Steve King believes Dartford has a “free hit” in the National South playoffs after his side exceeded expectations since he took over as boss.
The Darts turned themselves into promotion contenders, even though they were relegation candidates when King was appointed in October. Now the Kent club are three games away from a return to the National League after a five year absence.
Finishing sixth in the league, on points per game, the Darts take part in the elimination round facing Slough Town on Sunday. Having finished higher in the National South, it will be the Rebels who will host the game on their patch. With fans unable to attend, King feels anyone could win on the day as playing at home as no real benefit, he commented: “We could beat Slough, Slough could beat us. Everyone in these play-offs can all beat each other and there is no home advantage. Slough have an artificial pitch but we train on one every single week”.
The Dartford manager is calling on his team to step up to Sunday’s challenge, he commented: “Slough are very tough at home, well coached, well drilled, they are hard to beat. They are one of those sides where you have to be on top of your game, otherwise they are capable of beating anybody in the division. To get through the tie the big players need to produce”.
Although the season was cut short Dartford did manage to fulfill both fixtures against the Berkshire club, losing by a single goal on each occasion. The last visit to Arbour Park was in January and a Dan Roberts goal was enough for the home side to complete a double over Dartford. Earlier in the campaign Tony Burman was in charge as the Darts squandered a two goal lead to lose 3-2.
King is happy with the fitness of his squad since the restart and with the players available he has a “good headache”. Tyrique Hyde is available from his parent club to continue the loan spell he was enjoying. Former Dulwich Hamlet and Ebbsfleet United goalkeeper Preston Edwards has come in as cover to first choice shot stopper Alhaji Sesay, that means Mark Smith will not be part of the playoff squad. Dartford will also no longer have the services of Andy Pugh, Liam Nash and Ryan Hayes, whilst Billy Crook is unavailable.
It will be the first competitive match in almost four months for both sides, so preparations in the current climate have proven difficult. On the field football is a different, as games will be staged behind closed doors. Health and safety protocols are in place meaning on the training ground teams are limited in what they can do to get ready for matchday. When the playoffs begin, the matches themselves will have a completely different feel without fans and atmosphere. However, both clubs are doing what they can to get their supporters involved.
The Darts managed a warm fixture when they beat National League side Boreham Wood 1-0 last weekend, Charlie Sheringham scoring the winner. King used his full squad playing a different side in each half.
Slough Town lost their last two league games 2-0 pre-lockdown against fellow playoff contenders Weymouth and bottom of the table side Hungerford Town. Even without a four month break form tends to go out of the window when knockout competitions start and Dartford will also have to get past Slough Town’s tight defence. This season the Rebels conceded just 38 goals in 35 league games. However, the Darts have Elliott Romain and Darren McQueen, two of the top four scorers in the league, making Sunday’s clash an interesting affair.
Preparations to even make the playoffs happen has gone beyond rivalry. Normally, Dartford boss, Steve King is looking to get one over on his opponents, but he has been working tirelessly with opposing managers including Slough Town’s Neil Baker and Jon Underwood to ensure all six clubs in the playoffs have a shot at promotion.
Whilst the trio leading their teams have come together in difficult circumstances, come the day of the elimination round expect normal service to return when their competitive streaks will be on display.
The winners of the elimination round will face National South runners up Havant and Waterlooville in the semi-final on Saturday 25 July. The playoff final is due to take place on Saturday 1 August.