It’s hard to believe that it’s been eight years since Dartford made the move to Princes Park.
A lot of progress has been made on and off the field in that time. Three promotions, a host of new players and the development of the club’s youth policy have all been key to helping bring good times to the borough.
So it’s fair to say that the construction and subsequent move to Princes Park has played a significant role in that progression which has helped propel the club to the heady heights of the Vanarama Conference.
For almost 15 years previous, Dartford had been living away from the town. After moving out of the old Watling Street ground in 1992, grounds shares with Erith & Belvedere, Thurrock and Gravesend had allowed the club to tread water without having the chance of genuine progression.
The club recognised that the need to settle in a stadium of their own was paramount to its ability to move forward. The wheels were put in motion to bring football back to the borough.
Dartford FC Vice-Chairman Steve Irving said: “From our point of view it was vital to bring Dartford back to the borough. Being away for 14 years, we’d lost a generation of potential supporters, and in our last season at Thurrock we were only averaging around 175 people per game.
“Princes Park has allowed us to reconnect with the youth of the area, making them both fans and players for the club, as well as helping to add the stability we needed to increase income and attract top quality players and in turn gain all the promotions we did. In short, without Princes Park we’d not be where we are today.”
The dream became a reality when Dartford Borough Council announced that they would provide funding, and a site, for the building of a stadium in Dartford. Darts fans could rest their weary feet knowing that the club was coming home.
Elite architects were bought in to build the stadium. Roger Sedgley, Director of Alexander : Sedgley; the firm tasked with the design said: “It was evident from the start that we were being willed and encouraged to create something special for the club and the fans. To have it described as the best non-league football ground and have it featured in several magazines and on Soccer AM has always given us great pride but the real joy has come when fans have actually taken the time to tell us how great they find the stadium.”
Construction work starting on 14 November 2005 with a number of environmental aspects inbuilt into the stadium including solar panels, a sedum roof blanket and a living roof that provides a natural air filtration and a water recycling system.
Just under a year after construction began, live competitive football returned to the borough. Dartford had come home.
It was on Saturday November 11, 2006 – eight years ago today – Dartford took to the field for the first time at Princes Park. A capacity crowd of 4,097 were welcomed to the state-of-the-art new stadium to witness Dartford’s homecoming in an Isthmian League Division One South fixture against Horsham YMCA.
After both teams walked out to a firework display it took just 10 minutes and 27 seconds for the Princes Park to start rocking for the first time and for Brendon Cass to write his name into Dartford folklore as he became the first player to score a goal at the club’s new £7m home.
“My fondest memory from my time at Dartford is from being involved in the club’s move back to the town and playing the first game at Princes Park,” said Brendon, who now plays his football at Tonbridge Wells FC.
“The first impression of Princes Park was that it looked amazing. What was impressive about the ground for me were the facilities that come with it. The bar area, changing rooms and 3G pitch for example, are all first class. That’s a credit to the people behind the scenes at the club.
“I remember the players were told that over 4,000 fans were coming to the game and there was a real buzz around the place. We met up for breakfast in the morning and jumped on the coach with a stop off to unveil a plaque where the old ground was (Watling Street). Tony Burman just asked the players to enjoy the experience and stressed that good performances will mean the crowds will keep coming back.
“We started well and I remember that Dave Martin missed a good chance, before Ryan Hayes – the only player to still be at Dartford from the starting side – crossed the ball for me to head in low into the corner. Haysie was, and still is, the best wide player I have played with. The noise of the crowd when I scored that goal was something I won’t forget.”
Brendon’s goal sent the capacity crowd into raptures. He also grabbed a second in the first half before goals from Eddie McClements and Nick Barnes sealed a 4-2 and ensured that there was going to be no spoiling Dartford’s big day with celebrations lasting long into the night.
Now eight years on from that first day at Princes Park, Dartford fans have been treated to promotions in 2007/08, 2009/10 and 2011/12 and some entertaining football along the way.
The club continues to look at where it can progress to. What is clear is that Princes Park remains one of the club’s most valuable assets and fans new and old will continue to watch the Darts play their football in the borough for many years to come.