When Dartford make their way out onto the pitch on 6 August, Alan Dowson will be taking charge of his first competitive game for the Darts since his appointment in the summer.
The experienced Geordie will bring hard work, togetherness and enthusiasm to his squad. Off the pitch he aims to provide a community spirit that will help the club move forward. The new Dartford boss wasted no time in getting involved by taking part in a charity match as well as the meet and greet afternoon. So far his interviews have provided an insight into the pre-season preparations with a sprinkling of humour and wit.
To some, it came as a surprise that former boss Steve King departed, after he led the club to two playoff campaigns, losing one final on penalties. However, the ambition of returning to the National League after an eight-year absence remains the same and Dowson has been chosen as the man to try and go one step further than his predecessor.
The first step this summer was to secure a backbone to the team and Dowson made sure captain, Tom Bonner will be donning the white and black this term, his tenth season with the club. With the 2022/2023 squad taking shape, the Darts can be sure they are in safe hands with goalkeeper and Player of the Year, Dan Wilks opting to stay. The defence looks familiar with Bonner striking up a reliable partnership with Connor Essam again, whilst Jordan Wynter will provide versatility. New signing Maxwell Statham teams up with Kristian Campbell once more after the pair previously played in the same Welling United side. In the middle of the park, Samir Carruthers, Luke Allen and Keiran Murtagh, who is hitting his fitness targets set by Dowse return. After spells out on loan academy graduates Cameron Brodie and Sam Odaudu will be given an opportunity to impress, both performed well last season at Cray Wanderers and Margate respectively. When Odaudu signed on, the type of team spirit Dowse is trying to create was on display as the man in charge requested a song from the youngster who duly obliged.
Up front the hard-working Dan Roberts looks forward to enjoying his football again after spending time out on loan at Carshalton Athletic. Whilst the returning pair of Alex Wall and Charlie Sheringham will provide know-how in this division and hopefully plenty of goals. The duo rack up their seventh spell with the Darts between them with Sheringham leading 4-3. Wall will hope his transfer from Havant and Waterlooville will last longer than his last spell at Princes Park, whilst Sheringham will want to add to the 54 goals, if selected in the opening game he will also reach a century of starts for the Darts.
Pre-season will provide a variety of tests for the squad allowing Dartford to shape their playing style and bring their fitness levels up to Dowson’s expectations. The Darts will test themselves against two Football League sides in Charlton Athletic and Millwall, three National League outfits in Barnet, Boreham Wood and Bromley, take on Isthmian Premier League side Chatham Town, who won promotion last season and Essex club Canvey Island.
Expanding to 24 teams this season, the Darts will complete 46 league matches. Six new teams join the National South after the departures of Maidstone United as champions, Dorking Wanderers as playoff winners and Billericay Town who were relegated to the Isthmian Premier. Coming down from the National League, Dover Athletic will be hoping to put their struggles behind them as they return to the division for the first time since 2013/2014. The Whites are led by former Dartford midfielder Andy Hessenthaler and will have Alfie Pavey, Tyrone Sterling and Luke Wanadio in their squad. Dartford avenged the 2020 playoff final defeat at the hands of Weymouth when they won the F.A Trophy tie between the two last season, the Terras return after suffering the dreaded second season syndrome.
Worthing were worthy winners of the Isthmian Premier League, and the Sussex club came up with Cheshunt, both sides making their National South debut. When the Darts take on Cheshunt for the first time ever, they could be welcoming back academy player Dajon Golding who made the switch from the Isthmian Premier League champions. However, Worthing made an impressive signing as a replacement by getting Jake Robinson. A prolific striker at this level, the 35-year-old scored 17 goals in 32 appearances for the Darts in all competitions last season. From the Southern Premier League South, Taunton Town will make their first appearance in the National South, another side the Darts will be taking on for the first time. They beat Farnborough to lift the title on the final day last term, but that didn’t stop Boro winning the playoffs beating runners up Hayes and Yeading United, only six points separating the three sides in the final standings.
Dartford still have Kent derbies to whet their appetite, none more so than against Ebbsfleet United who will be one of the favourites for the title. The Fleet threw away a last-minute lead in the playoff final last time out, eventually losing in extra time. Elliot Romain has been reunited with Darren McQueen, the pair formed a prolific partnership whilst at Dartford a few seasons back. After a relegation battle, Welling United have seen a change off the pitch with new investment and the signings of former Darts Ade Azeez, Tyrique Hyde and ex-loanee Rob Howard. Meanwhile, Tonbridge Angels changed their manager following Steve McKimm’s surprise departure, former Margate boss Jay Saunders will be in the dugout and has decided to keep on Craig Braham-Barrett and sign Femi Akinwande from Billericay Town. Dover Athletic takes the number of Kent sides in the division to five.
Another team to make a summer managerial change is Braintree Town. The Iron have employed Angelo Harrop, who masterminded AFC Sudbury’s cupset when they beat Dartford in the F.A Cup. Chippenham Town also upset the odds defeating the Darts in the playoffs in May and although boss Gary Horgan was in charge of the final six league games, he will lead the Bluebirds into this campaign as good as a new appointment. Moving further to the West of England, Bath City have seen a number of players depart for newly promoted Taunton Town, but the Romans have taken Kieran Parselle and Danny Greenslade from the Chippenham Town side who made the Playoff semi-finals.
Oxford City are expected to challenge at the top end and with the news of top scorer Joe Iaciofano staying they will be an attacking threat. Likewise, his former team St Albans City have kept the services of Shaun Jeffers, the Saints have also signed former Dart, Chez Isaac. The experienced Ian Allinson will be aiming for his side to reach the playoffs. Similarly, to the Hertfordshire club, Havant and Waterlooville disappointingly missed out on a top seven finish last time after losing to Chippenham Town on the final day. Paul Doswell has also accrued plenty of knowledge over the years and has recruited Jason Prior again, who fired the Hawks to the title Dartford narrowly missed out on in 2018. The striker scored a last-minute winner to deny his former club the National South championship. Whilst those three clubs kept hold of their goalscorers, Hungerford Town lost the services of their talisman Ryan Seager to promoted Dorking Wanderers, replacing his goals will be crucial if the Crusaders want to look towards the top seven.
There are more managers with plenty of experience in the dugout, Gavin Rose at Dulwich Hamlet will be aiming higher with his side able to draw on the biggest attendances in the division. Rose had six former Darts in his squad last term, Danny Mills and Ronnie Vint have been confirmed as retained, George Porter and Josh Hill leave Dartford to join Hamlet for the upcoming campaign, whilst Darren McQueen and Tyrone Sterling have moved on. At Slough Town, Neil Baker and Jon Underwood enter their tenth year in charge at the Rebels and will hope to improve on last season’s thirteenth place finish.
Eastbourne Borough did well to reach the playoffs in 2021/2022, but poor form towards the end of the campaign meant they fell short, Kai Innocent formerly of Dartford has agreed to represent the Sports in another spell with the Sussex club and help them go again. In between the sticks Hampton and Richmond Borough and Hemel Hempstead Town will be relying on two former Dartford shot stoppers in Alan Julian and Craig King respectively.
Essex wasn’t represented too well in the National South last season with half of the bottom eight coming from the county North of the Thames. Concord Rangers were the highest placed, whilst Chelmsford City will want to stay further away from the drop with the help of new signing Jazzi Barnum-Bobb. Four teams go down this season so there will be no room for complacency this time.