Dartford Football Club are in the FA Cup Second Round for the first time in thirty years.
After a 4-3 win over fellow non-league side Bromley in Round One, the Darts sit just ninety minutes away from a place in the Third Round and the potential riches of a tie with the likes of Chelsea, Manchester United or Arsenal.
For this Conference side, their Second Round match against Bradford City on Sunday, December 7th is one of the biggest days in their history. Sitting in the drop zone after last seasons reprieve from relegation, you would think that most will see the FA Cup as a welcome distraction.
Elliot Bradbrook, Dartford’s captain, sees the tie as a chance for his side to play with the pressure off them and firmly on their opponents: ”I think it is a distraction, but a good one. Our league position puts a lot of pressure on us to get results each week, so it is nice to have a break from that and to really enjoy the cup games – we are expected to lose comfortably at Bradford, so there is absolutely no pressure on us going into the game.’
‘Having said that, I really feel like our league position is a false one at the moment – we have produced some very good performances over the past few weeks and not managed to pick up as many points as we should have. Hopefully that will change.”
Formed in 1888 in connection with the local Working Men’s Club, Dartford have won the Southern League four times, the Isthmian League once, the Southern League Cup three times and, in recent years, achieved three promotions in five seasons. The Darts have FA Cup history behind them; they became the first club outside the Football League to reach the Third Round Proper in successive seasons, having lost to a star studded Derby County side 3-2 in 1935/36 at the Baseball Ground, before losing 0-1 at home to Darlington at the same stage just one year later.
1986 saw former Tottenham and England winger Peter Taylor take charge of the club. Taylor had a successful four years at Dartford, winning the Southern Cup twice, the Southern League Championship Trophy twice, the Kent Senior Cup twice, as well as reaching the FA Trophy Semi-Finals twice.
Over one hundred goals were scored in each of Taylor’s years in charge. The club reaped the rewards, as attendances rose from an average of 450 to around 1,000.
The Hillsborough disaster and the Bradford fire acted as the catalysts behind the Darts becoming homeless for fourteen years, as spiralling debts from Maidstone’s liquidation (who were ground-sharing with Dartford) meant their Watling Street ground had to be sold. In 2006, the club moved back to Dartford at the new Princes Park stadium. Since returning home, the club have enjoyed an average attendance in the area of 1,300 fans.
Famous players to have appeared for the Darts include Cody McDonald, Peter Taylor, Ted Croker, Andy Hessenthaler, David Martin and Derek Hales.
As stated above, Dartford are here courtesy of a 4-3 win over Bromley in Round One – a match that saw Bromley take the lead in the second minute, before six goals were rattled in in a frantic second-half, with Tom Bradbrook (captain Elliot’s brother) nodding home the winner with just nine minutes remaining.
”I thought it was an excellent win – one we didn’t get enough credit for at the time” said Elliot. ‘Bromley are a good side, doing well in their league and we had to go there with the ‘favourites’ tag and beat them. The conditions were very difficult, especially in the first half, so to win the game was great. A lot of people thought Bromley were going to beat us comfortably because of our league position, but I think we showed what a gulf there is between the Conference South and the Premier.”
Gary Clark, Administrator of Dartford FC’s fans forum, Pure DFC, felt that his side deserved to go through: ”It was described by a few as an epic, but as a fan, I’m not sure you fully appreciated it. Dartford were poor in the first half, but much improved in the second and looked a much more potent threat. Both teams forgot how to defend which made it a bit of a lottery, but I felt that over the 90 minutes, Dartford did deserve their chance to get through.”
The Darts are in the Vanarama Conference for the 2014/15 season despite being relegated last term. Speaking on the standard of the division, Clark said: ”I’m not sure how much difference there is between League Two and Conference National, other than the very top teams of League Two and the very bottom teams of the Conference. Teams promoted out of the Conference have performed very well in the Football League and teams relegated into the Conference have struggled.”
Meanwhile, Clark also told me the story behind the reprieve: ”We were in the bottom four at the end of last season and were reprieved as a result of financial mismanagement by Hereford and Salisbury City who were demoted and/or failed to exist. At the time, I was firmly in the camp of ‘get relegated but be on a financially sound footing and it’ll all be okay’ but when the fixtures came out, it was nice to see some big clubs and I was pleased to be given the second chance.”
Despite the reprieve, the Darts have – so far – not been able to take their second chance by the scruff of the neck. Sitting in 21st place and with only one win in the league since September 27th (at the time of writing – they play Eastleigh tomorrow night (December 2nd)), calls for manager Tony Burman to step aside have begun to gather pace. On November 25th, Dartford were 2-0 up at home to Chester but ended up losing the game 4-2.
However, league form will be put to one side this weekend as the Darts take on the Bantams.
Speaking on the subject of drawing Bradford away, therefore having to travel up North as opposed to having the game at home, Bradbrook said: ”We would probably have preferred the game to be at home because I don’t think they would have fancied coming to us – although I am really looking forward to going up there and maybe causing an upset. We are all used to playing in bigger stadiums now with bigger crowds, so I don’t think that will phase us too much. It is a great opportunity to cause a famous upset, which happens every year – so why not us this time round!?”
Gary Clark believes that the Darts should go up to the Coral Windows Stadium believing that they can win the game: ”We need to go out and believe we can do anything. On our day, we can beat anyone. It’ll need a bit of luck as well, but we are in the competition because we deserve to be there. It’ll be difficult playing a team from two divisions higher, but shocks are caused every season in the FA Cup – we can be the ones to cause a shock this year.”
Among those looking to cause a shock this Sunday are the Bradbrook brothers, Elliot and Tom.
Elliot, at the club since 2009, has been joined by his brother this season, arriving back at Princes Park after a six-year absence via Sittingbourne, Margate and Leatherhead. The brothers are playing together for the first time this season, but does the relationship on the field differ to off of it?
”I thought it was going to be a bit strange to start with, but it has actually been pretty normal’ said Elliot. ‘We both want to win football games, so the relationship on the pitch is just like any other team-mate – he will moan at me if I play a bad pass and I will moan back if he does something wrong! We are very close off the pitch, though, so the football doesn’t really affect things too much.”
Elliot also spoke of his pride at captaining the first Dartford side to reach the FA Cup Second Round since the 1980’s: ”I am very proud to captain the side. The club has achieved a lot over the six years that I have been associated with it, rising through the leagues and winning cups and promotions. I captained the side which nearly beat Port Vale in the First Round a few years ago, so to have the opportunity to be part of a Dartford side that will be playing such a big club like Bradford in the Second Round is amazing. Everyone is really looking forward to it.”
Gary tells me about some of the other players that Bradford should watch out for: ”We don’t necessarily have the youngest of teams, but we do have some good players to keep an eye on. Harry Crawford up front is a threat and a natural finisher. Ryan Hayes (who made his 300th appearance for Dartford against Chester) can craft a match winning pass out of nothing and he may be the difference if on his game. Peter Sweeney already has history with the FA Cup, playing in the final for Millwall – he’s a cool character with an eye for a killer pass.”
As far as realistic aims for the FA Cup go, Gary states that he’d like the competition to enhance the profile of the club: ”For me, it’s all about making as much money as possible in the competition – it’s very unlikely that we’d go on to win the cup(!) and therefore, the money and the publicity for the club is the most important thing we can go for. If we can get a few more fans behind us and turn them into regulars, it’s a legacy thing, too.”
When asked about his hopes for the league, Clark added: ”We need to aim for survival first and foremost. After last year, it’s pretty much a free year for us because if we get relegated, we’ll only be in the same situation as we were at the beginning of June 2014. If we stay up, then we’ve grasped our opportunity.”
So, when all is said and done, can Dartford a) defeat a League One side on their own patch and b) take their place in the FA Cup Third Round? ”I honestly feel like we can cause an upset. Lots of people wanted a lower ranked team in the second round, but to have the opportunity to be on television and cause an upset is what I am really looking for” said Elliot.
When asked about Round Three and their dream draw, both Gary and Elliot went for very diverse options: ”If we reach the Third Round, I hope we either get the lowest ranked team at home, or a money spinning tie away at Old Trafford!” said Gary, while Elliot added: ”If we do manage to get in the Third Round, obviously it would be great to play one of the big teams away from home like Manchester United or Liverpool. I have always loved the passion for football up in Newcastle as well, so I’d love to play up there. Although, being a Charlton fan, I would love to play at The Valley, too.”
League One side Bradford City will go into Sunday’s game as overwhelming favourites and their view comes from Kate Eveleigh, a member of the Bradford City Supporters’ Board.
Kate told me of her apprehension over being labelled as the favourites and that Bantams manager, Phil Parkinson, should treat the tie with care: ”We’re very inconsistent, especially at home, where we’ve only won twice all season, but I’d like to think that Parkinson sees this as an opportunity to progress and puts out a reasonably strong attacking side.’
‘However, I do think this game has a significant ‘banana skin’ element to it, particularly in view of the game at Halifax in the First Round, where we found ourselves behind very early on – and were very relieved to come back from that! I hope we’ve learnt our lesson and show intent from the first whistle.”
Dartford FC travel to Bradford City AFC in the FA Cup Second Round. The tie will take place on Sunday, December 7th and will be part of BBC’s FA Cup Final Score programme. Kick-Off at the Coral Windows Stadium is at 2pm.
Tickets, available on the day, will cost £15 for adults, £10 for over 60’s and £5 for under 16’s.
Dartford FC travel to Eastleigh in the Vanarama Conference on Tuesday, December 2nd and all fans can get in for free. Read more about the game at Silverlake Stadium HERE.
You can watch highlights of Bromley 3-4 Dartford HERE.
Kate Eveleigh’s predicted Bradford City AFC line-up: Ben Williams (GK), Stephen Darby (C), Rory McArdle, Christopher Routis, James Meredith, Andrew Halliday, Gary Liddle, Jason Kennedy, Mark Yeates, Billy Clarke, Jon Stead. (”Or possibly Zoko/Stead up front or Zoko instead of Stead up front on his own, depending on if Zoko is cup tied” – Kate’s words, not mine!)
Steve Kennedy’s predicted Dartford FC line-up: Jason Brown, Callum Driver, Rory McAuley, Mat Mitchell-King, Tom Bender, Lee Noble, Peter Sweeney, Elliot Bradbrook (C), Max Cornhill, Ryan Hayes, Harry Crawford. Subs (from): Deren Ibrahim, Nathan Collier, Luke Daley, Danny Harris, Tom Bradbrook, Kaka Dembele, Ronnie Vint, Ebrima Adams, Bode Anidugbe. (”Think we’ll pack the midfield and go for a 4-5-1 formation” says Steve.)
Find out how Bradford City got on in the Third Round Proper HERE.
Check out the rest of the FA Cup journey here: https://marklitchfieldblog.wordpress.com/fa-cup-20142015/