Although this season didn’t have the same excitement of the title race a year ago, once again Dartford’s campaign went right down to the wire. Denied a playoff spot on the final day of the season means the Darts will play in the National South for a fifth year in a row.
Over the last nine months there has been plenty to talk about, tactics, transfers, some unexpected moments and former players returning. We say goodbye to our former captain Elliot Bradbrook, we’ve watched Andy Pugh’s slow progress to recovery, we’ve seen a goalkeeper score and an outfield player in goal. We could have done with more goals at the right end, better player recruitment and the avoidance of an end of season slump.
In May, long serving manager Tony Burman departed from his role after more than 13 years. An exodus of players who came so close to clinching the league title moved on leaving a new era on the horizon. However, the new looked towards the old. Two former league winning Dartford defenders were appointed, the club stepped into the world of joint managers making Adam Flanagan and Jamie Coyle responsible for rebuilding the team.
The squad needed an overhaul and so ten new players made their way to Princes Park before the campaign kick started. Ben Greenhalgh has stood out from the new crop coming third in the annual John Stevens Memorial Trophy, for home Player of the Year. The winger also spent most of a Kent Senior Cup tie in goal, but the Darts went out on penalties. On the flip side half of the summer signings moved on before January was out. Alex Wall left before the season began, Billy Roast and Simon Mensah departed in September, Chez Isaac in October and Jamie Philpot in January. The remaining four, Callum Driver, Kudus Oyenuga, Delano Sam-Yorke and Manny Ighorae have all spent time out on loan and Flanagan himself has even doubted if he and Coyle recruited well enough.
After just two weeks of the pre-season schedule, the Darts and Andy Pugh suffered a major setback. Only eleven minutes had gone when Pugh accidentally collided with Colchester United’s goalkeeper, Rene Gilmartin. The Dartford striker broke his leg and would only return to action nine months later, a cruel blow to both player and club. Hopefully we can look forward to Pughy having a bigger role next season.
Torquay United, Woking and Billericay Town were listed as the favourites for the National South title with Dartford and Chelmsford City in the ‘will be there or thereabouts’ section. When the Darts opened their campaign with maximum points in the first two games, which included a rare win over Chelmsford City, the optimism increased. By Bank Holiday August a weakness in front of goal started to show, Dartford went four consecutive games without scoring. The Darts would sink to seventeenth place, their lowest league position of the season. A 2-0 win at home to East Thurrock United alleviated the problem temporarily.
Recognising the shortfalls in front of goal Charlie Sheringham was brought back to Princes Park, and to provide some better-quality service, a void created by Ryan Hayes summer departure to Concord Rangers, winger Tom Knowles was signed on loan from Cambridge United. Hayes would later return to the club in October after being frozen out at Concord Rangers.
September started with the obligatory defeat to St Albans City, then came two fixtures that showed the Dartford spirit building. Driving from midfield, experienced midfielder Lee Noble knows what that spirit encapsulates and yet again been a shining light winning Player of the Year once more. Likewise, Bradbrook understands the ethic required and for a period of time teammates began to follow his lead. Last minute draws at home to Eastbourne Borough then away at Billericay Town sparked a sequence of one defeat in nine league outings. Bradbrook will be missed next season after announcing his retirement, the midfielder scored an incredible 142 goals in 444 appearances. He has been part of the squad that has won the Isthmian Premier League in 2010, the National South Playoff Final in 2012, two Kent Senior Cup triumphs and has been an inspirational leader and former captain. The midfielder is Dartford’s second all-time top goalscorer and is sixth in the all-time appearances list.
In the same month several loan signings were made, Amadou Ba, Kenneth Yao and Jordan Wynter, with the latter the only one to remain until the end of the season. Dartford also struggled past AFC Uckfield Town in the F.A Cup before getting comprehensively knocked out by Oxford City, the F.A Trophy campaign also ended abruptly at the first hurdle two months later. Evidence was still there to suggest Flanagan and Coyle’s squad was still a work in progress.
More signings were made in October with Andre Coker and Daniel Johnson arriving to Princes Park. Goalkeeper, Deren Ibrahim signed off in style scoring his second career goal which turned out to be the winner at Chippenham Town, the former number one would make one last appearance before moving to coach at Charlton Athletic. In came Bailey Vose on loan from Colchester United to replace the long serving Ibrahim.
The Darts started putting positive sequences together and signs of a gelling squad were showing. However, Flanagan and Coyle felt that finishing touches were required. Dan Darbyshire and Phil Roberts were added to the squad in December, Billy Crook and Joe Healy in the New Year and Darren McQueen in February. Dartford were becoming harder to beat and with excellent home form they headed towards the top seven. Phil Roberts started to find his scoring boots in January and in March volleyed an audacious effort Goal of the Season contender against Gloucester City, but after failing to turn up to a match at Weston-super-Mare in April he was out the door.
A February double over title challengers Woking had the club believing a playoff place was on the cards and at the beginning of March there was even talk about a third-place finish. A run of just two defeats since the New Year, the campaign now had a more positive vibe. But in a season of twists and turns the Darts were about to enter their worst run of form under Flanagan and Coyle.
Dartford can be excused for losing to champions elect Torquay United, although the Devon club did have ten men for most of the game, but what was to follow was not excusable. One point from three relegation threatened teams, including a 6-0 drubbing at Eastbourne Borough was humiliating for the club and had Flanagan questioning his players publicly in the local press. In a sequence of six games, Dartford picked up just two points and their playoff hopes were hanging by a thread.
The Darts took hold of that thread with one hand scoring twice in the final two minutes to beat Billericay Town in the penultimate game. Had the Darts not come from behind to win 2-1, the season would have been over. So, into the last day and a Dartford victory coupled with Billericay Town and St Albans City failing to win would be enough. It was looking good with the Darts a goal to the good and both Billericay Town and St Albans City losing. Then Oxford City struck twice, and Dartford’s playoff grip loosened. In the end the Darts finished tenth missing their target of reaching the top seven. Now we wait until it all starts again in August.