Football seems so insignificant to what is going on in these strange times, yet it’s an escape for many supporters up and down the country. Who would have thought of a season starting in October with a F.A Cup tie behind closed doors? The online world of streaming entering the realms of non-league? Or even a league campaign opening on a Tuesday night under the Princes Park floodlights?
In the middle of the pandemic, challenges have been thrown at grassroots football left, right and centre. Teams are concerned on how they will get through this difficult moment financially wondering whether 2020/21 will even be worthwhile, considering the last campaign was cut short. There have been social media campaigns to get fans back at non-league grounds, questions over government funding and opinions about the amount of help coming from the higher echelons of the football pyramid. Whilst there is plenty of uncertainty off the field, Dartford like many clubs around the country are focusing on what they can control, performances on the pitch.
Considering the circumstances, the Darts are in a decent position and at the time of writing occupy second place in the National South. The target is promotion after last season’s playoff heartache and manager, Steve King has assembled a squad with depth and talent, but not without its flaws. Losing last season’s top scorer and pacey striker Darren McQueen was a blow in the summer, but in the early stages of the 2020/21 campaign results were built around the defence.
The season began in October, two months after the normal kick off, unusually with a F.A Cup tie. Dartford went out to a last-minute Slough Town penalty but bounced back three days later with a 1-0 victory over Chelmsford City, this time in the National South opener. King handed debuts to goalkeeper Craig King, Jazzi Barnum-Bobb and Ricky Modeste, who has unfortunately missed the majority of the season through injury. Abdul Osman made a brief appearance as a substitute in his very short Dartford career, the midfielder departing a month later to go back to Scotland. Other notable summer signings included David Ijaha, the return of Connor Essam and Jacob Berkeley-Agyepong.
Steve King’s side kept three clean sheets from their first three league fixtures, drawing 0-0 at Hampton and Richmond Borough and recording another 1-0 triumph at home to Bath City. Chippenham Town were the first team to breach the Darts defence, but still King’s men found a way to win with a wonderful team goal finished by Moussa Bakayoko, in his first appearance for the club, and a Tom Bonner winner.
Captain Bonner has led by example at the back and formed an excellent partnership with Ronnie Vint in the first six league matches. The winning formula continued with a Jack Barham inspired Dartford beating one of the favourites Havant and Waterlooville, the striker netting a brace in another 2-1 win. It was Barham’s former club Dorking Wanderers who inflicted the first setback of Dartford’s great start, the Surrey side taking all three points at Princes Park.
One of Dartford’s characteristics under Steve King is the ability to bounce back from defeat and that is just what they did. Although Vint hadn’t really put a foot wrong, Connor Essam was given an opportunity at the back and boy did he take the chance. The central defender scoring against his former club in a 3-1 triumph over Hemel Hempstead Town, an own goal and Elliott Romain’s first of the campaign sealing the deal. Things managed to get even better in Dartford’s first Kent derby of 2020/21 against local rivals Maidstone United, Bonner finding the net once more and Charlie Sheringham securing a 2-0 win.
Despite a strong beginning to the campaign King is still working on an answer to the conundrum not yet solved, how to add more goals to the side. After eight games the Darts scored 13 and only five had come from strikers. In came striker Alfie Pavey on loan, returning to Princes Park after a successful spell in which he won the National South Player of the Year. On his comeback, albeit as a substitute, Dartford went down to current league leaders at the time of writing, St Albans City. Adding to the front line, Chris Dickson signed on dual registration and made an immediate impact with a brace on his debut versus Slough Town. A game that saw Jacob Berkeley-Agyepong harshly sent off, but his red card was rescinded, and the impressive midfielder was cleared to play the following games.
Berkeley-Agyepong is leading the way on the Pure DFC forum Player of the Season so far with five Man of the Match performances up to the Slough Town trophy victory. His double against Hungerford Town highlighted the strength in depth of the squad, but also the continuing lack of goals from the front line. King was able to call upon his midfielder at a goal down and when he came on as a substitute the Darts grabbed all three points. Although his goal at Eastbourne Borough in the defeat that followed was in vain, he started the two-goal comeback in the F.A Trophy tie at Slough Town. In the next round Dartford went out to Haringey Borough of the Isthmian Premier League.
Dartford are still on course for their promotion challenge and results have been more than promising on that front. The positive news is that there seems to be more potential to unleash and despite playing more games than fellow promotion contenders, the Darts have the points already in the bag. No one team is running away with the league and there is still plenty to do on and off the field. Hopefully this campaign will be played out to the very end in front of at least some fans and it will be Dartford at the top of the tree. More importantly all the best for 2021 and look out for each other.