Dartford Football Club was formed in early 1888 by members of the Dartford Workingmen’s club and for the first few seasons, played only friendly fixtures with the occasional foray into cup football. A run to the final of the Kent Senior cup in 1894 encouraged the club committee to enter Dartford as a Founder-Member of the Kent League for the 1894-95 season. It was in October 1895 that Dartford first played in the FA Cup.
Two seasons later Dartford became Founder-Members of the Southern League, Division Two winning the Championship at the first attempt. Over the next few seasons Dartford fluctuated between the Southern and Kent Leagues but a financial crisis in the early 1900s saw the club drift down to the West Kent League. At the same time the club, which had used several pitches in the area, gained the use of Summers Meadow in Lowfield Street on a long lease.
In 1908-09 Dartford won both the West Kent League and Cup ‘double’ and generated enough enthusiasm for the club to rejoin the Kent League, retaining membership until the outbreak of the 1914-1918 War. In 1913 Dartford undertook a short tour of Norway, which ended with a 6-1 win over a Norway XI.
After the war Dartford Football was slow to get underway as the Summers Meadow ground was no longer available. However local business men appreciating the value of a good-class football team bearing the town’s name completely re-structured the club and, from 1921 onwards, Dartford FC was run as a public limited liability company, unique in English football until Tottenham Hotspur followed suit some fifty years later. A site was found in Watling Street in the neighbouring parish of Stone, which was to remain the club’s home until a major financial crisis forced the sale of the ground in 1992.
Darts continued their association with the Kent league winning the league cup in 1923-24, before switching to the Southern League in time for the 1926-27 season. At the start of the 1930s the Dartford Board appointed the successful Kettering Town manager, Bill Collier, as manager. The Scot continued his pattern of success with Dartford and won trophies by the shoal during the decade leading up to the 1939-45 war.
Dartford won the Southern League Eastern section title in 1930-31 and 1931-32 (missing a hat-trick by just one point the season after) and the overall Championship of the League was won with victories over the Western Section winners Exeter City Reserves 7-2 away and Yeovil & Petters United 2-1 at home respectively. In county football, Dartford won the Kent Senior Cup four times in five seasons and the Kent Senior Shield three times.
In addition Dartford gained a reputation nationally by becoming the first club outside the Football League to reach the FA Cup Third Round Proper in successive seasons. In 1935-36 Dartford lost to a star studded Derby County (then second in Division One) by 3-2 at the Baseball Ground having at one time led by 2-0. Leading player Fred Dell was transferred to West Ham for a reported £2,000 immediately after the game. The following season saw Dartford lose 0-1 at home to Darlington at the same stage. Towards the end of the decade Mr Collier, who had brought a distinctive Scottish flavour to Dartford, resigned to take over a business in Scotland and the period was seen out in a comparatively quiet vein.
For a decade and a half following the 1939-1945 War Dartford had little to show for its efforts except for a sparkling Kent Senior Cup win over Bromley in 1947. At the same time Bromley vied with Bishop Auckland as the premier amateur club in the land and the Lillywhites look a 2-0 lead in the final before Dartford struck back with three goals to lift the trophy. Included in the Dartford line-up that day was Ted Croker, later to become the Secretary of the Football Association. Soon after this win Dartford transferred Riley Cullum and Fred Alexander to Charlton Athletic for £6,000, which wiped out the club’s debts entirely.
Dartford’s first post-war manager had been Warney Creswell (ex-Everton and England) but poor results led to him being rapidly replaced by Bill Moss who gradually put some stability into the club’s playing performances. In the late 1950s the Southern League was totally reorganised and Dartford spent most of the ensuing twenty seasons in the Premier Division. The key managers of the era were George Green, Alf Ackerman and Ernie Morgan, each of whom brought extensive Football League experience to the club resulting in a reasonable level of respectability to the playing side affairs.
In the early 1970s Dartford appeared in four successive Kent Senior Cup finals, winning the first and the last. Around this time, the club acquired the services of ex-Bolton and England winger Doug Holden as manager. Doug laid down the foundations of the team, which won the Southern League Championship in 1973-74. Holden left before the start of that season and was replaced by Ernie Morgan who grafted three or four quality players on to Holden’s squad and steered the Darts to the Southern League title and a place in the FA Trophy final at Wembley (losing 2-1 to Morecambe). For the next few seasons Dartford drifted along and just failed to clinch a spot in the newly formed Alliance Premier League (not the Football Conference). Even though the period was barren by Dartford’s standards, the club did win the Southern League Cup for the first time in 1976-77.
Then came the 1980s, a period dominated by two managers with contrasting styles: John Still and Peter Taylor. By winning the Southern Division of the Southern League in 1980-81 Dartford had gained a short-lived place in the Alliance Premier League. Relegated after just one season but having tasted life at the top of the semi-professional game Dartford wanted more. John Still who had led Leytonstone/Ilford to a clean sweep of trophies, was the man for the job, in 1983-84 he steered Dartford to a fourth Southern League Championship and a resultant return to the Alliance Premier League (by now known as the Gola League). This time Darts stayed two seasons finishing third in 1984-85. Another periodic crisis was looming, and with Still departing in February 1986, Dartford were relegated once again.
In the summer of 1986 former Tottenham and England winger Peter Taylor took charge of the club. In the four seasons of his reign Dartford were never out of the top four in the Southern League Premier Division, won the Southern League Cup twice (and were denied a unique hat-trick by VS Rugby in the 1989-90 final), the Southern League Championship Trophy twice, the Kent Senior Cup twice and reached the FA Trophy semi-finals twice.
In each of his four seasons at Dartford the team scored over one hundred goals – a feat unmatched until Tony Burman’s side in 2007/08. In addition Taylor saw average attendances rise from around 450 to almost 1,000.
In the wake of the Bradford fire and the Hillsborough disaster Dartford, like so many clubs, needed to either re-locate or upgrade their current facilities with the Board going for the latter option. Large sums of money were spent on planning and design fees, which burdened a manageable financial deficit with crippling interest charges.
At the same time Maidstone United, who had sold their own ground, needed a suitable home to launch their ill-fated foray into the Football League and the Dartford board agreed to let Maidstone ground-share at Watling Street, the rent income providing a welcome boost for finances.
Within a few years Maidstone had gone into liquidation, most of their cash being taken up to gain the eagerly-sought Football League place. Ground improvements, which Maidstone United has paid for, were sold to Dartford at a cost (around £500,000), which pushed Darts’ debts beyond manageable proportions. Watling Street was sold to pay off creditors and Dartford withdrew from the Southern League four games into the 1992-93 season.
The club’s Supporters’ Association, around 400 strong, came to the rescue, A private limited liability company was incorporated in November 1992 to manage affairs which meant, primarily, keeping the Youth team operating, an action which was rewarded when the Youth team beat Maidstone Invicta (the club rising out of the ashes of the old United Club) in the final of the John Ullman cup by 2-0 at Gravesend & Northfleet before a gate of 562. The continuing existence of the Youth team enabled Dartford to maintain both its Senior status and Full Membership of the Football Association.
In February 1993 former player Tony Burman was appointed Manager and with the club being offered a ground-share arrangement by Cray Wanderers, Dartford were able to make a successful application for membership of the Kent League. Spurred on by an average attendance of well over 300 Dartford finished that first season in sixth position.
With a view to the future Dartford negotiated a ground-share with Erith & Belvedere in time for the 1994-95 season and a second Kent League campaign started with gates at a shade over 400. Early promise faded somewhat and the club finished in mid-table but they did reach the final of the Kent League Cup.
The following season saw Dartford involved in a season-long battle with Furness for the Division One title with the destination of the championship decided in the gloom at Furness in the last fixture of the season, the home side clinging on for a 1-1 draw to deny Dartford on goal difference. The season was remarkable in that Darts lost only one league game all season on their way. The one defeat in all competitions came at Conference club Farnborough Town in the FA Cup, the only goal coming from the penalty spot.
There were triumphs, though, as Dartford swept to a 3-0 Kent Senior Trophy victory over Chatham Town at Welling United FC whilst the newly formed reserves, under another former Dart – Gary Julians – carried off a South London Federation League and Cup ‘double’ and the youth team finished in third position in the Kent Youth League.
In the May 1996 came the welcome news that Dartford had gained promotion to the Dr Martens sponsored Southern League, exactly one hundred years after the club first entered that competition. Unfortunately, Tony Burman was forced to resign as manager in the December due to business commitments but the club quickly promoted reserve team manager Gary Julians to first team manager.
After an initial bright start to the season, which saw Dartford reach third place, the season settled down and the Darts finished in fourteenth place. The Reserves had another excellent season and finished second to Tonbridge Reserves in the Kent League Division Two.
In September 1997 a disastrous fire at Erith & Belvedere put the club’s future and standing with the Southern League into serious doubt and with this in mind a new ground sharing arrangement was made with Purfleet in time for the 1998-99 season.
A highlight of that season were the achievements of the Youth team under the guidance of Grant Spelling and Simon Halsey. The team won the Northern Section title after a penalty shootout in a play off with Welling United, and also reached the final of the Kent Youth League Cup and the Kent County Cup.
The 1999-2000 season saw the Darts reach the semi-final of the Kent Senior Cup and the reserves reach the same stage of the Kent Intermediate cup.
The following three seasons saw the team consolidate in the Dr Martens League finishing mid table on each occasion with the exception of 1999-2000 when the Darts finished in eighth position.
A new ground sharing agreement was arranged with Gravesend & Northfleet in time for the 2001-02 season. In November 2001 the club parted company with both Manager Gary Julians and Coach Micky Crower. Former manager and player Tony Burman returned to the club as caretaker manager to be assisted by former captain and player Paul Sawyer.
Dartford were by now languishing in a relegation position and December 2001 saw the announcement that Tommy Sampson, who had played over 200 games for Dartford during the five year period 1975-80, had been appointed the new manager. He was assisted by Martin Farnie and Paul Sawyer in early 2002 long time Dartford favourite Steve Robinson returned to the club as reserve team player manager.
Many changes were to follow on the playing front and by the end of the season Dartford had finished in a very creditable eighth position and in doing so were the highest placed Kent club in the Dr Martens Eastern Division. The reserves too had a very good season, winning the Northern section of Kent League Division One.
In a play off for the overall winners of Division One the Darts missed the tile by losing after extra time to Dover Athletic Reserves. The ground sharing agreement at Gravesend & Northfleet coupled with an upturn in performances on the field saw a significant increase in attendances to help the financial position of the club.
Season 2002-03 saw a further expansion of the playing side with the addition of an Under 16 side in the Kent Youth League thus making the progression of players from Under 16 level to the senior squad possible. The decision paid off as the team achieved a league and cup double. The Under 18 team also achieved runners up position in the Central Division.
Season 2003-04 saw the first team finish in 16th position in the Dr Martens Eastern Division but the news that everybody had been waiting for came on the 10th April 2004 with Dartford Borough Council announcing that it would provide funding and a site for the building of a stadium in Dartford in time for the 2006-07 season.
The 2004/5 season saw the restructuring of non-league football. Dartford remained in the Southern League in a division made up of largely teams from the Ryman League. The season as a whole was disappointing with the Darts on the edge of the relagation zone for much of the season. Manager Tommy Sampson left the club towards the end of January and director and former player and manager Tony Burman took over on a caretaker basis.
An early upsurge in results pulled the Darts away from the relegation zone to retain their Southern League status. Meanwhile the Reserves under the managership of Bob Pittaway improved on the previous season’s poor performances. An influx of players previously under Bob’s guidance at Tonbridge and several youth team players from the previous seasons Under 18 helped the team achieve a creditable mid table position.
The bright side of the season for the club was the performance of the club’s two youth teams. At the beginning of the season Dennis Reid was appointed manager following a previously successful time at youth team level at Gravesend & Northfleet.
Joining him was Cengiz Ibrahim as coach. Several ex Gravesend & Northfleet players followed them and achieved the best season at Under 18 level for many seasons. The season culminated with them winning the Kent Youth League Under 18 Central Division title and also achieving the double by winning the Plaaya sponsored Kent Youth Under 18 cup.
The Under 13 team under manager Mick Knight and coach Gary Whitehead took a while to settle down but went on to end the season in mid table and also to win the Under 13 Challenge Cup. A game that was a credit to youth football. The team also achieved joint winners with five other clubs in the Sportsmanship Awards at the League’s AGM by not having any players cautioned during the season.
Season 2005/6 proved to be an exciting period for the club both on and off the field. The Youth side of the club expanded to have teams competing at Under 18,16, 14 and 13 level. Dartford Vikings who were previously affiliated to the club joined forces with the Darts bringing with them a further 12 teams from Under 17 down to Under 7.
Off the field the decision every Darts fan had been waiting for came on Wednesday 13 July 2005 when Dartford Council passed the planning application for the new ground subject to no objections being raised by the Highway Agency or the archaeological survey.
During the summer of 2005 Tony Burman decided that he would continue as manager for the forthcoming season to be assisted by Paul Sawyer and Steve Robinson. Expectations were high within the club with the anticipated start of the building of the new stadium and these expectations were fulfilled when in November 2005 contractors moved onto the new site and building commenced.
On the field the Darts started brightly and early form saw them in the top half of the table and a position that they would maintain for the whole season. An early exit in the FA Cup saw Darts dismal run in this competition continue. However, the club had its best run in the FA Trophy for several seasons. Wins over Dover Athletic and Margate brought the draw everybody was looking forward to, at home to AFC Wimbledon.
The game at Stonebridge Road, saw an end to end encounter but at the end of ninety minutes the score was goalless and a replay at Wimbledon the following Tuesday. Another pulsating game and just when extra time loomed Wimbledon broke the deadlock to score two goals in the last five minutes.
A disastrous spell just after Christmas saw the Darts on a losing trail although the leading clubs remained within touching distance. James Carter’s absence from the squad from January was a major setback but the Darts recruited Brendon Cass from Chatham Town to bolster the forward line. The final positions in the league were not to be decided until the last day of the season and depended on Dartford’s and Wivenhoe Town’s results on the day. Whilst Darts did the business by winning at Barton Rovers, Wivenhoe secured the point they needed to book a play off position.
The Reserves under Bob Pittaway started with a mixture of new players and those that had progressed through from the Under 18 Championship team of the season before. Without a settled team due to injuries and call ups to the first team the team struggled and December saw the departure of Reserve team manager Bob Pittaway and his assistants to Sevenoaks Town. As a temporary measure Grant Spelling agreed to return to the club to help out until a permanent appointment could be found.
This temporary arrangement turned permanent when Grant continued in that position until the end of the season. During that time the Reserves had a much more settled team and improved performances saw them finish in a top half position in the league when early indications were that they were relegation candidates and saw them reach the final of the Division One/Two cup.
The final played at Folkestone Invicta’s ground saw a thoroughly entertaining game of football which was a credit to both teams but which saw the Darts winners at the end of ninety minutes by three goals to one.
There were mixed fortunes for the club’s youth teams. The Under 18 had a new blend of players from those left from the previous season plus newcomers to the club but were unable to repeat the feats of the previous season and finished mid table and without any great cup success.
The Under 16 however won their league and also finished runners up in the League Shield, whilst the Under 14 consolidated on their previous season by finishing mid table. There was success for the Under 13 by winning the league title but missed out on a league and cup double by losing on penalties to a strong Bromley side.
By the end of the season the FA’s restructuring plan was being implemented which saw the Darts transferred from the Southern League to the Ryman League where they would compete in the Ryman Division One South. Manager Tony Burman kept faith with the majority of the previous season’s team but reinforced the squad with the addition of experienced defenders John Farley, Lew Watts, and forward Jay May.
Off the field, Princes Park was taking shape and an opening date of 23 September was announced for the first game. Towards the end of April it became apparent that this date would not be met and on Monday 21 August 2006 it was announced that the opening date would be Saturday 11 November 2006 when the Darts entertained Horsham YMCA in the Ryman League.
The day duly arrived and in front of a capacity crowd of 4,100(all tickets sold in 3 weeks), we won 4-2 with Brendon Cass having the honour of scoring the first goal after 10 minutes.
Dartford were moved across to the Ryman League Division One North for the 2007/2008 season. After a long battle with AFC Sudbury at the top (including a long unbeaten run for the Darts mid-season), Dartford were crowned Champions despite a 2-1 defeat away at Edgware Town. Princes Park celebrated the victory with a victory over Wingate and Finchley in the final match of 2007/2008 where club captain Alex O’Brien lifted the league title.
Dartford finished a credible 8th in the Ryman Premier League in their first season back, whilst selling striker Cody McDonald to Norwich City in the January 2009 transfer window.
The Darts continued their progress through the football pyramid since returning to the Borough throughout the 2009/10 season, although cup football was not the biggest of successes. A FA Cup run ended at the hands of Chelmsford City in October, and was followed up by defeats by Dover Athletic (FA Trophy), Aveley (Isthmian League Cup) and Welling United (Kent Senior Cup). However, league competition was seen as paramount and this showed. Dartford sealed the league title only a fortnight before the end of the season with a thumping 6-2 victory at Kingstonian, but this did not show the full story as a bad winter left the Darts with seven games in that final spell. Victories in all but one of these matches left the club winning the title by an 18 point margin eventually.
In 2010/11, the club made their debut in the Conference South, finishing a creditable tenth. In contrast to the previous season, cup runs were on the agenda, with an extended FA Cup run the highlight. Dartford eventually succumbed to Port Vale in a replay, with Vale’s late equaliser at Princes Park feeling particularly harsh given the context of the match. There was also a good FA Trophy run which ended in a last sixteen match at Conference National club Gateshead, who ran out winners. There was success in the Kent Senior Cup when the club lifted the trophy for the first time since the late 1980’s with a 4-1 victory over Bromley at Princes Park in the final.
In 2011/12, it was another season of twists and turns, as the Darts crashed out of the FA Cup early with a defeat at Bromley, and fell in the 3rd Round of the FA Trophy to Wealdstone after a replay. The Kent Senior Cup defence ended at the final hurdle, losing out to Hythe Town in the Final, but the league form was the most important part of the season. Chasing down Woking throughout the season, the Darts eventually lost out by four points and sealed the second place position, and more importantly home advantage in the playoffs. Beating Basingstoke Town over the two legged affair meant a home match against Welling United in the final. The sellout crowd saw Lee Noble’s early strike seal the Darts place as Promotion Final Winners and earning a slow in the National Conference for the first time since the 1980’s.
The Club’s return to the top flight of Non League Football in 2012/13 will also be long remembered for being one of the most successful seasons in the history. Despite a controversial expulsion from the Kent Senior Cup, and the unfortunate drawing of a fellow Conference National side in the club’s first FA Cup match (Forest Green Rovers), the club managed to reach the FA Trophy Semi Finals. Defeats of Kingstonian, Tonbridge Angels, Bromley and Halifax Town took the Darts to a two-legged tie against fellow Conference side Grimsby Town. A 3-0 defeat at Blundell Park possibly flattered the home side, but it left the Darts with a mountain to climb back at Princes Park, where they could only manage a 0-0 draw to get so near, yet so far from a trip to Wembley. However, despite the cup run, the Darts’ league form managed to stand up, against all odds. An eighth place finish was the culmination of some excellent victories, defeating Hereford United, Wrexham, Luton Town, Cambridge United and Grimsby Town as well as a televised home win over the eventual champions Mansfield Town. Finishing the highest part-time side in the country was topped off by Princes Park hosting its first international match as England C hosted Turkey C.
The following two seasons were hard work for the Club. In 2013/14, Dartford lost their defensive spine of Champion, Bonner and Arber. Despite away wins at Kidderminster and Wrexham, relegation was confirmed. However, due to financial mismanagement by other clubs in the League, two relegation spaces were removed. Dartford were in those two spaces, and in the middle of June, it was confirmed that the Darts had been handed a reprieve. The late notice of this however worked against the Darts as plans had been put in place to sign players who could not commit to Conference National football. It was no surprise to see the club struggle. Away wins against Wrexham and Chester papered over a poor record away from home, and a televised home defeat against Barnet on Easter Monday condemned the Darts to relegation, with no reprieve this time. Cup football in these two seasons had a mixed success. In 2014/15, the Darts made it through to the Second Round when they were beaten 4-1 by Bradford City at Valley Parade.
Following the club’s relegation from the National League (formerly the Conference), there was a return to National League South football. An early exit in the FA Cup at home to lower league Uxbridge was a bitter disappointment, as was the early defeat in the FA Trophy at home to Whitehawk. The league campaign ended with the Darts just outside of the playoffs, with a slender but improbable chance going into the final match of the season. It was, however, not to be. However, there was cup success as the Darts lifted the Kent Senior Cup with a final at Princes Park against Charlton Athletic who they defeated 3-1.
The following season, victories against Chelmsford City, Slough Town and Tonbridge Angels in the FA Cup took the Darts into the First Round with a tie against National League side Sutton United at Princes Park. The Darts, however, came out on the wrong side of a 6-3 defeat in an enthralling match in which the home side came from behind three times. Sutton United would go on to be knocked out by Arsenal in the competition. In the FA Trophy, Chelmsford City gained revenge for the FA Cup defeat by beating the Darts 1-0.
The league season was one of nearly but not quite, however. Two late goals against Poole Town sealed third place in the League, and confirmed a two legged tie against Chelmsford City (making a total of six matches against them in the season). The Darts managed to hold them 0-0 in the away leg, but a 2-1 defeat was enough to knock the Darts out in the second leg.