A decade ago football proudly came home for Dartford with the opening of a brand new environmentally friendly stadium. Princes Park has been the venue for some memorable moments in the club’s history and so Pure DFC raises a glass for many more to come.
Without the pain and heartbreak it’s really hard to experience the pride and joy Princes Park gave club officials and supporters on 11 November 2006. Exiled for fourteen years after one of the most difficult periods in Dartford’s history the road back home seemed never ending.
End of the Watling Street era
Whilst the eighties and in particular the latter part of the decade was successful on the pitch, the financial situation worsened. When Maidstone United started their groundshare with the Darts, the extra income was welcome. However, further politics turned the thought of bankruptcy into a reality and so Watling Street was finished and the following 1992/93 campaign went unfinished. Mudeford dart, one of over 550 forum members using Pure DFC remembers the day the terrible news broke, “I don’t mind admitting I sat at my desk and cried my heart out the day we went under, that might explain my half full, rose tinted attitude through thick and thin”.
It is with that positive attitude that kept the club going thanks to The Club’s Supporters’ Association. The club was rescued and senior status was kept thanks to the Youth Team. All that was left was to appoint a manager (step forward Tony Burman), find a squad and a venue, so the Darts could start over in the Kent League.
Dartford on tour
Known as the nomadic days, the fourteen years before Princes Park saw Dartford touring Kent and Essex with false alarms of homecomings along the way. Oxford Road, Sidcup became the first ‘home’ of the new era as the Darts shared with Cray Wanderers, a period Mudeford dart looks back on nostalgically, “from a personal point of view I loved our days at Cray with the iconic “Dave Skinner Stand”. There was a real camaraderie because everyone was so happy to have our Darts run by our supporters. Cray were great landlords and made us feel very welcome”.
Park View, Belverdere had better facilities, but once again drama unfolded and the main stand was burnt down in 1997. Between September and December, Dartford played home fixtures at Purfleet, Slade Green, Northfleet and Barking. The Kent derby against Margate was actually played in Essex.
Unsuitable to host Dartford matches the club were forced to move from Park View and into Ship Lane, Purfleet. With that came new problems, enticing fans across the River Thames, poor public transport links and the M25 to contend with. Attendances declined but the venue would eventually be the last destination of Dartford’s tour.
Before Ship Lane hosted Dartford games again, the club struck a deal with rivals Gravesend and Northfleet to play at Stonebridge Road. It was during this period news broke on 10 April 2004 that funding for a new home was granted by Dartford Borough Council. The words of a former fanzine title was never more apt, finally their was a “Light at the End of the Tunnel”.
So the nomadic times may have been tough but many have fond memories and were delighted the club were back, paulnorwich reflects on those fourteen years, “I never went to Stonebridge Road to watch the Darts. Cray was good, Erith and Belvedere and Welling was handy for me as they were both so local, but because of family commitments I could only really start watching the Darts again more regularly at Purfleet, which I quite liked though. None of them were ever “home” though”.
11 November 2006. An emotional day in the history of Dartford Football Club, a celebration of the continuous hard work put in by those that kept the club running, of those that made Princes Park happen. A huge sense of pride and relief to be home again and for new supporters an exciting adventure. In the days leading up to the grand opening, on the morning before kick off, behind the scenes was hectic. In the excellent Princes Among Men: The History of Dartford Football Club, Jeremy Kite MBE recalls the desperation on the eve of the homecoming when the Princes Park lights went out. Luckily it wasn’t a metaphor of fourteen years ago, the venue was ready for the sell out crowd against Horsham YMCA.
A day of entertainment didn’t disappoint on and off the pitch. paulnorwich remembers, “I was talking to everyone I know about the “return” throughout 2006 and it was a day I’ll never forget!”. The team arrived by coach almost cup finalesque with fans waiting for the arrival. Fireworks greeted the two teams out of the players tunnel and finally football would do the talking.
Princes Park erupted when Brendon Cass entered the history books with the first goal. The striker netted another before Eddie McClements struck the goal of the day. Although the visitors pulled two goals back, Nick Barnes scored Dartford’s fourth in a 4-2 victory. The win was the icing on the homecoming cake.
Another Pure DFC user, El Kebabus of Arabia sums up the journey from homelessness to Princes Park, “all those years of following the Darts around during our nomadic days. Putting hard earned cash into the Warbler, holding ebay sales to raise funds, whip rounds and signing other people up for the Warbler. Boy was it worth it”.
Jeremy Kite’s chapter in Princes Among Men looks back at the long road back home and how much it meant to the community and on a personal level, “in the years since opening day, Princes Park has certainly fulfilled its promise as a catalyst for change and I couldn’t be more proud of it”.
Ten years of history and memories
Three promotions, two county cup wins, becoming the best part time team in the country and many more wonderful moments, the last decade at Princes Park has without doubt changed Dartford Football Club. Attendances have risen, an academy is beginning to blossom and the reputation of the club has improved.
In the early days, the venue helped attract players to pull on a white shirt and some of those players, Dave Martin, Cody McDonald, Charlie Sheringham, Ebou Adams, Tom Champion and current centre half Tom Bonner went on to play higher up the football chain. The core of today’s squad Elliot Bradbrook, Ryan Hayes, Lee Noble and Danny Harris have all provided brilliant moments, whilst a former core member Lee Burns added his imaginative and humorous goal celebrations. Title winning captains, Adam Flanagan and Alex O’Brien embodied the character and spirit manager Tony Burman works so hard to create, the type of spirit provided by current captain Elliot Bradbrook, Princes Park’s top goalscorer.
Wingers such as Hayes and Martin have produced some special goals and creativity, in particular Hayes’ trademark curler in front of the television cameras against Mansfield Town, Martin’s wonder strike against Burgess Hill Town. There have been a fair share of important goals, like Lee Noble’s in the National South playoff final against local rivals Welling United and the one that goes down in history as the first scored at Princes Park, Brendon Cass’ effort versus Horsham YMCA.
As team performances go, the Darts have blown opponents away at times, twice they have won 7-2 against Burgess Hill Town and then Witham Town. Through the leagues Enfield Town, Canvey Island, Ilford, Tilbury, Kingstonian, Thurrock, Sutton United, Alfreton Town and Woking have all been put to the sword. Dartford have shocked and conquered bigger sides such as Crawley Town in the F.A Trophy, Luton Town, Mansfield Town, Macclesfield Town, Grimsby Town, Newport County, Hereford United and Wrexham in the league. Port Vale were so close to being put on the list in the heroic F.A Cup first round 1-1 draw.
paulnorwich picks his favourite moments, “beating Welling United in the playoff final cannot be beaten in front of over 4000 and what a goal from Lee Noble to do it. So many great memories in ten years and so many goals but the performance versus Port Vale was excellent, as was the one against Mansfield Town on television when Ryno’s goal must be in the top five at Princes Park”.
Dartford have got used to celebrating whether it was the homecoming, the two league titles, the playoff win or the two Kent Senior Cup’s. Here’s to more glories, to ten brilliant years and many more fond memories. Cheers.
Thank you to Pure DFC forum users paulnorwich, El Kebabus of Arabia and Mudeford dart. Thank you sonytino for all the youtube highlights over the years, Tony Jaglo for the excellent photographs on homecoming day (to view them all go to http://imgbox.com/g/E0nCwQ0wUK). Credit to John Anthony, Mike Brett-Smith, Tony Brown, Gary Clark and Steve Irving for the excellent Princes Among Men: The History of Dartford Football Club book, available in the club shop.