Saturday 10th March 2018, 1500 KO
Dartford vs Poole Town
The Build Up
It had been a fair while since I watched a Step 2 match, so this week felt like a good time to dip back in to the Vanarama National League South. Table topping Dartford were hosting strugglers Poole Town at their Prince’s Park ground, and with Dartford the league’s top scorers the match promised goals.
Formed in 1888 by the Dartford Working Men’s Club, the Darts are celebrating their 130th anniversary this year, and appear set on marking it with promotion back to the National League. The race to win the league is tight though, with Havant & Waterlooville and Hampton & Richmond Borough nipping at their heels, and both with games in hand. After finishing 3rd last season, manager Tony Burman must surely be hoping to avoid the Play Offs, where they were defeated in the semi-finals by Chelmsford City.
Coming off the back of two straight victories, against Wealdstone and Truro City, Dartford would be high on confidence approaching this match. Ricardo Sho-Silva – the match winner last time these teams met – was missing though injury, but the Bridgemen were boosted by the return of the boss to the dugout, who was absent for the victory over Truro.
Travelling up from the South Coast today were Poole Town, who have spent much of the season fighting in the trenches of a relegation scrap. Approaching this fixture, Tom Killick’s side were 20th, and five points from the safety of 18th, a position currently occupied by Hungerford Town.
This season has been a real jolt back to earth for the Dolphins, who surprised everyone to finish 5th last time out, having only been promoted from the Southern League the year before. That was their highest ever league position, but, the club formed in 1890 through a merger of Poole Rovers and Poole Hornets, were denied a first attempt at Step 2 Play Off glory through ground grading rules. Had they competed successfully, it would have been their first experience of nonleague’s highest tier in a 128 year history. However, such lofty thoughts would be far from their minds approaching this match – with three losses in a row, the Dolphins would need to turn things around to avoid joining Whitehawk and Bognor Regis as heavy favourites to go down.
I dropped the other half off at hockey, and made my way out of the Surrey suburbs onto the devil’s ringpiece, aka the M25. A succession of 40 and 60mph variable speed limits impeded my progress amidst warnings of an “obstruction reported”. Clearly the obstruction reported was the irritating speed limits, as there was absolutely nothing wrong with the roads. After an hour or so I pulled off the A2 – directly behind the Poole Town coach – and headed into the ground.
Prince’s Park sets a great first impression, with ample parking and a clean, wooden exterior, it certainly stands apart from many of the new identikit grounds. Having been built in 2006, enabling Dartford to return home after over a decade flitting from Erith, to Thurrock, to Gravesend, the stadium has a capacity of 4,100, the vast majority of which is standing. The ground retains the wooden aesthetic inside, most notably with the Wooden Man, like a Kentish Atlas holding up the roof. At £14, but with a range of concessions available, tickets are in keeping with the league, and the strong concessions programme may have aided Dartford in having by far the highest average attendance in the division at 985.
Those 985 (on average) supporters have a good range of refreshment options to choose from pre- and during-match, with two hot food stands and a bar inside the ground. I availed myself of a chicken pie (the obligatory football ground Pukka variety), chips and a Diet Coke for £6.50, bought a programme for £2.50 and made myself comfortable to watch the teams warm up.
Some pre-match bagpipes, helpfully mimed by Dartford’s coaching staff took us up to kick off, and a presentation was made to Danny Harris, commemorating his 300th club appearance against Truro last week. With the obligatory chants of “Only one Danny Harris” still ringing in my ears, the hosts had warmed Nick Hutchings’ palms within the first five minutes. A handball by a Dolphins midfielder enabled Dartford to take a quick free kick, which was just too far ahead of the advancing Darts players, and Hutchings was the only Poole player switched on – quickly off his line to collect.
Despite this early promise, it was Poole Town who would have the first shot – and indeed, most of the ones throughout the match – on twenty minutes they broke well following a Dartford free kick. When Nick Hutchings released the ball, it was quickly carried up the pitch and worked into a shooting opportunity, which left winger Warren Bentley dragged just wide.
Dartford had a very clear strategy in this match, namely, to propel the ball as far as they could, as early as they could, as often as they could, and on 23 minutes this strategy almost paid dividends. A clipped ball from Nathan Collier at centre back, found the triple centenarian Danny Harris rushing into the box. He almost got a toe to nick the ball past Hutchings, but again the stopper was off his line well to sweep up.
Poole Town put together a ten minute period of good play at this point, getting the ball down, and working it well, with Steve Devlin and Marvin Brooks to the fore. There were two distinctive styles of play on show today, with Poole keen to work the ball out on the deck more often than not, and Dartford content to see the ball coming down towards Danny Mills and Alfie Pavey with snow on it. It didn’t help that the movement from Mills and Pavey was completely anaemic, leaving teammates struggling for options when in possession.
On 34 minutes, Dartford almost took an undeserved lead, when a Mills cross was deflected behind by a Dolphins head. It had Hutchings scrambling across the box, and he was sufficiently worried to paw it behind for a corner.
It must be said that Poole Town were experts at what we shall call tactical fouling, and were content to wind down the clock from about ten minutes in. Hutchings in particular was a major exponent of this tactic, and the former Gosport ‘keeper, who earnt his 128th career clean sheet today, could probably have been booked about thirty times if referee Rob Whitton had been keen to actually enforce the rules.
As the match dawdled towards half time, we had been long on bluster but short on action, and the it took until the 38th minute for the first legitimate scoring chance when Richard Gillespie cut in from the right and crossed. There was absolutely no danger of any Poole Town player meeting the ball, but it did hit the crossbar, possibly with a touch from Herbert Schötterl on the way.
At half time, it was 0-0, which is exactly what each side deserved. I had lost count of the amount of times Tom Bonner, Mark Onyemah and Danny Harris had simply got the ball, looked up, and launched it into empty spaces. It was so frequent, it can’t have been by accident, and I hoped to god it would change in the second half. It didn’t. Despite almost a thousand people in the ground being able to see that adjustments were needed, Mr Burman wasn’t one of them.
Poole Town surely hadn’t approached this match with much hope, but by half time, they must have known they had the chance to cause an upset, and they came out determined to make it so. In the minutes immediately after the break, the Dolphins created a few half chances, and the home fans (928 minus a handful who had made the journey up from Dorset) were getting restless.
On 51 minutes, Poole hit the crossbar again, with another cross-cum-shot, and had two shots blocked as Dartford struggled to clear their lines. Both sides had arrived with something to fight for – the title and survival – but only one was fighting, and Dartford were struggling to cope with the work rate and tenacity of Poole Town, who were first and second to every ball. The match settled into a pattern of Dartford humping it long, not even aiming for a teammate, simply trying to clear their lines.
It was surely only a matter of time until Poole got a reward for their efforts, but they were very nearly cruelly undone by a typical Dartford punt on 53 minutes. Yet another map predicted clearance by Dartford put Will Spetch and Jamie Whisken under pressure from Pavey. A miskick by Poole’s skipper saw former Millwall forward Pavey with space to shoot in the box. The Southwark-born 22 year old has 17 goals to his name already this season, but surprisingly was unable to add to them here, as his shot was parried behind for a corner. It was a frustrating game for Pavey who was well shackled by the Poole defence, and his angst was written all across his face as the ball bounced towards the advertising hoardings.
This began probably the best period of the match for Dartford, who created another half chance five minutes later. Ryan Hayes’s crossing had been as accurate as Stevie Wonder at darts practice up to this point, but from out of nowhere he produced an absolute belter, right in the corridor of uncertainty, and Hutchings was forced off his line to punch. As the ball was coming to ground near the edge of the area, Tom Bonner (or Thomas Ernest Bonner to give his full, and brilliant, name) managed to wrap a leg around Marvin Brooks, but couldn’t get his acrobatic effort on target.
Then, on 62 minutes, Dartford went behind. When Mark Onyemah’s brain went walkies, he passed the ball straight to a Poole player. Eager to atone from his error, he did what any of us would, and promptly scythed the man down right on the edge of the area. Up stepped Steve Devlin to take the free kick, and the midfielder – looking for all the world like an extra from Peaky Blinders – swept in a low ball. I couldn’t see exactly how it made it there, but seemingly via a ricochet, it wound up with skipper Jamie Whisken at the back stick, and he swept it through a crowd of bodies into the net. A deserved lead, and I wondered if this would elicit a response from the league leaders.
It did, but only to become more lethargic, and the only players who I felt seemed motivated to actually fight for the win were former Beaver Nathan Collier, and Andy Pugh in attacking midfield. Pugh lashed in one shot from 25 yards, and it seemed that if Dartford were to get anything, it would most likely come through him. So, naturally, when Duane Ofori-Acheampong was brought on to mix things up in attack, it was Pugh who made way, instead of the isolated Pavey or Mills.
If I thought Poole Town had been timewasting before, I was in for a real treat now, as every stoppage became a veritable lesson in how to delay the restart. Balls were re-spotted, laces tied, gloves re-fitted and ‘injuries’ treated. I have to believe that the referee had lost his yellow card, because that is the only feasible explanation for the absence of bookings.
Even with Ofori-Acheampong (from now on referred to as Duane) on, there was such a huge gap between attack and midfield, and with Pugh gone there were no midfielders able/willing to run past. Even when the three up top did manage to win an aerial ball, there was simply no one to receive the flicks. Duane was at least energetic, and offered himself as an option, but it all felt like too late to motivate the Darts to a comeback.
On 90 minutes, they almost snuck an equaliser, but it would have been unfair on the Dolphins. Hayes found another good cross, having clearly exchanged his Toblerone boxes for actual football boots, and substitute Tom Murphy attacked it at the back stick. The ball crashed into the head of a retreating Poole defender, but rebounded agonisingly/delightfully depending on perspective over the bar.
On 92 minutes, with Poole hanging on for the whistle, Danny Mills probably summed up the match. Played through by a long ball (of course), he had space to run into. His first touch was poor, his second was a stumble, and the defence had time to recover. As he was berated by the home fans behind me, the full time whistle was blown, to signal a potentially vital three points for Poole.
The Wash Up
A genuine surprise result at Prince’s Park, with both the league table and the form books being turned on their heads. I don’t want to sound too harsh, but Dartford’s performance – in particular the second half – was the worst I have seen at any level this season (apart from most of Arsenal’s of course), and I have to believe it was a complete anomaly. They were lacklustre and appeared devoid of any inspiration on the ball. Additionally, as the game wore on, the home fans became vocally critical of the team – the effect this seemed to have on players such as Mills and Pavey was obvious. That said, no team is top of the league in March without having quality, and this must surely go down as an off day.
It can’t have helped coming up against such an obviously motivated Poole Town side, and Tom Killick will be justly proud of his players on the (hopefully boozy) coach home. Every player put in a committed performance, from Hutchings in goal to Constable up top. The two centre backs were dominant in the air, and Jamie Whisken more than made up for his risky air kick by scoring the winner.
The two stars for Poole were their central midfielders. Carl Pettefer belied his 63 (ok, 36) years to put in an all action performance. He was a bundle of energy, constantly hassling and harassing. Man of the match though, was Devlin, who did the nasty work along with Pettefer, but also had the quality to threaten Dartford’s defence with the ball.
Tony Burman will be scratching his head as to what went wrong today, especially as Havant and Hampton both picked up 3 points, leaving the Darts 2nd, but having played more than both sides. Poole, however, have cut the gap to safety to a single win (albeit with a worse goal difference than the sides above them) and will hope to build on this victory against Bath City next week.
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