Thankfully, the rains of winter had taken a back seat. I had a full set of Saturday fixtures to pick from. Barnet away at Crawley was tempting, and I had my eye on several FA Trophy contests. One game, however, stood out in the end. The top two teams in the National League South were facing off in Dartford. The Darts have a very interesting ‘green’ stadium, so a chance to see it for myself and the importance of the match meant I headed for Kent.
Competition: National League South
Refreshments: £1 (tea)
Star man: Danny Harris
Who are ya, Dartford?
Dartford was formed in 1888 by members of the local working men’s club. They played friendlies and cup competitions in the early years. In 1896 they became founder members of the Southern League Division Two. They won the division in their first attempt and moved between the Southern League and the Kent Leagues in the subsequent years.
The Darts won the Southern League Championship in 1974, but their only attempt to gain election into the Football League failed. In the 80s they were managed by John Still and former England winger Peter Taylor. Both managers achieved success on the field and helped increase the club’s local fanbase.
At the end of the 80s Dartford allowed to Maidstone to share their ground, for a suitable rental agreement. Maidstone had sold their ground to raise funds to push for promotion to the Football League. Unfortunately, Maidstone went bankrupt and improvements they’d paid for were passed over to the Darts. This led to Dartford selling their home ground to pay off their debts.
Dartford ground shared with Welling United, Purfleet and Gravesend until they were finally able to return to their own venue. The new stadium was completed in 2006, and a restructuring of the leagues saw the Darts open the ground in the Isthmian South Division. A series of promotions saw them reach the Conference Premier and record a memorable double over Luton Town in their first season in the division. They were relegated back into the National League South in 2015.
Dartford were the first team from outside the Football League to reach the FA Cup Third Round in successive seasons. They lost to Derby County in 1936 and West Ham in 1937.
Dartford escaped relegation from the Conference Premier in 2014 after Salisbury and Hereford were demoted for not paying their debts in time. Dartford earned a reprieve despite finishing in the relegation places.
The two sides occupied first and second place in the table, but it was far from a two-horse race. The Darts sat top, but only due to a superior goal difference. Havant also had a game in hand. Behind them, there was only six points separating the top eight teams. A defeat could result in either team slipping behind Braintree or Hampton & Richmond.
Dartford had won two and drawn two of their last five games. Both wins came in a Boxing Day/New Year doubleheader against local rivals Welling. The Darts last loss had come on 9 December away at Hungerford Town. The visitors had won their last two games, including an impressive 3-0 win away at Bognor Regis on News Year Day.
The Dartford experience
Train: Princes Park is easy to get to from Dartford Station. When you come out of the station walk down the steps before the bridge and catch the ‘B’ bus that stops just outside the ground. It’s a £2.30 return. A walk to the ground will take 15-20 mins. Dartford Station is around an hour from London Victoria and London Blackfriars.
Car: The ground is on the A225, just off the M25. There is free parking at the stadium for around 300 vehicles, but you may need to arrive early as crowds tend to be quite large.
The bus from Dartford Station to Princes Park was quick and fairly quiet, except for one small dog that was clearly anxious to get home after a morning in the town centre. It stops right outside the main entrance to the ground and fans are beckoned in through the main gate. From outside, Princes Park looks fairly unremarkable apart from the wooden panelling covering the outside.
Once you’ve paid your money, however, your adventure begins. The first thing I noticed on entry was how enclosed the stadium was. It’s a uniform size all the way around and really gives you the impression that you’re cut off from everything apart from the football match in front of you. There is seating down one side and the rest is terraced standing. In amongst the outer walls, at each end, are toilets and a tea bar selling a good selection of hot food and drinks.
A walk around the ground provides lots of options for different views of the game. On one side there is a large oak sculpture of a man who overlooks the penalty area furthest from the entrance. It’s a great extra touch that complements the wooden structure of the stadium and its green credentials. There are nets at each end, to protect the refreshment stalls from loose balls. They may need to be widened, however, as one ball did find its way into the tea bar during the warm-ups.
The Dart’s home isn’t huge but it’s perfectly sized for an ambitious non-league club. Over 4,000 people can cram into the standing area and the 640 seats. There is a concourse area that runs behind the standing and seated areas. The concourse is a great part of the design as it means you can walk around the ground, to the toilet or to the tea bar without having to miss much of the action.
Plenty of home fans had come for this important league clash. They congregated at the end closest to the entrance for the first half and proceeded to march to the far end at the break. A good crowd of vocal away fans also made the trip. Dartford’s large black and white flags provided the backdrop for their fans who chanted along to the beat of a local drummer and created an atmosphere that any non-league would be proud of.
Darts hit target early to stay top
The home side came out firing. They tested the visitors early by getting the ball up to their forwards early and attacking down the flanks. Their plan paid dividends as they took an early lead. A ball forward was flicked on by Pavey into the path of Murphy. The winger composed himself and expertly volleyed past the Havant keeper.
The early goal seemed to shake the visitors, and Dartford followed it up with a few more long balls that nearly caught them out. They survived, however, and began to settle into the game. Carter, in midfield, looked composed on the ball and helped get the visitors going. Towards the end of the first half, the visitors started to control the game, but they didn’t create too many clear chances.
The home team began the second half well and Hayes looked threatening on the right-hand side. Havant settled and started to impose themselves on the game again. They looked to get the ball into the box, but the Dartford central defenders dealt with the threat well. As the game progressed it became a tense affair and the visitors had their best chances towards the end. Prior had a header that was just wide and couldn’t control a volley that went just over.
The visitors couldn’t find the equaliser and Dartford took the three points and the advantage in the title race. It would have been difficult to say the visitors didn’t deserve a draw, had they scored, but they were unable to test the Dartford keeper to often.
Princes Park is an excellent football ground and well worth a visit. It’s great to go to a new (ish) venue that has clearly has some thought go into its design. It looks fantastic and the solar panels and wooden structure give it some unique green credentials. The views from all around the ground are great and there are lots of options for spots to watch the game from.
Dartford are an ambitious club that are currently in great form and could well be headed for the top level of non-league football next season. The team and ground attracts a large and noisy crowd that help create a great atmosphere in a fantastically distinct ground. Prices on the day were £14 for adults and £7 for concessions, good value for the level.