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Weymouth v Dartford

Dartford have promotion to the National league in their sights when they take on Weymouth in the National South Playoff Final at the Bob Lucas Stadium this Saturday.

The Darts have already made it through two rounds beating Slough Town in the elimination round then favourites Havant and Waterlooville in the semi-final last weekend. In both playoff matches, Steve King has relied on the depth of his squad as crucial changes have influenced the outcomes.

At Slough Town, a few alterations to the team and tactics as well as the half-time team talk improved Dartford’s performance. King told his players to be braver on the ball and when Charlie Sheringham scored a brace, he justified King’s decision to select him after being out of the squad before lockdown. A third goal was added by substitute Luke Wanadio to secure a 3-0 victory.

Another away game followed and this time it was Ky Marsh Brown’s turn to star against league runners up Havant and Waterlooville. The Darts went a goal down when Danny Kedwell’s was finished by Jonah Ayunga. Then two moments changed the game, first Josh Taylor was red carded for the Hawks late in the first half, then the Darts introduced Ky Marsh-Brown early in the second-half. Marsh-Brown set up Darren McQueen for the equaliser, then he won a penalty which McQueen scored sending the Darts into the final.

Steve King was on the receiving end of last season’s final when Welling United were beaten by Woking. Now he has the chance to return Dartford back to the National League after a five-year absence. This time he believes his side have a free hit and victory will complete a ‘miracle season’ after he steered the club from a relegation battle in October to promotion contenders. King told www.kentonline.co.uk that promotion would: “mean everything…It will be my fourth (play-off) final in National South. Just to go one step further when we have not been expected to would be the icing on the cake, really. We were fourth-bottom (when King took charge), there looked like there was a chance that we would get relegated. I’m just taking it in my stride, really. It’s just another game”.

After the win at Havant and Waterlooville, the Dartford boss praised his squads team ethic, he commented: “The group have done ever so well. They have been magnificent ever since we came through the door to have done what they have as a group”, he added: “We have had to change sides and I changed it at half-time (on Saturday). The boys who came off were disappointed, but they offered their support and they were shouting and hugging at the end and it has been a real team effort, whether they have started or not started”.

Weymouth will host the final having finished higher than Dartford in the National South and are looking to return to the National League after eleven years. The Terras ended the campaign in a respectable third place having only won promotion as champions of the Southern League Premier South last season. King knows that Saturday’s opposition will be difficult, he commented: “It will be tough, they play good football. They are quite a young side. Some of their players are on loan from Bournemouth. It’s going to be really tough, but we will give it one last go”.

Weymouth earned a place in the final after a dramatic finish in the semi-final against Dorking Wanderers. Yemi Odubade scored a last-minute winner to seal a 3-2 win after the home side threw away a two-goal lead. Mark Molesley’s side took the lead from the spot through captain Josh McQuoid, then Jaidon Anthony scored another to put Weymouth two up. Dorking fought back and with 17 minutes to go pulled a goal back through James McShane, and with five left on the clock Eliott Buchanan equalised. It looked as if the semi-final was heading for penalties until Odubade netted in stoppage time to send the Terras into the final.

Manager, Molesley praised his youngsters after the game, he told www.bournemouthecho.co.uk: “You’ve got to remember the average age of that squad (against Dorking Wanderers) was under 24. You forget about how young our team is. Fortunately, we’ve got some good, older, experienced players as well like Stephane Zubar, Yemi Odubade and Josh McQuoid, who have been there done it and seen it. The younger players can be buoyed that they have got some experience around them as well. But they have played maturely beyond their years and they have all season”.

Dartford’s last visit to the Bob Lucas Stadium ended in a 3-1 defeat back in August when Adam Flanagan and Jamie Coyle were in charge. The return fixture was due to take place on the final day of the season; however, the campaign was cut short. Abdulai Baggie opened the scoring and Brett Williams added two more before Norman Wabo scored a last-minute consolation for the Darts.

Havant and Waterlooville v Dartford

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.

Slough Town v Dartford

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”. Amrit Bansal-McNulty and Tyrique Hyde are available from their parent clubs to continue the loan spell the pair were 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.