The Long Read: Groover

February 28, 2021

The Mark Morris era is regarded as one of the most successful times in the club's recent history. In a side that would outwork many opponents, score freely, win silverware and included many cult heroes, few played thrived more than Matt Groves. An unrelenting presence up front with an eye for goal, Matt would be at the heart of the Dorchester frontline for many seasons with his record at the end of his first spell being an impressive 394 games with 137 goals as well as having a hand in countless others.

Still playing now and managing Dorset Premier League side Merley Cobham Sports, a side that also includes another ex-Magpie in Nathan Walker, 'Groover' has fond memories of his time at the club, and also a few in later years that are anything but. Thankfully, the good far outweigh the bad. A youngster at the age of just 18 when he joined the club, it wasn't Mark Morris who would bring Matt to the club, it was in fact his predecessor, Stuart Morgan. Matt recalls how having initially been at Portsmouth as a youth team then a reserve player that his move to Dorchester in November of 1998 came about;

"I was at Pompey and we played Dorch in a pre-season friendly. I was in their reserves and I got let go not long after the season started, and when I got let go, Stuart called and said come on down. I was living quite local at the time in Corfe Mullen and wasn't on a contract to start, but then I signed for a year and whatever was left of that season."

Although used almost exclusively from the bench at first, Matt would net his first goal for the club in a 5-2 loss away at Ilkeston in February of 1999, before a slightly more regular run in the starting XI towards the very end of that season. Competition for places was stiff with the likes of Danny O'Hagan and Martin Shepherd at the club, and the 18th place finish would see the club clear of relegation, but wouldn't exactly set the world alight.

The following season in 1999-2000 would also see another 18th place finish, but a far more incident filled one. Manager Stuart Morgan was sacked only nine games into the new season (the club had won two, drawn four and lost three of their opening games) with a 3-0 defeat away at Taunton in the FA Cup being the final straw.

"Stuart was really only manager for a short time before Mark (Morris) took over. Stuart had signed him as a player and he became player manager when he left. Stuart had a good team when he got sacked and it was a real shame when he went as he'd have probably turned it around."

Mark Morris would be player manager for only a short while as he'd retire from playing to focus on the managerial side shortly after getting the role. It wouldn't be an easy job to start with though as despite an 18th place finish after taking over from Stuart Morgan, the following season in 2000-01 would see the club relegated in 21st place from 22 by an eight-point margin.

"The team that went down was very good individually but lacking something. When Mark took over, he got his own men in, and although it took time, it worked. The club wanted to go in a new direction and there was a lot more emphasis on youth and hungry players. Mark introduced a lower basic pay and higher bonuses and everyone was buying into it. He made us very hard to beat and very fit."

And from his time at the club, Mark Morris is the manager that Matt holds in the highest regard.

"Mark as a motivator was excellent. He kept himself to himself but you knew where you stood. If you were s***, he'd tell you. If you were good, he might tell you! He was perfect for the players he had; he always had your back. It's easy to discard a player but he always had faith. He made sure everyone understood their jobs. He had high expectations and if you didn’t work hard then you wouldn’t play. He could except mistakes but not a lack of effort."

After winning the Southern League Challenge Trophy but narrowly missing out on promotion in the 2001-02 season, we'd smash 114 league goals on the way to winning the Dr Martens Eastern Division in 2002-03, with Matt netting 27 times in 49 appearances across all competitions. Although prolific over the season, there were two games of note in which he didn't net, an 8-1 win against St Leonards and a 9-0 victory over Spalding.

"I was only on a goal bonus and didn’t score! I tried so hard and it didn’t happen. The harder I tried the worse it got, I must have been the only bloke not to score and Shep must have got about six or seven! I had my mates there watching me and they took the p*** all night after that!"

But from his perspective, it was easy to see why goals and victories were coming with such frequency.

"We were all mates and you didn't want to get left behind. We all drove each other on as you didn't want to be let go or not be in the team"

"We played with no fear, knew we were a good side, knew we’d score and we knew we’d get promoted. We just got stronger every week. We had a lot of Bournemouth based players like myself, Hanny, Jem, Orms, Stuart Cooper, and a few others. A lot of us used to get on at St Leonards and go out together after games, we'd almost prefer away games for the social side! It was a good place on the bus, Benji playing the joker, card schools, few beers on the way back and then out after."

"We were all mates and you didn't want to get left behind. We all drove each other on as you didn't want to be let go or not be in the team. Andy Harris and Shep were big characters then, and in later seasons it was myself, Jem and Jamie. We all worked hard for each other."

We lost to Nuneaton on the Saturday, went out that night, were hungover on the Sunday and we unbelievable against Bath on the Bank Holiday Monday"

The following season in 2003-04 would see the club back in the Dr Martens Premier, and this would be the final season before a league restructuring and the creation of the Conference South. With much of the same young side but with two years more experience, making the Conference South was the ultimate aim. But after narrowly missing out on an automatic place in the new league and making it into the playoff spots after a final day loss to Nuneaton, it would take a big effort with an away semi-final at Bath the next game. The following two games would be some of Matt's favourite memories from his time at Dorchester.

"The away semi-final is Bath was brilliant. We lost to Nuneaton on the Saturday, went out that night, were hungover on the Sunday and we unbelievable against Bath on the Bank Holiday Monday. We had no Lawsy in that game but they couldn't get near us and it was one of our best performances. I got the third right in front of the Dorch fans and set Jamie (Brown) up as well. We were unbelievable again against Tivvy in the playoff final and they were two of our best team performances ever in front of 1,500 at Bath and then in the final at Exeter. The bus journey home after the final was brilliant."

A new league and challenge would once again await in the form of the Conference South in 2004-05, but it was step up that the club was prepared for.

" We felt we were ready for the step up. We were playing against better players week in and week out and going to new grounds, and we embraced it. We got a couple of drubbings and one team were paying silly money, but we did well. There was a step up in quality but we were ready, and we'd added some quality of our own in players like Mark Robinson and Jose Barandiaran. I think I was second top scorer in the league that season and had a good second season too."

A final day defeat at Bognor Regis saw us just miss out on the play-offs, but it was also a season that saw the personal highlight of Matt's time at the club with his famous hat trick  in the 4-1 demolition in the derby.

"A personal highlight was the hat trick against Weymouth, that really put me up a level. The game itself went quickly with first half being fairly equal and I was pleased with my goal, then second half we absolutely battered them. Grabbing a hat trick was just perfect in such a huge derby and was the highlight of my playing career as people still talk to me about it now and it’s what I’m best remembered for at Dorchester. Doing it in front of 4,000 fans is brilliant and scoring the one in the 1-1 draw at their place a few days later was as satisfying as the three in the 4-1. There's a great picture of me and Jem celebrating at their place, it's great doing it in front of all those fans."

This season would also see the start of a new strike partnership as Jamie Brown would partner Groover up top to fill the void left by the departure of David Laws. Although a short-term fix at first, it soon became a far more permanent solution.

"Lawsy had come in the previous season and he was great for what we needed. He was older, a presence, gave younger players confidence and knew where the goal was. But once he left at the start of the next season, Jamie stepped up front. We were big mates and we'd look after each other. Jamie would do a lot of the nasty stuff and I'd play a lot more on the shoulder. It was a short-term measure initially but we gelled. I'd gamble a lot more and we were both quick, strong, keen, and we both liked battering people. We never worked on it, it just clicked."

An 11th place finish followed up in 2005-06, but sadly, things started to go downhill in pre-season ahead of the 2006-07 campaign. Manager Mark Morris would depart in July of 2006 after being in the managerial post since 1999 and things would worsen from there.

"Mark had taken pre-season but things were getting a touch stale, then he left. It was possibly due to transfers as we probably needed four or five new additions but Mark wasn't allowed to make them. We then had Mick Jenkins come in who ripped the team apart and went from 14/15 in a settled squad of players to a huge turnover. We had no consistency. Justin Keeler got bombed out, Jem got dropped, we went through loads of keepers and centre backs, loads of kids in on loan, we weren't scoring. He had no man management and at the end of that season I was going to go to Eastleigh."

But that move was put on hold when another managerial change saw Shaun Brooks take over as the club looked to switch to full-time football.

"I was set to go to Eastleigh when Shaun came in and asked me to stay. We were full time and I trained twice a week and played all pre-season. Then first game of the season, I'm on the bench. I came on and scored, then next game, I'm on the bench again. We played Lewes away early season and their manager, Steve King, asked me why I was on the bench and I told him I didn't know! We then had a friendly for the non-first team players at Gosport and I got a hat trick. I saw Shaun afterwards and he told me I wouldn't be starting the next game, so I said I needed to leave. I went to Lewes, won the Conference South player of the month award for November, we won the league and Dorch finished second bottom."

Matt's spell at Lewes would only last the single season, but it was a memorable one with a league winners medal and another prolific campaign. But financial difficulties at the club and the 250-mile solo round trip meant he'd leave the club at the end of his year-long deal. A year at Eastleigh would then follow, although Matt would admit he only signed there as Jamie Brown was at the club and in fact wishes he'd gone to Havant instead, before a former team mate, in Roy O'Brien, took over at Dorch. Roy was quick to re-sign Matt for the 2009-10 season.

"It was Roy who signed me for the second spell, I can't remember if I messaged him or the other way around, and there were a lot of the same faces at the club in the backroom and people like Jem. We had no real consistency though and had a horrible cycle of continuous change. I stayed for the second season (2010-11) with Ash Vickers and was in and out of the side. I went on loan to Wimborne for three months and hated it, nothing against the club but didn't enjoy the drop down a couple of leagues, and then when I came back I did okay but wasn't getting in the side. It was hard to accept not getting in the side and going down the pecking order, and I struggled to accept it. It was easier to accept when players the same or better were ahead of me, and I may have missed chances, but I always tried my hardest and felt some others weren't."

After being asked to go out on loan again, the writing was on the wall and Matt's departure from the club would soon follow. A surprising move to Weymouth would soon follow and he'd spend almost three years there are as a player as well as assisting manager Brendan King.

"I enjoyed my time there with Brendan, it was good experience on the coaching a managerial side and I always gave 100%."

Asked if it felt weird playing on the other side of the ridge, the answer is a heavily caveated 'no': "After I left them early in the season, I went to Frome and we played them on Boxing Day. I scored to put us 1-0 up and went mad celebrating! After that I had a couple of years of not enjoying it and was going to play a lot more golf. But I joined Merley Cobham in 2016 and started to enjoy it again and I'm still there now. I'm player/manager and I love it. It's nice playing for enjoyment."

Matt did in fact score at the Avenue this season as Merley visited to play Dorchester Sports, and he looks forward to his next Avenue return where he now finds his name in the main stand having been voted into the 'Avenue Stadium XI' and having a seat in his honour.

"It's a massive honour. The number of players that have been through there is huge so to be recognised is a real honour. Hopefully when things get back to normal a few of us will be able to get down there."

Matt's record of 444 games and 151 goals is impressive, more so when you consider he wasn't a penalty taker in his first spell and spent most of his first two seasons and part of his last as a substitute. A player who's work ethic could never be questioned, who scored and created many vital goals for the club, it isn't difficult to see why he was such a fan favourite and more than deserving of his place in club history.

Words: Stuart Voss

Images: Idris Martin

Matt has kindly been sponsored by Kate and Derek Taylor. You can sponsor a legend as part of our Sponsor a Seat campaign by clicking here.

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