welshman with most pride. He explained: “At the end of the day, the fans turn up home and away and all they want to see is real hard working people playing for their football club. I feel like, as a professional footballer, that’s the least you can do.
“I know fans pay a lot to come and watch us, and that’s why I always give 120% every single game. I know how much the clubs I’ve played for mean to the fans and that’s why it is always an honour to win those awards.”
Of course, Doidge is a player with Football League experience under his belt, having made 47 appearances in League Two during his two years spent with Dagenham. While many of his teammates are yet to experience life above Non-League, the Welshman knows exactly what to expect should Rovers achieve their aims on Sunday.
“It’s a better league, with better players”, he said. “As a professional footballer you want to play as high as you can, so it’s really important that in that first year you don’t go straight back down. You want to ensure stability, while really enjoying the moment. There are not many players who are able to say that [they have played in the Football League], many spend a long time in the Conference.”
Looking ahead to the task in hand, Forest Green should approach their clash against Tranmere with confidence, knowing they are unbeaten against their adversaries this season. A 2-2 draw at home earlier in November was followed by a 1-0 victory on Merseyside in the closing weeks of the campaign.
However, after 46 domestic matches and a two-legged semi-final, Rovers’ promotion hopes now rest on a single afternoon at Wembley. With all to play for in London this weekend, past form is irrelevant. A place in the Football League will be granted to the team who performs best on the day, and Doidge is all too aware of this:
“It’s a blank slate. The two games were completely different. In the first we played really well, but only managed to get a draw. Then, at their place, we won 1-0 but we weren’t really at the races that day. It shows how different things can be in football, and it will be a blank slate on Sunday. It’s a one off game and the winner takes all.”
Slight nerves are expected ahead of Sunday’s potential career-shaping clash, the occasion of which will play on the mind of even the most confident of players. However, Doidge expressed his feeling of excitement to be stepping out at Wembley on the biggest stage of Non-League football:
“I’m going to feel confident, but there will be slight nerves. Anyone who doesn’t feel nervous must be a robot. It’s a big opportunity for us as players and for club. We’re playing at a ground that a lot of the boys have never played at. It’s a big stadium and there is a lot riding on a game. There will be nerves, but more excitement at the sense of opportunity.”
Forest Green Rovers are certainly an outfit not lacking in ambition, and Christian Doidge has been key to the Cotswold outfit’s promotion charge this campaign. His 26 goals thus far have helped to spearhead his side’s charge to the National League play-off final, and he will be confident of adding to his season tally against Tranmere on Sunday.
Should all go to plan, he will undoubtedly play a pivotal role in completing the club’s journey, and his subsequent return, to the Football League.