I’m not sure how long ago it was that the meeting of Barcelona and Real Madrid came to be known as the ‘el clásico’, however, as a result of the two Spanish words of el and clásico becoming part of our match-day vocabulary, a spin off of local derbies around the non-league scene have taken on their own version of the el clásico theme. The meeting of local rivals Bognor Regis Town and rivals Worthing has become known as the el classic coast, and further down the coast at Weymouth their clash with Poole Town has taken on the title of El Jurassico in reference to this part of the UK being known as the Jurassic Coast. Other derbies in around Britain also have some interesting names with the Dockyard Derby describing the clash of Plymouth Argyle and Portsmouth, and the Old Farm Derby being used by the fans of East Anglian rivals Norwich City and Ipswich Town. However, the supporters of Kent neighbours Ebbsfleet United and Dartford have yet to come up with a name to define this meeting of two local rivals beyond that of the North Kent Derby.
That being said this derby between two of Kent’s biggest semi-professional clubs has been just as fiercely contested as any of the aforementioned derbies over the years. On Boxing Day 1959 the two teams met at Dartford for a Southern League clash, Ebbsfleet being known as Gravesend and Northfleet back then, having played against each other just 24 hours earlier on Christmas Day at Gravesend’s Stonebridge Road ground. The linesman who oversaw the Christmas Day game, Mr Ron Sturgeon, a traffic police officer from Essex, was the referee for the Boxing Day clash and he saw fit to abandon the game with just ten minutes of the match remaining due the conduct of both sets of players over the course of the previous eighty minutes. The incident led to both clubs being summoned to the FA where a disciplinary committee concluded that the behaviour of both sets of players had brought the game in to disrepute having agreed with the referee’s decision to abandon the game. It was a sorry episode for both clubs but surprisingly no fines were issued by the FA.
The derby itself had a hiatus between 1979 and 2010 when Gravesend and Northfleet joined the bright lights of the newly formed Football Conference, the top level of semi-professional football for the 1979/1980 season, whereas Dartford remained in the Southern League set-up which was one league below. The clubs’ paths didn’t cross again for a league fixture until August 2010 when the two sides clashed at Dartford’s new ground, Princes Park, in front of nearly 3000 spectators. The game finished with both side picking up a point a piece from a 1-1 draw. However, what mattered more than the result that afternoon was the resumption of hostilities between the two rivals which was welcomed by the supporters of both sides both old and new to the derby.
Two seasons ago the clubs met in an FA Cup clash at Stonebridge Road, where Dartford were the top dogs at the time enjoying life in the Conference Premier (formerly the Football Conference), whereas Gravesend were playing their football one league below in the Conference South. The game went to a replay after a 1-1 draw, with Dartford winning 1-0 to advance further in the competition. Fast forward to the here and now, the neighbours now find themselves in the National League South together, the second tier of non-league football. On Bank Holiday Monday they went toe to toe to again.
Monday 31st August 2015 – National League South – Dartford 0 v 1 Ebbsfleet United – Princes Park – Att: 2251
In England we like our traditions, however, the tradition of Bank Holiday weekends producing a deluge of wind and rain rather than Sun and clear blue skies does tend to grate on you after a while. Luckily for me Dartford’s Princes Park ground has a roof which wraps around the whole of the stadium so my golf style umbrella was only required to protect me from the elements on the walk to the ground from the train station. Dartford is a town I know well having spent a year living and working there, and I was also present at Princes Park for their first ever game played there against Horsham YMCA in 2006.
The persistent rain had let up slightly by the time I arrived at the ground about 30 minutes before kick off, and once in the ground I found a decent spot along the side of the pitch to watch the first half. The Ebbsfleet players were warming up in front of me and looked fired up for the derby clash. It was now twenty-five minutes later when the teams emerged onto the pitch to the sound of an annoying drum from the Ebbsfleet support. A few minutes later though the whole ground fell silence in memory of the victims of the Shoreham air disaster in which two Worthing United players lost their lives. It was a poignant reminder of the sometimes fragile nature of life.
Once the game got underway it was Ebbsfleet who looked the stronger of the two sides on paper, but even they wouldn’t have thought the home side would gift them such an early goal but they did. Stuart Lewis did all the hard work to get the cross in, but the Dartford back line didn’t do enough to prevent the cross coming into the box, and via a few defections the ball found its way into the path of Jordan Parkes, who didn’t need a second invitation to slot the ball into the net after just seven minutes. The goal was scored right in front of the travelling Ebbsfleet fans with Parkes running into their embraces to celebrate.
It was a disastrous start for the home side but credit to them they didn’t let their heads drop, and slowly they worked their way back into the contest. The referee had already received a bit of stick for the home supporters for some 50/50 decisions going in Ebbsfleet’s favour, but when Kenny Clark looked to have fouled Tom Bradbrook with the big tall striker seemingly through on goal, the howls from the home supporters turned into frustration and anger when it was Bradbrook who was booked for dissent. It was a big call for the referee and from where I was standing it looked like he had got it wrong. However, Clark remained on the pitch and went on to produce an excellent display throughout.
After the break clear chances in front of goal for both sides dried up as the defences remained on top throughout. Clark almost rubbed salt into the wound when his header at goal needed a fantastic save from the Darts keeper to keep the score at 1-0. The referee continued to upset the home fans throughout with a number of decisions going against the Dartford players. However, with time running out in the game the man in the middle had no option but to send off Ebbsfleet’s Dean Rance. The fleet player was later to the ball when going in for a challenge with Dartford’s Lee Noble, catching Noble’s ankle, and after a brief melee between a few players the red card came out to the joy of the home support. Unfortunately for the them it was the travelling fans who were smiling at the full time whistle having watched their side take the derby day spoils.
Once again the referee was the focus of a North Kent derby, but unlike Mr Sturgeon fifty-five years ago, Mr Sam Purkiss let this fiercely contested derby come to its conclusion with Ebbsfleet supporters left singing in the rain and Dartford supporters left counting down the days until March 28th when the clubs will do battle again at Stonebridge Road.