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Club Focus: Dartford are as sound as a pound after survival story

(Photo: Edmund Boyden)

By Matt Badcock

IT COST £1 to keep the name of Dartford FC alive – a fair bit cheaper than the £20,000 the supporters’ association were asked to fork out six weeks earlier.

Four games into the 1992-93 season, the Southern League club were no more. Maidstone United had been groundsharing at their Watling Street home but blew the money chasing the Football League dream.

The ground improvements Maidstone were paying for were sold to Dartford at a cost of around £500,000 and the Darts were plunged into debt.

In the close season their home was sold off to pay creditors and they briefly moved in with Welling United.

“I was chairman of the supporters’ association at the time,” current co-chairman Dave Skinner tells The NLP. “I got a phone call from Jim Thompson saying, ‘Have you got £20,000? In which case you can have the club’.

“I think we had around £1,500 in the bank at the time. I said, ‘We can’t afford that’. He just replied, ‘Well, in that case we’re shutting the club down’.

“We knew something bad was happening because we’d lost the ground, but it was a bit of a bolt out of the blue.”

Within six weeks, the supporters had met, formed a new company and started again.

“We made some enquiries and were told by the Kent League, as it was then, that as long as we started at least at that level the following year, we would retain our full membership of the FA. We managed to keep the U18 youth team going during the 92-93 season. That, if you like, kept the continuity going.

“So when we re-started, funnily enough with Tony Burman as manager, in 1993 in the Kent League we’d maintained the status of the club and took over the name. We bought it for £1!”

Starting from nothing wasn’t easy, but slowly the pieces fell into place. In February 1993, Tony Burman was appointed manager while a groundshare was arranged with Cray Wanderers.

Target Darts: Manager Tony Burman is plotting the club’s return to Step 1 (photo: Edmund Boyden)

“We virtually started from scratch so you can imagine what it was like,” Skinner says. “We didn’t have a lot of friends in football but a lot of people helped us out – funnily enough no lesser club than Gravesend & Northfleet.

“We played a friendly at their ground against their youth team. They donated the whole proceeds of the game to us to kick-start out funds to run the club the following season. It just shows, you can be fiercest rivals on the pitch but when you’re in trouble you find out who your friends are.”

Perhaps the most significant piece of the jigsaw and a big catalyst in their recent success was a return to the town and their Princes Park home.

Skinner remembers attending a spade-in-ground event back in 1987. In 2006 they eventually had their own ‘living’ roof above their head with the innovative stadium that also recycles rain water for the toilets and has solar panels.

Skinner says: “When we first went to the council they said, ‘What do you want?’ We said, ‘Well, something for the Kent League. A nice field with a fence around it, dressing rooms and a nice stand’. The council backed us to the hilt and built Princes Park as it is. When we first saw the plans we were blown away.”

On the field they started blowing much of the competition away, too, as they quickly ascended the Pyramid to reach Step 1.

In their first season at Non-League’s top table, with a group of players boastin an unbreakable team spirit, they finished eighth and reached the FA Trophy semi-final.

As happens, some of their top performers were cherry picked and although they received a relegation reprieve in their second season, they fell back to Step 2 after three years.

Lessons have been learned about life at the top, the travelling and what’s needed if they get back there.

Their plan to return has been, typically, realistic. Last season they missed out on promotion in the play-off semi-finals but sat top of the division ahead of the weekend.

“We’ve given ourselves three years to be challenging for the league,” legendary boss Burman says. “This is our third year. It’s there for all to see that we can be challenging, barring injuries or anything else that might happen.

“If we keep the squad fit and come through that then the squad is decent, I think, to make a challenge for the title.

“It hurt us to be relegated. It took its toll. Everyone was down in the dumps, so to speak. Each season we’ve had to recharge the batteries, get the feel-good factor back into the club. It’s a good place here. We do things very well, off the field.

“We didn’t want to put too much pressure on everybody when we came down and say, ‘We’ve got to go up next season’.

“It doesn’t work like that, football. We’ve tried to learn from our mistakes and hopefully if we manage to go up then we will go up with a lot more experience than before. The aim would be to stabilise and stay within the league without putting any pressure on the club that maybe other teams have done.”

Burman put on record last season how he felt the spirit inside his changing room, that had fuelled their rise, was back to where he wanted it. That has stepped up again this season.

Stalwarts like captain Elliot Bradbrook, whose influence and leadership are huge for Burman, Ryan Hayes, Lee Noble, Danny Harris and the returning Tom Bonner set the standard for new arrivals and the youngsters coming through the system.

“You can have as much money as you like, but it doesn’t help if you can’t get the players all pulling in the same direction,” Burman says. “We’re close-knit here and there’s a good bond in the changing room. We had a fantastic spirit last season and that got us to where we were. You’ve got to have that this level. You must, must have that. If you haven’t, it makes the job much more difficult.

“Those players know what that’s about. It’s the first thing they talk about. Tom Bonner has gone and come back, but there’s younger players in there now who want to play for the club because of them.

“Those lads have been loyal. That’s not a word that is used very much in football. You’ve got to give credit to those guys for what they’ve done. They know what’s good to have a spirit in the camp – and not just for a couple of months. It’s got to be when the bad times come along and you’ve got to get through it. Those guys know how to do that.

“You can rely on these guys. They’ve shown that by the time they’ve given the club. Again this season they’re proving what good players they are.”

Hayes was Burman’s first signing and the manager has vowed that as long as he’s at the club so will the mercurial winger.

Each summer he turns up for the close-season meeting with the manager and signs on the dotted line. They don’t talk about money.

As is the case for the players, the board also know they have the perfect manager in Burman.

“We just wouldn’t exist unless Tony had been at the helm,” Skinner says. “He’s the one who builds these squads and gets the team spirit and everything else going. We, as a board, just let him get on with it.”

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