Dartford suffered their first league defeat at home since August, after a rejuvenated Hemel Hempstead side took the spoils at Bericote Powerhouse Princes Park.
As 1,273 supporters braved the cold, wet, and windy conditions, The Tudors set out to frustrate their hosts during a rather tight ninety minutes of football in which they looked the more comfortable.
And they started strongly, forcing a free-kick and the first corner of the game within the opening three minutes. However, neither set-piece troubled the Darts, as they slowly began to grow into the game.
As the midfield trio of Jordan Wynter, Jack Smith, and Samir Carruthers pressed their opponents back, both Luke Coulson and Malachi Napa looked to exploit any open space in order to seek out Alex Wall.
Yet, it took until the 15th minute for the hosts to register their first attempt on former Dart Craig King’s goal. As the pressure told, Jack Westbrook made the mistake which allowed Alex Wall in behind. The in-form striker took the shot on, but it was too high to trouble Hemel’s goalkeeper.
Malachi Napa was next to begin troubling the Hemel defence, as he weaved his way through along the right-flank twice in quick succession. However, the second attempt forced Josh Castiglione into fouling the lively Dartford player and, as a result, found himself being shown the first yellow card of the afternoon by referee Mr Oliver Mackey.
Samir Carruthers took the free-kick, which was heading towards the top corner, only for King to manage to make the save (27)! The visitors responded two minutes later as Castiglione and Kaylen Hinds combined well to create the opportunity for the latter to take the shot on. But, there was the big Dartford defence to make a crucial block to keep the score level.
However, it wasn’t long before the visitors did indeed take the lead, which would open up the game for the remainder of the half. Another attack along Hemel’s left-flank resulted in a free-kick, which Joshua Williams sent into the Dartford box. The hosts were unable to clear the danger, leaving Jack Westbrook to place his excellent header beyond Dan Wilks (33).
The hosts responded and responded well, winning a free-kick at the other end within three minutes. Luke Coulson whipped the ball into The Tudors’ box and Connor Essam was on hand to send a bullet header into the back of the net (36).
The goal spurred Alan Dowson’s side on and they continued to press the visitors back. As Hemel failed to deal with another attack, Maxwell Statham found Alex Wall inside the box on the far side, but the Dartford number nine’s excellent effort was blocked by a defender before eventually going wide of King’s upright (41). Unfortunately, the windy conditions prevented the hosts from capitalising on Coulson’s corner.
Yet, the Darts raced forward once again and, refusing to give up, won another free-kick in a dangerous position. Luke Coulson found Alex Wall through a melee of bodies, but Craig King was alert to prevent Wall from edging the hosts ahead (44).
As we entered two additional minutes at the end of the half, The Tudors were awarded a free-kick, which Joshua Williams sent straight into the Dartford box. Unable to clear the danger, the hosts were duly punished by a superb volley by Kyle O’connor-Ajayi at the far post, as he sent his side ahead at the break (45+1).
The second forty-five saw the hosts start brightly with Malachi Napa forcing a routine save out of Craig King in the 46th minute. However, play was soon halted for a short period after Hemel’s goalscorer O’Connor-Ajaji pulled up with an injury, forcing the visitors to make their first substitution of the game, bringing on ex-Dart Kory Roberts to replace the stricken man (48).
The Tudors would go on to replace Matthew Young with Perri Iandolo (56) and Jeremie Mukendi replaced Josh Castiglione after 78 minutes.
Alan Dowson, meanwhile, would use all three of his available substitutions too, as first Charlie Sheringham and Keiran Murtagh replaced Jack Smith and Jordan Wynter in the 67th minute, before Pierre Fonkeu came on for Alex Wall with ten minutes remaining.
As we return to the action, Hemel’s tactics were such that the hosts struggled to get any kind of rhythm going. As a result, openings were few and far between, despite the Darts pressing The Tudors back for long periods.
Eventual Man of The Match, Connor Essam, came close when he got on the end of a Samir Carruthers corner, but he couldn’t quite find the target (63), before Alex Wall found Charlie Sheringham in a good position, only for Craig King to thwart the Dartford number nineteen (68).
Luke Coulson’s deflected strike in the 75th minute earned the hosts another corner, which they couldn’t take advantage of, before Sheringham came close from another Coulson corner, but the ball just refused to go in (84)!
Then, with two minutes remaining, as the Darts pressed forward, a rare second-half attack by Hemel was rewarded as fortune favoured the brave. Substitute, Jeremie Mukendi collected the ball, before firing it beyond Dan Wilks to ensure that his side took the points.
The seven additional minutes at the end of the ninety weren’t enough for the hosts, as the visitors closed ranks and saw out the game.
The result sees the Darts remain at the summit of the National League South table, but Tom Bonner and Co will be looking to respond next weekend.
DARTFORD: Dan Wilks, Jordan Wynter, Kristian Campbell, Samir Carruthers, Connor Essam, Tom Bonner (c), Luke Coulson, Alex Wall, Maxwell Statham, Jack Smith, Malachi Napa.
SUBSTITUTES: Keiran Murtagh, Tom Wray, Pierre Fonkeu, Charlie Sheringham, George Whitefield.
HEMEL HEMPSTEAD: Craig King, Andrew Eleftheriou, Joshua Williams, Godfrey Poku, Jack Westbrook, Kyle O’connor-Ajayi, Josh Hill, Matthew Young, Charlee Hughes, Josh Castiglione, Kaylen Hinds.
SUBSTITUTES: Kane Lewis, Luke Holness, Perri Iandolo, Jeremie Mukendi, Kory Roberts.
By Chris Palmer