Opening day, 2008.
"SATURDAY 16th AUGUST
Greensnet Forum: The Inane Drivel Guide to... Dartford.
OO ARE YA?
Dartford is famous for its tunnel. Visitors may be surprised to learn that the tunnel wasn’t excavated by residents trying to escape. It’s a shocking revelation, but Dartford was a relatively civilised town, with middle-class enclaves, until fairly recently.
Bastions of posey, half-arsed, middle-class, pseudo-non-conformity Mick Jagger and Keith Richards are both from Dartford and Herr Thatchler herself once stood as a parliamentary candidate in the constituency. Speaking of The Beloved Leader, Herr Thatchler’s financial empowerment of the upper echelons of the Inner City White Trash Community allowed that particular bunch to escape Inner London and drag their ignorant carcasses to unfortunate places like Dartford... with depressingly predictable results.
Nowadays, Dartford’s... Ahem!... ever so slightly less refined. Indeed, many inhabitants of the Clitterhouse Estate that overlooks Claremont Road would feel at home in Dartford. If throwing the WKD bottle makes the 2012 Olympics, talent scouts will be scouring Dartford for potential medallists.
Ing-Ger-Lund’s national sport should definitely be in for 2012 and it’s fitting that the town’s football team is called The Darts. The svelte figure of local publican Andy “The Viking” Fordham, a former BDO World Darts Champion and until recently landlord at The Rose, is the physique most locals aspire to. Especially the women.
The two people I know who live in Dartford are a fat, hairy motorcyclist and a tattoo artist. Other types of artist are more common in the town – particularly on Saturday nights.
The fact that Dartford’s most famous footballing son is Malcolm Allison suggests that villainy was never too far beneath the veneer.
Caravan Compatibility Co-Efficient: 8.1
Dartford was one of England’s leading Non-League clubs in the 1930s, picking up a couple of Southern League titles and achieving national prominence with their FA Cup exploits. Not much in the trophy cabinet for a few decades, until they resurfaced with three more Southern League titles in 1974, 1981 and 1984.
Their second promotion to the Conference saw them get a bit overambitious. Financial difficulties and exile followed. The return to the town and the construction of the award-winning, ultra-green, environmentally-friendly, 4,000+ capacity Princes Park (built by a sympathetic and co-operative local council) has boosted the club enormously... though only in a town twinned with Saaf Essix could an environmentally-friendly stadium be built with 300 parking spaces for cars.
Certain South American nations are still despised for harbouring the likes of Martin Bormann, Josef Mengele and Adolf Eichmann in the immediate aftermath of World War II. At the same time, Dartford FC was disgracefully providing sanctuary for Ted Croker in their dressing room – a crime worthy of significant punishment.
Given the enormous honour of being declared the most “Essex Compatible” locality in Ryman One South and being consequently awarded a prestigious place in Ryman One North, interlopers Dartford showed all the northern bar stewards a clean pair of heels, taking the One North title last term. The nine-point winning margin probably flattered them, as the triumph wasn’t secured until AFC Sudbury’s late collapse, but they were definitely the best side in the division and deserving champions. They banged in 107 league goals on their way to the title.
Strangely, the fans appear very cautious about the Darts’ prospects for the new season. Many favour adopting conservative tactics in the opening Ryman Premier skirmishes. Summer signings may not have been as abundant or high-profile as some would have liked, but they look to have plenty of experience and some fair kids. Manager Tony Burman is a class act and his apparent confidence in his players bodes well for the coming season.
Anyone we know playing?
Rob Haworth. A man so ancient that he played up front alongside Alan Cork in the Football League – possibly back in the days when the maximum wage rule meant some players were so poor that they couldn’t afford agents. Of course, he turned out at Hendon for a while and was most recently seen at Margate. Admirable workhorse though he is, Rob won’t be terrorising anyone with his pace, being slower than a snail on sedatives. The versatile “Razor” Powell and Nick Barnes, recent Greens opponents at Tonbridge, are also in the squad.
Who do you boo?
Feisty defender Adam Flanagan appears a likely candidate. His father, Mike, was the North American Soccer League’s MVP one year in the late 1970s – succeeding Franz Beckenbauer and preceding Johan Cruyff on a curious-looking roll of honour. He was better known over here for being infamously sent off after an on-field altercation with Charlton strike partner Derek Hales, who was once a Dartford player himself. Young Adam seems a chip off the old block. For the witty wag, the presence of a midfielder named Dafter is a godsend.
AT HENDON THEY BET...
Dartford are a skinny-looking 10/1 for the title, Hendon an equally stingy 25/1. Several firms make this a “pick ’em” game. Those who do nominate a favourite go for Hendon. Paddy Power are best about Hendon at 7/5. The best offer about Dartford is SportingBet’s 31/20. The draw is generally 13/5.
Kirby and Leach can probably take care of Haworth and we could well see a couple of five-man midfields here. Forecasts suggest the weather may be evil, with strong winds and squally showers, making an investment on it being a tight game a dangerous ploy. However, hoping the rain holds off, I’ll go for Hendon to nick this 1-0.
Usual standard of organisation.
An outbreak of Institutionalised Englishness marks the big kick-off. For starters, there are no programmes. Some courier company failed to deliver them.
I know it wasn’t my lot, but let’s hope it wasn’t Her Majesty’s Government’s favourite courier firm, TNT. If it was, then Downing Street, Scotland Yard, MI5 and GCHQ will be reading all about the Dons and the Darts on Monday morning, while top secret tapes concerning beardie-weirdies, nonces, Yardies and Russia’s plans for an invasion of Poland next Thursday at 5 a.m. will be delivered to Claremont Road at nine o’clock sharp.
Apparently there was no Dartford team coach for this game, players making their way north by car. Just as well, as a major smash on the M25 (Don’t bother with the M25, Osama) means the supporters’ coach arrives at 2:40, reportedly with the matchday kit hamper on board.
As an expert in Institutionalised Englishness, I can exclusively reveal – even without a three-month enquiry and a 900-page report – that nobody of any importance was to blame for either of these unfortunate situations.
To business, then.
We seem to be safe from the elements. The admittedly dark cloud formations are high and fragmented. I know people who take drugs that have that effect on them. It’s a generally sunlit but breezy afternoon.
Hendon field six new signings. The mercurial Mr. Ursell is not amongst them. The mercurial Mr. Ursell has allegedly not been heard from since Mr. McCann laid down the law on the subject of what might be required of the mercurial Mr. Ursell, should the mercurial Mr. Ursell elect to start the season as a Hendon player.
Three of the new boys have been here previously and James Bent’s been around. Right-back Kevin Maclaren and centre-half Mark Kirby are the only genuine greenhorns at this level. Luke Blackmore is preferred to Berkley Laurencin in goal. The Dons line-up 4-5-1, with Chris Bangura left on the bench. One North Champeens Dartford also adopt a cautious formation, in which Brendan Cass is preferred to ex-Hendon striker Rob Haworth as the lone target-man.
Hendon, with the breeze behind them, kick down the slope in the first half. The home fans have unfortunately been deprived of their cheerleaders by a combination of Ibrox Park, Homebase and a stand-up comedy gig. Several cabinet ministers would probably ban all three, given the chance. The visiting Dartford fans impressively roar on their heroes.
Their heroes respond by getting the ball up the right end, but that’s all they get up. They’re merely huffing and puffing. In a significantly more principled branch of the entertainment industry than football, the call from the sidelines might have been, “Fluffer on the set! He’s losing wood!” There doesn’t look to be much chance of penetration. Haworth looks unimpressed on the bench.
Down the bottom of the hill, Darts commit far too many silly little fouls for comfort. In the first twelve minutes, the visitors concede three free-kicks around their area but escape from all of them.
Hendon miss a great chance when a big hoof leaves Dartford struggling. Left-back Steve Norman goes for the aerial ball but doesn’t get there, allowing James Bent, who’d decided not to contest the header, to nip around the back of him and round it up. Bent bears down on exposed keeper Tony Kessell but, instead of having a poke, elects to jink wide. Instead of crossing, Bent then cuts back inside, past a covering defender who’s rushed across. Only then does he shoot, but he hits Kessell, who’d narrowed the angle effectively and stood up well.
It’s a case of “fourth time unlucky” for Darts when they concede yet another free-kick in dangerland: this one out on the touchline in the left-back slot.
It’s a deep delivery. As the old advert in the World Cup of six years ago would have had it, “The number nine rose like a salmon at the far post. He seemed to hang in the air.” Ten yards out and upsides Kessell’s right stick, Brian Haule glances a perfect header that bounces about six inches over the goal-line and six inches inside the upright. Kessell makes a fine dive but can’t get a fingertip to it. It’ll probably be a while before I witness a better header than that. One-nil and a deserved lead.
Hendon’s advantage almost vanishes immediately. Some slack defending at a throw allows Danny Dafter to wriggle through on goal. A close range drive from a poor angle on the left brings a near-post parry from the advancing Blackmore. The ball bounces across the goalmouth and it seems momentarily that Nick Barnes might apply the necessary touch for an equaliser but the scrambling Blackmore beats him to the ball.
A clumsy Marc Leach foul gives Dartford a free-kick, thirty-five yards out on the right. Barnes strikes a vicious curler towards the far post where Dafter is running in at pace. Behind a crowd of players, Dafter sees it late and probably knows little about it, but he sticks out a leg and manages a thumping volley that fortunately goes straight into Blackmore’s grateful mitts. The Darts appear to be getting back into the game.
They’re not in it for much longer. A chip over the top sees Haule turn quickly. He gets half a yard on static number five John Guest. With the ball floating down gently, just five yards away, and Haule looking certain to be clean through, Guest grabs the striker’s shoulder with one hand and may well have had a tug of the shirt with the other. Although Flanagan’s almost level, he’s at least fifteen yards away. With Haule just ten yards outside the box, he wouldn’t have got there.
There can’t be any complaints at the referee’s decision. Having contravened the rules, the visitor was no longer a welcome Guest on the host’s premises and was asked to leave. Lots of refs are civil servants, but I’ll bet this one doesn’t work for the immigration department.
The resulting free-kick is driven straight at the wall but Hendon soon double their lead. Dartford haven’t really re-jigged and appear to still be playing only the three remaining defenders at the back. Bent, who’s having one of his “on” days, surges down the right. Steve Norman, having an uncomfortable afternoon, retreats in preference to trying to force Bent outside. The winger shimmies, sidesteps inside and unleashes a left-footed howitzer from just inside the box that flies low inside the full-length Kessell’s right stick. Two-nil. Game surely over.
Dartford pull Ray Powell back into a four-man defence. A bit bleedin’ late!
Kessell makes an excellent save with his left boot to deny Byfield, who was in on the Kent keeper. Casey Maclaren picks up a yellow card for a late challenge on Alex O’Brien, but the new Hendon skipper leaves the field happy, with his side enjoying a two-goal half-time advantage.
The second half is, to put it mildly, pedestrian. For fully twenty-five minutes, there isn’t a single effort on goal – much less one on target. I don’t recall either keeper having to catch a decent cross.
Dartford make changes: Rob Haworth replaces Cass ten minutes into the second period and Steve Butterworth comes on for Lee Noble less than ten minutes later. It’s hard to emphasise just what a half-paced training exercise this looks. Hendon, believing themselves to have wrapped up the points, don’t want anyone injured. Ten-man Dartford, not fancying their chances of getting back in and facing two on-song wingers, don’t want to commit men forward and get picked-off on the break for an embarrassing scoreline.
With twenty minutes remaining, Hendon are fannying about un-necessarily in front of the benches. As often happens when teams try pointless close-range passes in a congested area, a couple of ankles are bitten.
Out come the handbags.
The skirmish spills over the touchline. Hendon’s volatile assistant manager, Freddie Hyatt, appears to be attempting a citizen’s arrest, as he grabs a Dart by the collar for some doubtless heinous misdemeanour. As is usual in modern-day England, the authorities disgracefully take a dim view of the Have-a-go Hero antics and Freddie is banished to the stand. The Daily Mail will probably be featuring this appalling miscarriage of justice on Monday’s front page.
Dartford force their first corner of the game in the 73rd minute. Some more fannying about in the Greens rearguard allows Haworth a clear sight of goal but his goalbound shot, about ten yards out and five yards to the left of the posts, is hacked off the line by Leach, with the exposed Blackmore not surprisingly beaten all ends up. Dafter fires a low drive narrowly wide of Blackmore’s right post as Dartford briefly rouse themselves.
The game really is over almost immediately after the Dartford flurry. Charlie Mapes and Sam Byfield conduct a short corner routine and the resulting cross finds substitute Chris Bangura, unmarked, about two yards out at the far post. His header is his first touch of the ball in a Hendon shirt. Three-nil. Some Dartford fans head for the exits.
Jamie Busby has a shot blocked, Byfield fires the rebound over. Bangura commits a foul with three minutes to play. It’s only the second foul Hendon have committed in the second half and comes more than half an hour after the previous one. That tells you just how half-arsed the second forty-five minutes was.
Result: Hendon 3 (Haule 14, Bent 31, Bangura 78), Dartford 0.
Team: Luke Blackmore, Kevin Maclaren, Craig Vargas, Marc Leach, Mark Kirby, Jamie Busby, James Bent, Casey Maclaren, Brian Haule, Charlie Mapes, Sam Byfield. Subs – Chris Bangura, James Burgess, Lubo Guentchev.
A well-deserved win for Hendon. Manager Gary McCann’s masterplan appears to have worked very well. It’s almost an identikit side: two solid fullbacks, two gorillas at the back, a stroller and two feisty half-backs in the middle, a couple of very tricky wingers and a big lad in the number nine shirt. Football’s a very simple game when played like this.
As I’ve said, I’d have taken twelfth if offered it this morning. Part of me now thinks the Greens can do a lot better after witnessing this exhibition... but most of me hasn’t been fooled.
Hendon won’t be given so much time and space by teams used to the pace and quality of the Ryman Premier. Today was a very good time to play Dartford. Bent and Byfield won’t look that good every week. We’ll see how the Dons go at Margate and Sutton in the next seven days. I’m cautiously optimistic, but I probably won’t be having any money on them winning either fixture.
Dartford didn’t do a lot wrong here. Okay, Tony Burman’s tactics were off the mark – but it’s easy to say that with hindsight. On paper, setting out a defensive formation in the first game after promotion, away to a team that blew a play-off place on the last day of the season, is a sound ploy. It didn’t work for a number of reasons.
The Darts defence was off the pace. Hendon knocked pussyfooting little passes around the edge of the box against mid-table sides last term and it didn’t often come off. Here it came off big time. Darts defenders simply gave Hendon’s skills squad far too much room and time on the ball. Even though Byfield was down at Dartford’s then level last term, both he and Bent can punch large holes in decent Ryman Premier defences.
The Darts won’t come up against players giving their fullbacks quite such a torrid time too often. Of course, it might have helped if someone had stepped up and battered Mapes, rather than letting him do a Dan Marino impression from an armchair in deep midfield. Alex O’Brien was a bit redundant in his deep role in front of the back four, where I don’t think he was necessary.
The team has enough talent to get used to this division and I believe Dartford could well win more games than they lose. For now, however, a more ambitious and expansive formation might help – especially for the Dover game on Tuesday night. Hitler’s Panzer Division will roll through a defensive performance like today’s. Drubbing this afternoon or not, I wouldn’t take shorter than 4/5 about Hendon finishing above Dartford next spring.
In the bar afterwards, Dartford’s followers are in excellent voice. It’s been a while since a group of visiting fans had a sing-song as long or as loud... or as tuneless. Thank God they didn’t win.
The Sky Sports updates show no opening day surprises in the Ryman Premier. Favourites Sutton get a draw at Harlow, my tip Staines win at home to Billericay and Dover spank Harrow Borough 4-0.
One thing is laughable, however. No matter which level you’re at, the delusion of managers is comical. The Dartford fans in the bar are split on whether Guest’s red card was justified, but there are a surprising number who thought Guest had to go. I’ve seen defenders stay on in similar circumstances. However, the official Dartford party line is not only that Flanagan was in range – meaning Guest was not the last man – but that the foul took place just beyond the edge of the centre-circle. Really? It was, therefore, amazing that the resulting free-kick was awarded about eight yards outside the box and that no Dartford player complained about the positioning of the ball.
People are what they are but, as I’ve previously mentioned, I’m going off the people involved in football more by the minute.
The problems all sports clubs face in London are starkly illustrated this evening.
Claremont Road might still be intact, but a more famous sporting arena closes its doors for the final time when Walthamstow Stadium stages its last meeting. As someone who could watch greyhounds going round a track all day, who was a regular at White City and who once fluked a living for three months by punting at Hackney, Wembley, Bristol and Wimbledon whilst between jobs, it’s a staggering confession that I never once went to Walthamstow. It’s the wrong side of town for me and, like almost everyone else not directly connected with the sport, I’ve long since ceased taking a day-to-day interest, as the percentages in the betting markets on run of the mill races make turning a profit impossible for a punter.
Even by the standards afflicting most British sports, greyhound racing’s Powers That Be have long been laughably incompetent. There are still a couple of tracks on the fringes of town – Crayford and Romford – but Wimbledon is now the only greyhound circuit in the capital. There were a dozen in the 1960s, including Wembley and Stamford Bridge, and seven remained in the 1980s.
Not only is there a huge variety of rival leisure options in London these days, there are far too many easily accessible gambling avenues. This gives greyhound racing an even bigger mountain to climb than other London sports, and those other sports face obstacles that are daunting enough.
The track at Wimbledon, just down the road from the former site of Wimbledon FC’s Plough Lane ground, now stages only greyhound and banger racing. It’s in an appalling state of repair. A 1980s lower league ground would be clean and palatial by comparison. Wimbledon Stadium was home to London’s last speedway club, but that folded three years ago.
Land and property in much of London, especially to the north and west, is now so expensive that there must be question marks over how even a Football League operation can survive. It’s not simply the value of the land and property. Everything else in London, from local taxes to the rates electricians and painters charge to fix the public address system or spruce-up the ground in the summer, is also more expensive than in provincial towns.
Sunbury, Sudbury and Southgate are hardly central but three of the capital’s four Premiership Rugby Union clubs have abandoned their traditional homes in those locations to share soccer stadia at Watford, Reading and Wycombe. Only Harlequins remain. They’ve partly taken over the capital’s Rugby League team and moved the thirteen-a-side boys in with them. The RL club – be it Fulham, Crusaders or Broncos; be they billeted at Craven Cottage, Copthall, Charlton or Brentford – has haemorrhaged money almost since its inception.
At the Football League and Premier League levels, Fulham’s plans for an expanded Craven Cottage have been scuppered by cost-projections; QPR and Brentford each probe tentatively for sites; Chelsea cast an occasional eye at the Earl’s Court Exhibition Centre; a relaxation of regulations has seen Barnet temporarily released from their death row cell, to which they’d been condemned by a jury consisting of local councillors and the FA’s ground-grading committee.
Further down the scale, two of London’s Non-League powers crumbled in the face of property prices. Wealdstone sold their ground in Harrow town centre to Tesco for £7,000,000 and went into a period of exile that has only just ended. They saw little of the money. Enfield allegedly got none of the £2,000,000 that saw their ground on the A10 sold from under their feet to become a cinema complex, car park and restaurant. The cinema looked nice on the way to Ware last Sunday. The chairman disappeared back home to Cyprus with his dosh and the club split into two rival factions.
The only London senior Non-League teams playing closer to the middle of town than Hendon are Fisher Athletic and Dulwich Hamlet. Both play at the same ground. The upgrading of the mothballed facilities at Fisher’s Surrey Docks Stadium, on prime development land, on the opposite bank of the Thames to Canary Wharf, has been on hold for some time. Strange is that. Hamlet’s Champion Hill, downsized after a portion was sold to Sainsbury’s, is often the subject of nasty rumours.
In most European countries, clubs playing at a significantly higher level than Hendon would be based in a council-owned stadium. A council-owned stadium very much like the one at Copthall that Ivor Arbiter was keen for Hendon to move into.
But then in many European countries, clubs at Hendon’s level would have a close working relationship with the local council.
In many European countries, the youth team coaches at a club like Hendon would have their training and expenses funded, either directly or indirectly, by the national football association – probably in a scheme involving the local authority.
In the south of France, many of the top-flight rugby clubs, some of which pay star players €5,000 per week, are at least partially funded by their town councils. They are all heavily involved with schools and local organisations in an integrated communal structure.
Britain is not most European countries. It’s one of the most underdeveloped archipelagos on Planet Football – and that’s saying something.
Clubs in Britain traditionally own their stadiums and pay for the upkeep of their facilities. They also organise their own youth coaching programmes... such as they are.
Hendon’s youth coaches, like all others at similar clubs up and down the country, are well-meaning volunteers who coach as a hobby and who fund that hobby from their own pockets. They have to pay the FA for the immense privilege of attending courses to get coaching badges: starting with the farcical Level One course, that teaches applicants virtually nothing, which is impossible to fail and which is as useless a piece of paper as any bureaucratic Parasitocracy quango has ever dished out.
They also have to undergo – and pay for – Criminal Records Bureau checks. It’s not an arrangement that encourages prospective coaches. Nor is it a situation that leads to high-calibre coaching. Councils and football fans over here regard each other with something much closer to outright hostility than suspicion. Blazers at the FA often seem to regard clubs in a less flattering light than that.
Feasibility studies and cost projections on the topic of Hendon moving to Copthall estimated that £500,000 would be needed to bring it up to the required standard for Ryman Premier football under FA ground-grading regulations. Logic says such expenditure shouldn’t be needed, but such things as complete perimeter fencing that does not allow freeloaders a view of the action, extravagant seating and terracing capacities, turnstiles and a bar are deemed necessary by the FA, even though far bigger crowds than Hendon are ever likely to draw again have watched Rugby League matches and athletics meetings at Copthall in safety and comfort.
Would the money currently used for seemingly ridiculous and un-necessary ground improvements not be better spend on youth football projects and a proper coaching scheme? You tell me.
Barnet Council would have no intention of paying £500,000 to “upgrade” a reasonably adequate stadium, even if they didn’t view the prospect of a football club on their premises in the same way that most people would view the conversion of the house next door into a St. Mungo’s Hostel.
There seems to be no shift in opinion towards a continental culture taking root over here. This is perplexing in some ways, as local authorities appear keen to get children involved in sport and one would have thought that a youth-orientated relationship with a local football club would be a popular and vote-winning venture. I suppose many boroughs have several senior Non-League outfits and choosing which one to link up with would constitute the type of choice the modern politician is disinclined to make. However, the main reason local authorities ignore their senior Non-League football clubs is the fact that many clubs at Ryman Premier level – and a few at levels below – pay players exorbitant amounts of money.
Today’s opponents are certainly an exception to the normal situation. Dartford Council not only built Princes Park for Dartford FC, but they allegedly give the club around £100,000 a year to pay for the upkeep of the ground and adjoining facilities.
Some boroughs seem more amenable than others – and none seem less amenable than Barnet. Wealdstone, used to the intransigence and obstinacy of Harrow Council, have been taken aback at the level of co-operation they’ve received from Hillingdon Council since they moved across the border.
I made a tentative and entirely unofficial enquiry to Brent Council with regard to Hendon possibly moving to the other side of the A5, specifically to the newly-refurbished former National Hockey Stadium in Willesden, which is being done-up as an athletics stadium.
Although the infield at the new facility wouldn’t quite accommodate a full-sized football pitch, the then council leader, Ann John, sent me a reply stating that Brent might well be keen on a link-up with a senior club in their borough and may be sympathetic to a possible relocation. There was probably an element of the usual political diplomacy and equivocation in that. However, Barnet Council’s reply would have run to two words, one of which would have been either “off” or “yours”... and, if it was the latter, it wouldn’t have been followed by “sincerely” – even though the sentiment conveyed would have been as sincere as sentiments come.
Tie-ups with educational establishments could be a way forward, but it’s difficult to see how any of the senior Non-League teams in the middle of London can survive for much longer without some form of official relationship with their local authority.
Arguably the main problem with that, however, is the aforementioned practice of paying players inflated salaries. In countries where clubs at Hendon’s level enjoy the support – and the stadium – of local authorities, they are amateur clubs that exist as an outlet for relatively competent players from the local area, at all levels from young kids to veterans and including a First XI that will train twice a week. The First XI players might collect a few bob in expenses, but they don’t earn the £400 per week that some players in the Ryman Premier pick-up.
Councils could do with some encouragement from the FA but many may be willing to subsidise a club, if that club is seen as a valuable component of the social infrastructure within their borough... but they ain’t going to hand a part-time footballer, who lives thirty miles away, £400 per week for the few months it takes that player’s agent to get him £450 elsewhere.
Without major changes to the way the game is run, councils are not likely to get involved. That being the case, the future for London clubs at this level is bleak."
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