The recent announcement of Tom Bonner’s retirement was, although expected by some, a shock to many at Bericote Powerhouse Princes Park. Afterall, the 35-year-old put in arguably the best performances of his career last season, as he marshalled the Dartford backline with calmness and authority.
And yet, here I am writing about the club Captain’s retirement after having reflected on his career over the last few days, before speaking with the man himself.
Unlike many, I haven’t been at the club for that long. In fact, my first season of writing for the Darts just happened to coincide with Tom being given the Captain’s armband. To me, therefore, he’ll always be known as the Skipper of the club I so dearly love. And, to see someone else wearing that number six shirt from now on will feel extremely strange indeed.
With that being said, Tom has moved on to the next stage in his life and, as all good things come to an end, the club continues onwards under someone else’s leadership.
As I spoke with Tom about his decision and time with the club, it’s all too clear that the thoughts and feelings are still raw for the man… “I’m still feeling very emotional to be honest Chris. It was the hardest decision I’ve ever had to make. It’s been playing on my mind for a few months now and was made even more difficult because, obviously, we lost in the play-off to St Albans City. I really didn’t want to finish my career without getting Dartford promoted back to the National League. Losing to St Albans City by penalties again is something that will haunt me forever…” (he pauses for a few seconds) “…I don’t think I’ll ever get over it.”
Time can be a great healer but, unfortunately, that’s the one thing that Tom doesn’t have, despite feeling incredibly fit and capable of playing still… “Physically, I felt great last season. I believe that I could have possibly continued playing for another two seasons at least. But, my work commitments are such, and that was one of the main reasons that led to my decision to retire. Also, unfortunately, this level is part-time football. Juggling work, football, and two young children was just too much. So, yeah, it was the toughest decision I’ve ever had to make. But, now I can focus on my family and work.”
Family is the silver lining in all this, and is something that Tom clearly holds close to his heart. Afterall, his parents have been his inspiration since day one. “Yes, it’s a cliché I know, but Mum and Dad have certainly been the main influence on my life. To be fair, Dad was the man who got me into football, and he drove me around the country when I was younger and playing for QPR.”
Now it’s Tom’s turn to take hold of that particular baton and be the positive influence on his children, Frank (5) and Nancy (3). And, who knows, perhaps the Bonner name will embrace the Dartford shirt once again in a few years time.
As we rewind the years, Tom reminisces fondly on his history with the club. However, he doesn’t believe his debut was against Leatherhead FC in the 2010 Ryman Charity Shield… “I honestly have no recollection of the game against Leatherhead! I always thought that my debut was against Havant & Waterlooville, where we drew 2-2. I remember going to left-back as an emergency in the last pre-season game. I did okay, played quite well. That led to me starting the season at left-back, and I’d never played there before! I remember playing quite well that season and pretty much played every game. So, yeah, that was the start of the journey.”
That journey has seen Tom accomplish some brilliant statistics, including making over 450 appearances for the club, a feat that shouldn’t be taken lightly. The negatives are known, so we won’t focus on them anymore, especially seeing how fresh in the memory they are.
There have, however, been some amazing positives and Tom has made some wonderful memories during his time at Bericote Powerhouse Princes Park… “I’ve had so many good times at the club. My favourite is obviously when we won promotion after winning the play-offs. We beat Welling United in the final, which made the promotion more special. That was the highlight of my football career, hands down. We’ve had a few good cup runs as well… we took Port Vale to a replay… but, definitely that play-off win is my fondest memory.”
During his career, Tom has scored nineteen goals for the Darts, which isn’t bad for a Centre Half. Does he have a favourite? “Believe it or not, even though there’s only been 19, I don’t remember all my goals! There’s been very few screamers! But, probably, my best finish was against Maidstone United a couple of years ago. I struck it with my left foot and it flew in! We won the game 2-0, against our arch rivals. That was probably my best finish. Just a shame that it was during COVID, as I’d have run the length of the pitch to celebrate with our fans.”
Throughout his career, Tom has come up against some of the toughest players in the National League South. Yet the former defender considers ex-Hampton & Richmond Borough duo Jamal Lowe and Nicke Kabamba to be the best… “I believe we lost that game 3-0. Those two players gave me my hardest day! They were a real handful and went on to have good careers too.”
And, what about teammates? “That’s the toughest question ever Chris! Elliot Bradbrook, Ryan Hayes, Lee Noble… they were all fantastic players, as was goalkeeper Marcus Bettinelli. From a defensive point of view, I’ve probably learned more from Mark Arber than anyone else in my career. He played football in a completely different way to me, and that opened my eyes up to how you can play football as a defender. But, if I had to pick one player, it’d be Elliot Bradbrook. He was a leader of men. He was the one person you could call upon when you needed him.”
As a bit of fun, I ask Tom who he would pick if he was to name a team of past Dartford players that he’s played alongside… In a 4-4-2 formation, “Marcus Bettinelli; Jordan Wynter, Ronnie Vint, Tom Bonner, Adam Green; Ryan Hayes, Jon Wallis, Elliot Bradbrook, Lee Noble; Andy Pugh and Jacob Erskine. Subs: Connor Essam, Jernade Meade, Alfie Pavey, Danny Harris and Lee Burns.”
As Tom continues to remember his time at the club, he can be and indeed is, proud… “I’m proud of the effort I gave Dartford. I rarely got injured and I like to think that I was always there when I was needed… through thick and thin, good times and bad. I played every game and I gave it absolutely everything. Like I said earlier, not getting promoted last term will haunt me forever because, I’d swap everything for another promotion medal with Dartford. However, I look back with pride and everyone knows how much Dartford means to me. I’m buzzing that I represented this great club for so long.”
He continues, “450+ appearances is something to be extremely proud of. I’ve had ten seasons with the club, one of which was cut short due to COVID. So, I could have had more appearances, perhaps even surpassed 500. I’ve averaged fifty games a year for ten years! (take note Premier League players!) That in itself is quite a remarkable achievement. I like to believe that I played the majority of the games at a good level.”
Of course, the last six seasons has seen Tom wear the Captain’s armband. That in itself has been a super proud moment in his career… “Captaining Dartford has meant absolutely everything to me. When (Jamie) Coyle and (Adam Flanagan) Flanners called me up to say they wanted me to be captain, I could have cried to be honest Chris. To me, Dartford is a big club, and we’ve had some good players, some real characters in the dressing room. So, to be seen as the leader, the captain, makes me… I know I keep saying the word… proud. The minute I got the armband, until just a few weeks ago, has been the best time of my life.”
He continues… “From day one I wanted to be there for everybody. I wanted to be that welcoming face. I wanted to be that someone who anyone could come to with a problem, etc… outside of the pitch. I believe that the biggest part of being a captain is off the field… helping people and being there for people…if you get that respect off the pitch, people will follow you on it. All captain’s are different but, my advice to Dartford’s new captain, is to look after people off the pitch, then they’ll follow you on it.”
Tom Bonner, friendly face and natural leader. Proud husband, father, and wearer of Dartford’s number six shirt and Captain’s armband. Accomplished defender and organiser with authority on the pitch, humble and approachable off it. A legend in every sense of the word, who will be missed at Bericote Powerhouse Princes Park, yet always welcome with open arms, love, and respect by everyone at the club.
And, as our conversation reaches its natural conclusion, it’s only fitting to allow the Skipper to have the last word… “I just want to say thank you to all the Dartford fans. I’ve loved every minute playing for the club. I’ve loved every minute captaining the club. It’s a fantastic place and I’ve loved every minute of my time there. I’ve met some great people and I class myself as a fan. Now, I also want to apologise that we couldn’t get over the line in recent years, that’s something that’ll live with me forever. But, I just want to say thank you for everything.”
By Chris Palmer