The 11th of November 2006 is a date that will be forever etched in the memories of all Dartford FC supporters. It was the day the club finally moved back to Dartford and into their new Princes Park ground after fourteen years of ground sharing with various clubs. Their exile from Dartford began in 1992 when, due to debts built up from a ground sharing arrangement with Maidstone United, the North Kent club had to sell their former home at Watling Street to pay off creditors. The debts had been accumulated when Maidstone United did work to the ground in an attempt to keep it up to football league standards, but after the Stones went bust the Darts paid Maidstone for the work and the debts suddenly mounted up. The Darts resigned from the Southern League at the start of the 1992/93 season leaving Dartford without a ground and a senior football club.
The Dartford supporters association managed to keep the club going by managing the club’s affairs and keeping a youth team in operation, and this meant the club crucially kept its membership of the football association and this allowed the club to rebuild and start again.
The first ground sharing agreement began at Cray Wanderers followed by stints sharing with Erith and Belvedere, Thurrock and Gravesend and Northfleet (now Ebbsfleet United). The rebirth of the Darts began in 1993 when the club were allowed entry to the Kent League(Step 5 of the non-league pyramid), and like a phoenix rising from the ashes, the club rose through the non-leagues over the next nineteen years and found themselves back in the Conference National (Step 1) in 2012 after winning the 2011/12 Conference South Play-off final.
Current manager Tony Burman was first appointed as manager in 1993 and oversaw the first promotion from the Kent League at the end of the 1995/96 season. He resigned at the end of that season due to work commitments but rejoined as caretaker manager in 2001, and then again in 2004 taking over from Tommy Sampson who was manager from 2001 to 2004. Burman’s re-appointment saw an upturn in fortunes on the pitch, and the former player went on to achieve three further promotions between 2004 and 2012.
The 2012/13 season saw the Darts have a successful first season back in the Conference National when the club finished 7th, the highest finish of any part time club in the country that year, but the 2013/14 season was one of struggle on the pitch at Princes Park, which culminated in relegation from the non-league’s top tier.
In a league populated with many clubs running full time operations with access to bigger budgets and having larger fan bases, life in the Conference National as a part time club is always going to be tough for clubs like Dartford. Relegation meant the club would start the 2014/15 season in the Conference South.
However, in the summer of 2014 a club official attending the Conference annual general meeting learnt of the financial mismanagement at Conference National clubs Salisbury City and Hereford United who were both expelled from the league, which in turn allowed Dartford and Chester City a reprieve from relegation. All of a sudden manager Tony Burman who was building a squad for the challenge of different league, suddenly had to re-negotiate contracts and hope the same players were prepared for the extra travelling that came from visits to Grimsby, Gateshead and Lincoln, instead of the more southern based Conference South.
Saturday 9th August 2014 – Dartford 1 v 2 Wrexham – Princes Park Stadium – Attendance – 1561
Given that the corresponding fixture last season had finished 5-1 in favour of the away side, you would think the visit of Wrexham would have the Dartford supporters fearing the worst. However, the decision to expel Salisbury City and Hereford United from the national Conference meant that Dartford fans could instead continue to enjoy visits from clubs with larger fan bases such as Wrexham, and all the benefits that brings in revenue and atmosphere, instead of smaller followings from the Conference South clubs such as Whitehawk and Hayes and Yeading, whose home games average around 199 and 152 respectively. To give another comparison, the average attendance in the Conference National during the 2013/14 season was 1866, whereas it was just 540 in the Conference North and South leagues combined.
Myself and a Wrexham supporting work colleague of mine called Stephen, decided to make the trip to Princes Park so see the first day of the season clash of these two clubs, who had very different objectives for the campaign ahead.
In the club’s match-day programme the Dartford manager spoke of the need for the club to reach the magical 50 point mark, which is often the points tally quoted as being enough to stay up in a twenty four team division, whereas the Wrexham manager Kevin Wilkin, only in charge since March 2014, has the tough task of getting the Dragons back to the football league where they had spent 87 years as a member club prior to relegation in May 2008.
It has been said by some number crunchers that it takes on average five years for a club relegated out of the football league to get back up. However, for Wrexham the 2014/15 season saw them start their seventh season playing in non-league’s top division.
The Conference National has, like the Championship, become an extremely hard league to get promoted from. It is also made even harder by having just one automatic promotion place up for grabs. The clubs finishing 2nd, 3rd, 4th and 5th place have to battle it out in the play-offs for the only other promotion spot. The non-league have been championing for a third promotion place for some time now, but given that it took the football league until the 1986/1987 season to introduce one automatic promotion place after the controversial election system that has been in place since the 1920’s was scrapped, and then another eighteen years to allow two promotion places, I doubt many will be holding their breaths that the Conference National will get three promotion places in the near future anyway.
The prize of playing in the football league is so alluring that is now seeing more and more semi professional clubs turn full time in an attempt to reach the promised land. However, for the all success stories like Crawley Town and Fleetwood Town, both ex non-league now playing their trade in League 1 and both with wealthy owners, you get the clubs like Rushden & Diamonds and Salisbury City where the dream has turned sour due to financial mismanagement. Back to Wrexham though, and the welsh club have already had their fair share of heartache in those seven seasons away from the Football League. They finished runners up to Fleetwood in 2012 despite amassing a huge tally of 98 points but then went on to lose in the play-offs. They also made the Play-off final in 2013 but lost 2-0 to Welsh neighbours Newport County.
My welsh friend Stephen had invited me along to this game a few weeks previously, but after one too many real ales on a Friday trip to the seaside resort of Hastings, I was feeling a little worse for wear on the train journey from Rochester to Dartford. However, with the sun shining and the start of the new season now just a couple of hours away on my arrival into the Dartford station, it felt good to finally have football back after its summer break.
The 2014 summer World Cup in Brazil had provided some good entertaining matches and memorable goals, but there is nothing quite like the blood and thunder of club football with its tribal like passions, local rivalry and its sheer unpredictable nature to excite.
Also, the good thing about watching football in August is that you still have all the hope and dreams for the season ahead, before the reality of September and October really kicks in.
On route to the ground I made a quick stop in a local pub to meet up with Matt, another work colleague, who is a Dartford supporter, and then settled down with another pint of real ale to talk about all things football. Probably not the best choice given my previous day excesses mind you. The next hour passed by fairly quickly, and come 14:40 we were all making a brisk stroll to the ground from the pub to make kick off in time. At the ground I left my friend Matt and his family take their place amongst the Dartford supporters, whilst I met my other friend Stephen who had just made it in time for kick off after a quick dash from work in Ramsgate. He had brought his American wife along who was new to this ‘Soccer’ watching business.
After paying our £16 on the gate, we settled down in the seated area of the ground to the left of the end Dartford were attacking in the first half. The home side started brightly with new signing Andy Pugh, a striker signed from Cambridge United in the summer, making some inroads going forward. The Wrexham side had some real height in their starting eleven, which included goalkeeper Daniel Bachmann on loan from Stoke City. Bachmann dealt with the aerial threat from the Darts well which helped his defence out as the Darts put some high balls put into the box. The home side’s best chance to take the lead in the first half was wasted when Tom Bradbrook lashed his shot wide when put through by a well weighted ball over the top by Nathan Collier.
Wes York, one of Wrexham’s summer signings, wasn’t so wasteful in front of goal though, and he found himself in the right place to head home Connor Jennings’ cross to put Wrexham in control on the half hour mark.
The first half was played out in glorious August sunshine despite the threat of a Hurricane named Bertha predicted to hit British Shores over the weekend. How on earth do they come up with these names by the way? The scoreline remained the same way until half time with Wrexham doing a good job of containing the Dartford attack.
During the half time break me and my friend took in the ambience of Princes Park. The home of the Darts is a ground that I have seen divided opinions about on some social media sites, but in my opinion it’s a ground well within the keeping of the level Dartford currently find themselves playing at. Just ask Darlington fans what playing in a soulless bowl with 3,000 fans scattered amongst 25,000 empty seats feels like when a ego driven chairman has built a ground way beyond your status and fan base size.
OK, some of the dislike for Princes Park is because it doesn’t have the old school character of many other non-leagues grounds that’s not in doubt, but the facilities are as good as anywhere you would find in the Conference and if you had asked Dartford fans back in 2006 how much this ground meant to them when they returned home, they would surly agree it’s without doubt been the saviour of their club and helped the club with their rapid rise through the non-leagues bringing with it a new generation of supporters too.
The half time break saw the traditional swapping of ends between fans which is such a unique and treasured part of watching non-league football, meaning the Wrexham fans were now directly to our left as the three of us remained in the same seats from the first half. My friend Stephen was certainly a lot happier being surrounded by his fellow welsh friends.
As the second half began it didn’t take long for Dartford to get the equaliser, eight minutes to be precise, as Tom Bradbrook made up for his earlier miss by heading home almost identically at the back post like Wes York had done for Wrexham. It was a fairly even contest throughout but it was the away side who found the extra bit of quality to go on to secure the win. Louis Molt, another of Wrexham’s new signings, set up York for his second goal right in front of the Wrexham supporters to the utter delight of the 500 or so travelling welsh hordes.
The final fourteen minutes were played out with the away side relatively in control, as the Wrexham fans to our left took great delight in informing each other that their big rivals Chester City were getting walloped 5-0 at home to Barnet.
Overall it was a good contest between two clubs with different resources, budgets and expectations for the season ahead, but for Dartford one of the two clubs reprieved, they showed the season might not quite be as much as a struggle as Chester City were finding it already.
As we left the ground we asked Stephen’s American wife if she had enjoyed her first experience of watching English football, despite a Wrexham fan outside the ground suggesting Dartford v Wrexham was quite the game to get the pulse racing. Her answer was yes, but given a game of football lasts just over an hour and a half, I think she was just pleased it didn’t take nearly four hours as some NFL games in the United States apparently do! The three of us then made our way back to Ebbsfleet International station via the efficient Fastrack bus service which serves Princess Park. As the bus wound its way through the suburbs of Dartford, Greenhithe and Northfleet, I found myself scrolling through my twitter feed reading all about my own team, Gillingham, pressing the self destruct button in our 4-2 defeat at Milton Keynes Dons and how this season was already going down the pan after just one game. Suddenly I wasn’t so glad to have football back.