Season Review 2017/2018

Dartford were left heartbroken last weekend when they were pipped to the National South title on goal difference. For the neutral the race for the championship was gripping, for the club it was an emotional rollercoaster. An afternoon in Bognor saw the Darts going up for nine minutes, until an 89th minute winning goal at Havant and Waterlooville, by former Dartford striker Jason Prior snatched automatic promotion away, handing the Hawks the title.

In a season where it seemed no one wanted to win the division, it all ended up in a two-horse race. The Darts can be proud they were involved in the closest of contests and were challenging for a place in the National League all season. Of course, it’s not finished yet.

It could be fate, should Dartford win the playoffs they will extend their winning streak to eleven, beating the club record. Now that would be sweet consolation, but after last weekend be cautious as football can be cruel.

Dartford were joint favourites to win the National South with their playoff conquerors of last season, Chelmsford City. Tony Burman kept faith with his squad but lost the services of Luke Wanadio and Tom Wynter as well academy graduates Kaka Dembele and Ben Francis.

Burman managed to fill the vacant positions by signing Lyle Della-Verde from Concord Rangers and picking up left back Mark Onyemah, who had already had a loan spell with the Darts in the past. The Dartford boss also gambled to strengthen his strike force by signing Warren Mfula from the lower echelons of non-league.

August came too soon, immediately Dartford were plunged into an injury crisis. When the opening day came around they couldn’t name a recognised striker in the starting eleven, the result a tame 0-0 draw with Hungerford Town. Warren Mfula and new signing Richard Sho-Silva made debuts in the 2-2 draw with Braintree Town, in which the Darts showed typical fighting spirit coming from two goals down. A third draw in a row, this time against Havant and Waterlooville, left the Darts in sixteenth and without a win, but then things started to click.

When Elliot Bradbrook and Lyle Della-Verde scored the goals to seal a 2-0 win over Concord Rangers, they set Dartford on their way.

And then arrived Alfie Pavey…

Named National South’s Player of the Year, the striker left rivals Welling United and made his mark in the Dartford white. Pavey scored 22 league goals including the stunning last-minute winning bicycle kick against his former club on Boxing Day, what a goal that was. He netted his first since returning to the club in the 7-1 demolition of Oxford City, a game in which Warren Mfula took home the match ball with a second half hat-trick.

After five games unbeaten East Thurrock United inflicted the first defeat on the Darts leaving Burman’s side in sixth place. In September, the goals continued to flow and for a moment, after the 4-2 win over Eastbourne Borough, a day in which Ryan Hayes made his 400th start, the Darts went top for the first time. However, Dartford were quickly knocked of their perch with a 3-0 defeat at Weston-super-Mare.

Dartford’s cup journey began in mid-September and Elliot Bradbrook’s hat-trick against Barking in the F.A Cup, then Pavey’s treble versus Needham Market in a 6-1 victory set the Darts on their way. Pavey was on hand again in the last qualifying round at Burgess Hill Town earning a first round tie with League Two side Swindon Town.

Cup commitments and another defeat to Chelmsford City were responsible for Dartford’s drop to seventh in the league by mid-October, but then they leapfrogged to the top in the following game when they beat Bath City 2-1. From then on, the Darts remained in the top two leading the pack for three more months.

The F.A Cup run came to a halt in November as the Darts were taught a harsh lesson. Swindon Town completed a professional job beating Dartford 5-1, at least Richard Sho-Silva’s consolation got the biggest cheer of the afternoon.

Out of the F.A Cup and on to the F.A Trophy, the Darts edged past Brentwood Town before taking National League side Boreham Wood to replay. A 1-1 draw was followed by a 2-2 stalemate but the Wood won on penalties.

By now the Darts weren’t playing brilliantly but no other side was taking advantage of any slip ups. Danny Mills, a striker with National South pedigree was signed on loan from rivals Ebbsfleet United, but the goals weren’t forthcoming for the 26 year old causing discussion amongst the terraces. For the record, he has scored in his last four appearances, hopefully good timing for the playoffs. The Darts also welcomed back Nathan Collier, who fitted in like he’d never been away.

The title was anyone’s to claim and when Dartford held on to a 1-0 win over Havant and Waterlooville in January, belief was growing. Then that belief was questioned in the second half of the month and the beginning of February. An away draw with Chippenham Town and defeats to St Albans City and Chelmsford City (again!) meant Burman’s men couldn’t take the opportunity to pull away from the chasing pack, it would prove costly. Although Wealdstone and Truro City fell victim to two good Dartford performances, Poole Town caused an upset at Princes Park another costly moment.

With Havant and Waterlooville now heading the table and Hampton and Richmond Borough close behind, the race was down to three. The Darts faced a showdown with Hampton and Richmond Borough on Good Friday in an utter mud bath of a pitch. Once more Pavey come up with the goods calmly chipping in a last-minute winner. By now Dartford’s incredible winning streak was in full flow and victory at Gloucester City put them top once more.

Still the Hawks wouldn’t give up and with Hampton and Richmond Borough out of the reckoning it was all building up to an unbelievable climax. The Darts started grinding out results, keeping six clean sheets, with new goalkeeper Berti Schotterl, in seven games, but they needed more goals to boost the goal difference.

The final week of the season was upon us and the tide turned to Hampshire. Havant and Waterlooville played a depleted East Thurrock United and at 1-1 the Essex club ran out of steam, the Hawks smashed in five more goals putting them ahead of Dartford by three goals, just three goals.

And then that afternoon at Bognor…

Words cannot describe the feeling amongst the club immediately after the final whistle blew, but if Dartford want to return to the National League they better get over the heartbreak quickly. The playoffs…to be continued.

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