You only get one chance to make a first impression, and in pursuing a potential new striker for the 1994-95 campaign, Stuart Morgan was keen to make a good one.
Having left Hereford at the end of the previous season and seen a move to Rochdale fall through, Owen Pickard was a free agent and he came highly recommend to Morgan. Morgan had made contact over the phone and Owen was due to join up with his potential new teammates in the latter part of pre-season. Upon first sight, Owen was impressed with what he saw.
"I turned up to training and the stadium looked lovely. I'd spoken a couple of the Plymouth-based lads in Sully [Martyn Sullivan] and Garns [Darren Garner] and they'd said about coming to Dorch to keep fit and recommended me to Stuart. Then I spoke to Stuart on the phone and he invited me down. As I was living in Plymouth at the time I travelled down with a couple of the lads. The ground looked brilliant. Stuart was very welcoming and it looked a really good set up."
First impression made.
"Stuart then says we'll head to the training pitch. I had no idea where it was but we've gone across this main road with all the traffic going past, kept going and then into this field. It is pitch black. Next thing I know, this Land Rover comes up this track and someone shouts; "right, let's get the generator out. So, we're training in this field covered in sheep shit, rutted, lit by lights from a generator. We had people going over on their ankles, stepping in shit etc. I wondered what I'd come to! If I’d had seen the training pitch before the ground, I'm not sure I'd have hung around for the first game! Stuart knew what he was doing!"
But hang around he did. And when he left the club at the end of his first spell three years later, Owen had amassed a staggering 102 goals in 151 appearances. It could have been very different though had the proposed move to Rochdale not fallen through.
"I'd left Hereford at the end of the season and I'd been at Rochdale for two months in pre-season and scored 10 or 12 goals. I had expected to get a deal but I didn't in the end, and I'd sort of put all my eggs in one basket. Cardiff had been interested but I'd pretty much committed to Rochdale and when it didn't happen it was Garns and Sully and a couple of the other Plymouth based lads who said about coming to Dorchester, once I'd spoken with Stuart it went from there."
Owen had kept himself fit and sharp with his pre-season at the Division Three (now League Two) side, but there was no shortage of quality upon his arrival at Magpies, who were in the Beezer Homes League at the time (standard now equal to Conference South).
"My fitness levels were high and I was sharp, it was just trying to blend in with the lads. I was aware of the quality that was around the squad and we had some very good players. I don't think I scored for the first five or six games I played in, but once I got one or two, it just clicked."
Having made his debut off the bench in a 4-2 victory in the FA Cup over Newbury in October, Owen's first goal would come the following month in a Dr Martens’ Cup defeat against Newport (IoW) a month later.
However, it would be in a 5-2 victory against Crawley at The Avenue where he'd fully announce his arrival with a hat-trick. The goals had begun to flow. Not that this came to any surprise to Owen, who was impressed with service he was receiving from his teammates and the developing team spirt that was building.
"We were creating a lot of opportunities. With Garns in the middle, really good wingers and Tommy Killick up top with me, we were making a lot of chances. One of the beauties of coming from a pro club was that sharpness, so when I got a chance, I usually put it away. You're only as good as the team around you, and we had a very good team. Players knew where you'd run and when, balls were always played into the right areas.
"It was a happy changing room. Benji was such a funny guy. He knew his stuff and was very constructive, but he was hilarious all the time with his little quips. Skunk was always messing around and joking and it was the same with Garns and Taffy. We had a great bond and team spirit, and that went from the players and coaches right to the board and the fans."
It was a very profitable first season for Owen, as he would finish as the league’s second top scorer and win the club's player of the year award, as the team finished an impressive sixth. However, it was the following season where Owen would really cement his place in club folklore.
A hat trick in a 3-2 victory over Weymouth in the FA Cup third qualifying round is still fondly remembered by fans to this day.
"There was an amazing atmosphere on the day. I believe that the Weymouth management thought I was overrated and easily marked. So, I had a focus. But all the lads love the challenge of the derby and I certainly proved them wrong. I’ve always enjoyed a hostile atmosphere and that definitely helped all of us.
"I scored the first really early from a cutback and I think it was so early that the fans were still changing ends. I'm not sure about the second one but the third was a penalty I put to the keeper's top right. I wasn't really a penalty person, so I must have mis-kicked that one! It was an unbelievable atmosphere and an unbelievable game. At full time the celebrations were great and I remember getting a policeman's helmet put on my head by a fan in amongst it all! It was a great win for Stuart as well."
The cup run would see us make the first round for the first time in several years, but our progress would be brought to an abrupt halt at the hands of Oxford United as they ran out 9-1 winners.
"We had a really good win against Sittingbourne to get to the Oxford game, but we needed luck that day and got none. I was marked by Matt Elliott that day and he could have eaten me. [Elliott would go on to play for Leicester and Scotland] We had a load of players missing that day and it was an awful journey home after."
Another notable cup run would see us get to the third round of the FA Trophy as we would host Woking for one of the most infamous games at the new Avenue Stadium. Owen had already netted 28 goals in all competitions by the time that this fixture had come around and he would net another in what would be an agonising defeat for the Magpies.
"The Woking game was another with a great atmosphere. We played really well as a team and I scored from the rebound of a penalty we missed. I've still got the picture of Tommy and Toby Redwood jumping on top of me on my wall. It was gutting to lose in the end. They had some really good players and Steve Thompson, who had played for Wycombe for years in the football league was marking me and said; "If you stayed on your feet more, you'd be a good player"! I ended up playing with him at Yeovil and we became good mates!"
It was a tight-knit group both on and off the pitch, although on one occasion the socialising would come a bit too close to game time for the managers liking.
"We had Baldock Town away and it was the second part of a double header as we'd played at Kings Lynn the day before. We stayed overnight rather than travel back to have to go on the bus again and Stuart had said we could go out for a bit that night, but we had to be back no later than 12 o'clock. Well, we all got hammered and six or eight of us broke the curfew. The game against Baldock wasn't good. Taffy had teeth knocked out by one of their players and wanted to have it out with him after the game. Their bloke has gone over to his car and got a hammer out of the boot when he saw Taffy coming!"
"We had a big team meeting after and Stuart wanted to fine those of us who had broken the curfew. I said something like “It wouldn't have happened if he hadn't let us go out in the first place.” Needless to say, that didn't go down to well and I never said too much again after that!"
That wasn’t the only time Morgan was upset with the striker, as one game in particular stands out for Owen.
"We drew two all at home with Gravesend and Northfleet…and I had a nightmare. I missed two penalties and gave away the ball for their equalizer. Stuart was not happy. I've always preferred more instinctive finishes and have never been a penalty person. I didn't take many in my career and wasn't confident. For both the penalties against Gravesend, I managed to send the keeper the wrong way. But the first went wide of one post, and the second went wide of the other!"
However, one away trip that went much better and turned out to be far more memorable for the right reasons was a one-nil midweek win away at Rushden & Diamonds in 95-96. But for the reason you might expect.
"It was a good win at there, they had this really nice, new ground which isn't even there now. On the bus home I must have had eight to ten bottles of Budweiser. Well, I didn't want to wake anyone up when I got home at about 2am. I'm thinking I'm being really quiet as I open the doors like all drunk people think. And as I've opened the second door, the wife is waiting there all ready to go to hospital to give birth to our first child! We got a lift there but it was a memorable night!"
It had been a memorable spell at the club and this was down in large part to Stuart Morgan, a man and a manger who Owen holds in the highest regard - obscure traits and all.
"Stuart is the best Dorchester manager I played for without a doubt. He was brilliant and he made me and my whole family feel welcome. He was a good motivator and would inspire you. You wanted to play for him. He would always try to be positive and instill confidence in you. He had some funny traits and would sometimes forget names and what he was saying. One day, Stuart turned up to training with two black eyes, a bruised nose and face. We all wondered what had happened as it looked like he'd been beaten up. Turns out he'd walked full force into his patio doors as he didn't realise they were closed!"
"I went on holiday with the family to Majorca and as soon as I got off the coach, I saw Kev Mallay [then Dorchester ‘keeper] on the beach! We had a chat and it turned out Stuart was in a hotel just down the road with his family, so I rang him up and he suggested we go for a Chinese the next day. So we arranged a restaurant and agreed to meet there at 7pm.
We were at an all-inclusive place so we didn't eat in the afternoon, so we were starving come seven. Seven comes, no sign of Stuart. At about half past he turns up and says which bar are we going to. I asked what about the Chinese and he says; "What Chinese? We've already eaten"! He'd completely forgotten about the meal plans but we'd still not eaten so he ended up having a second dinner!"
Owen's performances were attracting suitors from other clubs, and when Yeovil came calling in in April ’97, they made an offer to the club that was too good to turn down.
"I think Yeovil paid around £15,000 for me and I was there for two really good years. I had a really good partnership with Warren Patmore there and that's when I got my England C cap. The cap was presented to me by Gordon Banks and Roger Hunt at Wembley which was amazing. We actually played the game at Crawley's new ground, which wasn't quite Wembley but I'm really proud to have played and we beat Holland 2-1.
“I ended up leaving there after my two years were up. I had shaken hands twice on a new deal with John Fry, but he went back on the deal. There were a couple of conference teams interested and I'd heard from Slough and Merthyr, but Stuart rang and I re-signed with Dorchester. We still had the nucleus of the team there, but the second spell didn't work out as well the first."
Returning to the Avenue in August ‘99, Morgan's Dorchester side would include many names from Owen's first spell, with Andy Harris, Neil Coates and many members of the backroom staff still in place. Unfortunately, nine games were all Stuart Morgan would last at the helm; his dismissal coming in the wake of a 3-0 loss at Taunton in the FA Cup qualifying rounds. Mark Morris, who had been signed by Morgan as a player, would take over as player/manager.
"I went through a spell of low confidence and needed support and motivation, but there wasn't really anything coming. It became a little bit cliquey at times with the South-West lads becoming a bit separate from the Bournemouth based lads. There weren't any grudges or anything, but it just felt like it snowballed a bit, for me. Maybe I was at fault a bit and maybe I wasn't enjoying it. It felt a little bit them and us."
"Steve Thompson and Colin Addison wanted me back at Yeovil and we had a friendly against them where I absolutely took Roy O'Brien apart. But I was contracted and nothing could be agreed between the two clubs."
It wasn't all bad in the second spell, there were still some good memories, although Andy Harris nearly spoiled one of those purely by having a similar build to Owen.
"I got Arjan de Zeeuw's shirt after the Wigan game in the FA Cup. When I asked him on pitch, he said he'd have to check at fulltime as I don't think they get many requests to swap shirts! After the game I'm in the tunnel and I see him about to hand his shirt over to Skunk! I think he thought he was me as we both had dark hair! I got his shirt in the end although I'm sure Skunk wouldn't have said anything had I not seen it! It's on my wall at home now, still had the mud and grass stains on."
Owen was also grateful for the presence of Danny O'Hagan up top with him, and
not just for his ability.
"Havant had this fullback called Simon Elley and he was a nutter. He used to get sent off all the time and was always elbowing or putting in these ridiculous tackles. Havant were an intimidating side and referees seemed to let a lot go with them. When we played them, I’d let Danny take him! He was more up for the physical stuff”
Owen would eventually depart in May 2001, shortly after the club's relegation in Morris' first full season in charge. Despite results, there was some real quality in the side with one player in particular standing out.
"In my second spell, there were some very good players. Ryan Cross was great on the ball and so composed; Skunk was still there and he had a great attitude on the pitch, had ability and was so quick; but Matty Holmes was the best player I played with second time around. He was unbelievable. You could see why he'd played in the Premier League. Everything he did seemed so simple but he had such awareness and speed of thought."
His first spell was also a tough choice, but one name stood out from the rest.
"Darren Garner and Russell Coughlin were both excellent, but I'd have to pick Tommy. I wouldn't have scored half my goals without him; he was worth his weight in gold. Playing with Tommy was great. He had speed, strength and was a great lad as well as great to play with. He was scruffy and had this not bothered demeanour about him, but he was unplayable at times. A lot of time defenders would go to him and leave me alone!"
When it comes to summing up his time at the club, it's a simple summary:
"Unforgettable! They were really good times with lots of great memories and lots of great lads. I'm still in contact with a lot of them still and speak with Tommy, Taffy, Skunk, Lisky, Chrissy Ferrett. It was a special time."
And along with memories, Owen now has a more permanent reminder of his time at the club in a seat in his honour at the ground. Something he is very proud of.
"It's unbelievable and I'm a bit taken aback by it. I’m honoured to be thought of in this way amongst so many greats. Without doubt it will be up there with my England cap. Dorchester has been a big part of my life on-and-off the pitch. I had the pleasure of meeting so many players and people linked to the club. Some amazingly kind people helped me, and some sadly no longer with us. For any player to be talked about and have something like this is an honour. I look forward to coming back to the club to see it."
Owen's record was an incredible 121 goals in 219 games and is more than deserving of this recognition. We hope to welcome Owen back to the club soon - and if he's meeting Stuart Morgan on the way, hopefully Owen will have already eaten.
Words: Stuart Voss
Images: Idris Martin
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