Saturday 28th April 2018, 1500 KO
Bognor Regis Town FC vs Dartford FC
The Build Up
It was the last round of fixtures in all Step One to Step Four leagues on Saturday, and with the National League South title one of few still in debate, it was to one of the two crucial fixtures in that league that I was headed. Thankfully, the fact Bognor Regis Town were hosting Dartford tied in nicely with my evening obligation to watch my little brother’s final university theatre performance on the south coast, so it was to West Sussex and Nyewood Lane that I headed.
Formed in 1883 as Bognor FC, in 1929 King George V saw fit to add the royal suffix “Regis” to the town, and the football club dutifully followed suit. His Royal Highness, clearly a fan of the club (I assume), would have had difficult this season, as the Rocks have struggled to acquit themselves following promotion last year. Finishing two points behind Isthmian League champions Havant & Waterlooville, their respective National League South campaigns could not have gone more differently. Going into the final match, Havant were top on goal difference, whilst Bognor were dead last, with relegation already confirmed.
One win in their last ten fixtures has been relegation form, and at no point have the Rocks threatened to best their record league position of 9th in the Conference South. That said, Jack Pearce’s side have built a reputation for playing attractive football, and will back their chances to bounce straight back out of the Isthmian League (assuming that’s where they end up) next season.
Their visitors were hoping to exit the division from the other end, but were largely dependent on results elsewhere. Tony Burman’s Darts had been on an exceptional run, winning eight on the bounce, only a loss to Poole Town marring their record in the last ten matches. Neck and neck with Havant & Waterlooville all season, the title race had gone right to the wire. The two were joint on points, with Havant three ahead on goal difference following a 6-1 midweek shellacking of East Thurrock.
After finishing 3rd and losing out to Chelmsford in the Play Offs last season, Dartford would surely move hell and high water to avoid a similar fate this season. With Jason Prior having been in fine form for Havant of late, the Kent fans’ hopes were pinned on their own star striker, Alfie Pavey – the newly crowned National League South Player of the Season had 22 going into this match.
For those who believe in such things, there was a little cosmic ordering at play as well – Dartford have won promotion at Nyewood Lane before. A victory here in 2010 was enough to secure the Isthmian Premier title…
Speaking of Nyewood Lane, upon arrival it instantly went near to the top of my favourite grounds visited. It is a 4,500 capacity ground, and unusually for Step Two has covering on three sides. The Rocks famously acquired their first set of floodlights from Wembley, erecting them on telegraph poles, and the ground feels steeped in history. There is a nostalgic feeling to the stadium, and despite averaging 582 this season, a bumper 1,017 crowd (predominantly Darts fans it must be said) led to a raucous, exciting atmosphere pre-match.
I arrived with my Dad after sending my Mum and girlfriend off to Chichester for the afternoon (the shopping in Bognor isn’t great apparently) and he parted with £10 for a concessions tickets. A further £1 for seating, and that’s not a bad price for a title decider! £2 for a good, well stocked programme, and then £3.40 for a pie and bottle of water and I was ready for kick off.
There was an added story in the match as well, with long serving player, coach and manager Darren Kilpatrick calling it a day after 18 years as a Bognor Regis legend. A post-match lap of honour was well received by the home fans, and in a nice touch, a good number of Dartford fans applauded “Dabba” on his way around the pitch.
An even – and eventful – first half should have seen the scores opened after only three minutes, but Bognor centre forward Justin Amaluzor couldn’t keep his shot on target. When a Dartford midfielder slipped in possession, Ollie Pearce was able to put Amaluzor through. With Berti Shötterl rushing out, the Barnet loanee chipped the ‘keeper, but saw the ball drop just wide of the post. Whilst I love seeing a striker try and chip the goalie, the man from Southwark definitely should have scored here.
Four minutes later the Rocks had another chance when Calvin Davies took a hopeful effort from around 20 yards, but that shot also missed the target. On 14 minutes Dartford crafted their first threatening piece of play as Ryan Hayes got into the game. His right wing cross was well headed over the bar by Keaton Wood under significant pressure. When the subsequent corner was swung in, Wood was again in position to head clear. The former England C international only joined Bognor Regis from Dartford in November, and was enjoying a good start against his former employer.
Despite that earlier miss, Amaluzor was having a busy first half. On twenty minutes he harried big centre back Ronnie Vint into a mistake. Having nicked the ball, Amaluzor shot, but there was no real danger for Shötterl in goal. Less than a minute later, Hayes was busy at the other end. I was assured pre-match by a Darts fan that Hayes had the best left foot in nonleague (that’s a bold claim), and I replied that last time I’d watched him he must have left it at home, as his crossing was woeful. Today, however, Hayes’ crossing was absolutely on point. His 21st minute delivery was met by a fine header by captain Elliot Bradbrook, but whilst accurate it lacked power and Dan Lincoln made the first of a number of good saves.
With half an hour played Dartford applied a little period of pressure, and had three corners in succession. All good deliveries, by Lincoln stood firm, and came off his line well to palm and punch clear. After the third, Bognor countered with Amaluzor going wide. His low cross came to Tommy Scutt in the middle but the former Pompey man’s shot was woeful. High and wide, Scutt will regret having put on his Toblerone boots this morning…
The triangular footwear wasn’t affecting his dribbling though, and along with Ollie Pearce and Jimmy Muitt, Scutt was dangerous with the ball at his feet. A typically threatening run led to a Rocks cross on 34 minutes, from which they won a corner. Running direct at the big Dartford defenders was clearly a tactic Pearce had sent his men out to perform, and it certainly unsettled the visitors at times.
The final five minutes of the half were all Dartford though, and the chances they created saw Dan Lincoln produce a fantastic save. When Elliot Bradbrook got his head to a corner he must have thought he’d opened the scoring, but Lincoln reacted quickly and palmed the ball up and out. As Vint got his head to the dropping ball a Bognor Regis defender cleared off the line.
Two minutes later Richard Gilot took a hefty boot to the face as Alfie Pavey went for the bicycle kick. No malice in the kick at all, but it was still a sizeable thwack. Thankfully, Gilot was up on his feet quickly and shaking hands with Pavey. If this was the Champions League we’d have been waiting ten minutes for play to restart.
It had been a very enjoyable first 45, and whilst Dartford had created more chances, Bognor Regis had created the best. With goals vital, Burman had clearly sent out a team to attack the Rocks, but it did leave space for their aggressive ball carriers to bring forward on the counter. The Dartford defence of Vint and Bonner are as good as you’ll find at this level when it comes to the physical game, but nippy strikers in and around the feet can cause them problems. At the other end, both Hayes and Danny Mills were causing problems down the wings, particularly when Mark Onyemah overlapped on the left.
Crucially, the news had filtered through at half time that Havant & Waterlooville were two up against Concord, meaning Dartford now had to win by five, and the visitors visibly upped their work rate in the second half. However, it was Bognor who had the first chance, when a neat move between Amaluzor, Pearce and Muitt resulted in a Muitt shot. The former Brighton striker put everything into the effort, and appeared to injure himself in the process.
Dartford began to exert more and more pressure from around fifty minutes, and with 53 played Mark Onyemah hit a technically exquisite volley from around thirty yards, but saw it sail just over. A minute later and the home fans were screaming for a penalty after Ollie Pearce was “brought down”. He wasn’t though, and referee David Spain made the correct call (he and his assistants Tom Fell and Zack Ellis had a good day, it must be said).
A delightful cross field ball by Doug Tuck on 56 minutes again released Pearce, who was full of running all day. Tuck put in a fine performance for Bognor, and despite looking about 13 wasn’t ever intimidated in the engine room. His class on the ball was apparent though, and the England Colleges midfielder dug out some beautiful passes with his left peg. On this occasion, Pearce beat Danny Hayes to the ball and got to the byline. He elected to shoot from a tight angle and Shötterl saved well. I would say he should have cut it back, but there was absolutely no one in the box for him to do so!
A minute afterwards, Dartford almost scored, but Lincoln produced probably the best moment of quality in the whole match to save. A fine header (by a player I didn’t see) was sailing in when Lincoln dived to his left and expertly tipped onto the post. Lincoln had a trial at Arsenal last season, and showed real ability in today’s match.
There was nothing he could do two minutes later though, when on loan Ebbsfleet forward Danny Mills put Dartford ahead. Alfie Pavey did well to hold the ball up, and he released Hayes on the right. Hayes dug out a cross to the back post, and Mills rose athletically and headed the ball just inside the post. One nil, and with Havant’s lead reduced to one, Dartford needed another three.
Lincoln made another good save on 63 minutes when he tipped over the bar, and when Tuck released Pearce again on 68 minutes he had a shot blocked. This precipitated a five minute spell of Bognor Regis pressure, which culminated in a Gary Charman header over from a corner.
Then, with twelve minutes to play, Dartford got their second goal. When Ryan Hayes’ cross was headed clear, the ball dropped to centre back Ronnie Vint on the edge of the area. If there’s one person you don’t want under a dropping ball twenty five yards out it’s a centre back, but Vint struck it sweetly, and the ball flew into the bottom corner. 0-2.
Alfie Pavey had a gilt edged chance to extend the lead a minute later when he intercepted a square ball along the Bognor back line. He didn’t realise how much time he had though, and curled his shot wide. Three minutes later, there was the biggest cheer of the game as news of Steve Cawley’s equaliser twenty miles west along the A27 filtered through. Dartford, as it stood, were champions.
On 84 minutes Bognor Regis won a penalty when Pearce was brought down in the box. The fouled England Colleges youngster stepped up to take the penalty himself, and slotted in neatly into the bottom corner to register his 11th for the season. A good breakthrough season at this level for Pearce, who may find himself in demand over the summer. The celebrations of the Dartford fans were unabated though, as the goal meant little in their title challenge.
An acrobatic 87th minute header by Danny Mills went just wide, and then on 88 minutes disaster struck for the visitors. Rumours of “3-2 Havant – fucking Jason Prior again” swept through the crowd behind me and then absolute silence fell. The players must have been aware of the significance of that silence, as it meant that with only two minutes on the clock, they now needed another three goals to avoid the Play Offs. The silence only last a minute or so, as a band of Darts fans got singing again, keen to show their support for their players’ efforts. I was really impressed by the Dartford fans today, even the one lady who must have shouted “Don’t panic Mr Mainwaring” at least forty times.
It was never going to happen, and after only two minutes of stoppage time referee Spain blew his whistle, calling time on Dartford’s title challenge, and Bognor’s time in the National League South.
The Wash Up
I spoke to Tony Burman after the game, and he reiterated his argument that the top two should be automatically promoted. In a season when Dartford and Havant have been so far ahead of the competition it’s easy to see his point, but regardless, he will have to motivate his players for the Play Off Semi Final next Sunday.
Irrespective of context, this was a hard fought match today, and Dartford did well to take three points from a doggedly determined Bognor Regis team. If Jack Pearce can keep this squad together next season they will have a great chance at bouncing straight back from the Isthmian League. Players such as Tuck, Pearce, Muitt and Tommy Block all have the quality to play in this division, whilst in Harvey Whyte they have a captain with great leadership attributes.
As for Dartford, this was the best I’ve seen Danny Mills play, whilst Ryan Hayes lived up to his reputation for left foot sorcery. I was impressed by Elliot Bradbrook in midfield, and felt he was at the heart of everything the Darts did well on the day. His partnership with Lee Noble demonstrated the right balance of physicality and technique. Along with Burman, his motivational skills are going to be tested to the max in the coming weeks, as he and the leadership team at Princes’ Park seek to get the chins up ahead of a crucial (hopefully) two matches.
Man of the match, on the final day of the league season, goes to Dan Lincoln, who along with Tom McHale is the best ‘keeper I’ve seen at this level. Some superb reflex stops were the highlight of his performance, but throughout the match his willingness to come off his line and collect gave confidence to the defence, and marked him out as one to watch.
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