So far, during this ‘One Year On’ series, we have come across clubs that have gone from strength to strength (Bromley), whilst others have simply maintained their spot and are looking to aim higher (Harlow Town).
However, for Dartford Football Club, the last twelve months haven’t been the greatest.
I followed the Kent club on my FA Cup journey last season in the Second Round Proper, as they looked forward to visiting giant-killers, Bradford City, after a superb 4-3 derby win over Bromley in Round One. At that time, the Darts were in the bottom four of the Vanarama Conference (now the National League) – and that was to be where they stayed until the end of the season, as they suffered relegation to the newly-named National League South for the 2015/16 season.
The Darts failed to make the most of their reprieve – they were spared relegation in the previous season, courtesy of Salisbury City’s financial problems – but despite going down to the second tier of non-league football, Dartford captain, Elliot Bradbrook, ‘feels no shame’ and ‘has no regrets’ over the clubs demotion.
”It was a very tough season’, said Elliot, ‘but I certainly do not feel any shame in being relegated from that division. We were a small club compared to many teams in the league and just did not have the resources to compete with them on a consistent basis. Even some of the part-time teams like Dover have big budgets and do things like charter plans to travel to and from games, so there was no way that we could compete with that.’
‘Everyone at the club put blood, sweat and tears into trying to stay up, but our best unfortunately just wasn’t good enough. There is no shame in that and I have no regrets personally.”
Steve Kennedy, Dartford’s Programme Editor, echoed the thoughts of Bradbrook, by adding: ”For a club like Dartford, the aim in the long run is to be able to establish ourselves in the top flight of the non-league game. With the club being part-time, the National League is always going to be a challenge to make a mark in, as there are so many ‘sleeping giants’ with long Football League pasts. To have spent three years in the division and to have competed in the vast majority of games against clubs with more resources as we did do is something I think the core of the club are extremely proud of. No one wants to get relegated, of course, but these things happen. What’s more important is how you react to these challenges – I think the club is in good shape to push on.”
Back in December 2014, Dartford’s attempt to make the Third Round of the FA Cup was stopped by Bradford City, who eased to a 4-1 victory, but it is a day that Elliot remembers fondly: ”It was a great experience and something that I will always remember. I have been fortunate enough to play in a number of big games throughout my career and that was definitely one of them.’
‘The result obviously didn’t go our way, but we were playing a Bradford team that were excellent on the day and didn’t really give us a chance. As the non-league side, we needed Bradford to have an off day, but they certainly didn’t. They then went on to beat both Millwall and Chelsea in the following rounds, so it shows how good they were. Nevertheless, it was a great day out for us and our supporters – it will stick in the memory.”
Fast forward to this seasons FA Cup and things look pretty grim for the Darts. After the heroic win in Round One and big day out in Round Two last season, Uxbridge, 44 places below the Kent outfit, advanced the Third Qualifying Round with a 1-0 win at Princes Park. It was the first time Dartford had failed to progress beyond that particular stage for seven years – and it was also a day that the skipper would rather forget.
”The defeat to Uxbridge (with all due respect) was probably my worst result in a Dartford shirt. It wasn’t a terrible performance – we could – and should – have scored five or six on the day – but it was a defeat nonetheless. It was just one of those days where the ball wouldn’t go over the line for us – sometimes that happens in football.”
One man absent from that disappointing defeat was Lee Noble, due to personal reasons. Noble completed a clean sweep at the clubs end of season awards night last season – and Steve explained how crucial he was to the team: ”Lee is an extremely important member of the squad. He, along with the skipper Elliot Bradbrook and others like Danny Harris and Ryan Hayes have been with the club for a long time and know the place inside out. Their experience this season has been even more important, as Tony has looked to bed a number of new players and youngsters into the side. Lee is someone who you know you’re always going to get a decent showing out of. He’s not afraid to stick a foot in and pops up with a reasonable number of goals and assists, too. His clean sweep of awards last year was well earned.”
As is the case with many non-league clubs, there have been many ins and outs at Princes Park over the last 12 months – Steve explains all here: ”The club has seen a lot of players come and go over the summer. A few of the experienced older heads left like Jason Brown and Peter Sweeney whilst others like Rory McAuley, Nathan Green, Luke Daley and Callum Driver found new deals elsewhere within the National League South. Harry Crawford also left the Darts in the summer (for a third time!). The players we had on loan, like Tom Dallison and Jamie Richards also left to go back to their parent clubs.’
‘During the season we also lost the likes of Max Cornhill and Mat Mitchel-King, while loanee Jordan Chiadozie went back to his club early, due to injury. Lee Burns also left towards the end of the season due to work reasons, but has returned this season. Tony replaced them with, on the whole, a group of young players. We saw the likes of Jack Simmons, George Sykes, Tom Gardiner and Callum McNaughton come to the club – all young players, all with something to prove; each has been heavily involved already this season.’
‘We also recruited Barry Cogan – a player who played in the 2004 FA Cup Final for Millwall against Manchester United – and Tom Wynter from Dover Athletic, who have been there and done it in this division before. Mark Onyemah came in on loan for the start of the season from Luton Town and he’s been excellent so far. Finally, the only one who’s not seen game time is back-up ‘keeper, Jamie Turner, who was there to cover for Deren Ibrahim.”
Moving forward to the present day and things are beginning to look up in this part of Kent. As well as sitting just outside the play-off places of the National League South, the Darts are also in the quarter-finals of the Kent Senior Cup – a competition that they will look to win. ”We’ve done really well in the first two rounds against Welling United and Gillingham and some of our youth players have made a great impression in these games. Dajon Golding and Ben Francis have played well – Dajon even managed to grab a great goal after coming on against Welling.’
‘We stand a great chance of at least getting to the Semi-Final with an away draw at either Herne Bay or Chatham Town, but even if we do that, we still will have to overcome one of the likes of Ebbsfleet United, Bromley or even Charlton Athletic. It’s a tough task, but one I think we’re pretty well equipped to take on.”
As far as the league goes, both Elliot and Steve agreed that the aim is to steady the ship this season, with the target of promotion back to the National League perhaps reserved for the following campaign.
”I think the competition at this level is stronger than many would think. Ebbsfleet look like run away winners this year, which leaves the rest of us scrapping for a play-off finish. I’ve no reason to think that the side are not capable of a top five finish this season, as our results have got much better in recent weeks. At the time of writing, we have a game or two in hand over those around us, so we can really push on if we pick up some points in those catch-up matches. However, if we didn’t make it this year, I’m sure we’ll be in an even better position next season to really make a mark on this league, as we did a few years ago.”
”After two difficult seasons in the National League, the main priority for us this season is to steady the ship and get back to winning ways. Tony Burman has refreshed the squad with a lot of young players, either from outside or from the clubs academy, so it is going to take time to rebuild. We have done reasonably well so far and have a good group of players, so I see no reason why we shouldn’t be looking at a top half finish and maybe towards the play-offs. Ultimately, the club needs time to rebuild and get used to winning games again.’
‘Dartford is a great club and will certainly be up there challenging for promotion in years to come, so this season is an important one in terms of getting that belief back, on and off the pitch.”
The Darts’ next game sees them make the trip to FA Cup heroes, Whitehawk, this Saturday, before a Boxing Day clash with Chelmsford City.