Dartford are one game away from a place in the National South playoff final and standing in their way will be Havant and Waterlooville this Saturday.
Victory for the Darts will give them a chance of promotion to the National League and for manager Steve King an opportunity to go one step further than last season. The Dartford boss lost the final last term when he took Welling United to the final. First comes the semi-final against Havant and Waterlooville who are looking to return to the top flight of non-league at the first attempt.
This weekend’s meeting will be the biggest showdown between the two sides since the final day heartache suffered by the Darts just over two years ago. A last minute goal from former Dartford striker, Jason Prior clinched promotion for the Hawks even though Dartford won their final day match against Bognor Regis Town. History aside, plenty has changed since Tony Burman’s reign and by the time the two sides met again in August, Adam Flanagan and Jamie Coyle were in charge.
Havant and Waterlooville were one of the favourites this season to go up and they have justified their tag by finishing the shortened campaign in second. When Dartford played the Hampshire side at Princes Park it was one of Flanagan and Coyle’s better results as the points were shared. Adam Cunnington scored his first goal for the Darts as the Kent side deserved a half time lead. The second half told a different story and when Havant and Waterlooville’s Jonah Ayunga equalised just past the hour, Dartford were left hanging on for a draw, the second in three games in this fixture.
Dartford are currently seven games unbeaten against the Hawks, but with the depth of both squads and the amount of fire power on show this semi-final clash should be a close contest. The Darts can rely on Elliott Romain and Darren McQueen who have netted 16 league goals this season, whilst Havant and Waterlooville’s Ayunga is top scorer with one more than the Dartford pair.
Yet it is Charlie Sheringham who has been catching the eye of Dartford manager, Steve King. Having been sent on loan to Leatherhead, the striker last featured in February for the Darts, but since football has returned Sheringham has impressed. First the 32-year-old scored in the 1-0 friendly win against Boreham Wood, then he grabbed a brace in the playoff elimination round at Slough Town. King commented after the 3-0 win: “I said to him when he came back after the lockdown that I don’t have favourites. The way he has come back, the attitude he has shown, the willingness, he listens. He has shown a good attitude. He started the second half against Boreham Wood and occupied the two centre halves, getting it and knocking it wide, and getting himself in the box and he scored a fantastic goal and I thought, ‘ooh, we may need that’. He can win fouls, he takes one touch then sets, the others take a touch and a touch and the whole picture changes”.
Sheringham’s couple changed the momentum of the game at Arbour Park as the hosts created the better chances in the first half, Josh Jackman and Ryan Bird missing good opportunities. King made excellent use of the half-time interval, he said after the game: “I told the players to relax at half-time, get on the ball, I told them ‘if you get on the ball you will start opening them up’”, he continued: “They just had to be braver, that is what I said at half-time, ‘be braver on the ball’. It was about picking the right passes. We knew what kind of game it would be but if we got the first goal they would have to change their approach and start leaving holes and gaps and second half was really good”. Sheringham scored two poachers goals early in the second-half and the match was wrapped up when substitute Luke Wanadio’s drive beat the Slough Town goalkeeper at the near post.
Dartford may have an advantage having now played a competitive game since the restart. Meanwhile, Havant and Waterlooville have not played competitively since a 2-0 win on 7 April against Hampton and Richmond Borough, which extended their unbeaten run to four and saw a fourth consecutive clean sheet. Victory against the Middlesex club left the Hawks in second behind crowned champions Wealdstone with eight games remaining. There is no doubt that manager Paul Doswell would have expected his squad to push Wealdstone all the way to the title, even though the Hawks were three points behind having played a game more. Had the playoffs not taken place, then the Hampshire club would have felt aggrieved as there was enough to go in the season to make a comeback, and that led to a campaign to get the playoffs on.
The Darts were due to play Havant and Waterlooville at Westleigh Park as their next game before the country went into lockdown. Which means the last visit to take on the Hawks in Hampshire was a 0-0 draw in August 2017. Dartford are unbeaten in three away matches against Havant and Waterlooville, keeping clean sheets in their last two. The winner of this playoff semi-final will face Dorking Wanderers or Weymouth, with the highest placed team in the final standings at home.