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Non League Football Under The Microscope

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BuiltWithNOF

Eastbourne Borough fans celebrate - August Bank Holiday Monday 2003                                Photograph by Sam Hicks

Dartford FC

Princes Park Stadium, Grassbanks, Darenth Road, Dartford, Kent DA1 1RT
Telephone: N/A at present
Nickname: The Darts
Isthmian League
Website

Note The following Club History below is edited from the official Dartford FC website. Dartford Football Club was formed in early 1888 by members of the Dartford Workingmens’ club and first played in the FA Cup in October 1895, before becoming founder members of the Southern League two seasons later.

In the early days the club, which had used several pitches in the area, gained the use of Summers Meadow in Lowfield Street on a long lease, and in 1913 toured Norway, beating a Norwegian XI 6-1. Unfortunately, after the Great War Summers Meadow ground was no longer available and it wasn’t until 1921 that the club was resurrected as a public limited liability company, unique until Spurs became the second such club some fifty years later. A site was found in Watling Street in the neighbouring parish of Stone, which was to remain the club's home until a major financial crisis forced the sale of the ground in 1992.

In the wake of the Bradford fire and the Hillsborough disaster Dartford, like so many clubs, needed to either re-locate or upgrade their current facilities. The Board opted for the latter option, and large sums of money were spent on planning and design fees, incurring crippling interest charges in the process. At the same time Maidstone United, who had sold their own ground, needed a suitable home to launch the ill-fated foray into the Football League and the Dartford board agreed to let the Stones ground-share at Watling Street, with the rent income providing a welcome boost for finances.

However, within a few years Maidstone had gone into liquidation, their ambitions having got the better of them. Ground improvements, which United had paid for, were sold to Dartford at a cost (around £500,000), which pushed Darts' debts beyond manageable proportions. As the consequence Watling Street was sold to pay of creditors and Dartford withdrew from the Southern League four games into the 1992-93 season.

The club's Supporters' Association fortunately came to its rescue. A private limited liability company was incorporated in November 1992 to manage affairs which meant, primarily, keeping the Youth team operating, enabling the club to maintain both its senior status and full membership of the FA. The following year, the Darts were offered a ground-share arrangement by Cray Wanderers and as a consequence Dartford made a successful application for membership of the Kent League.

With a view to the future Dartford negotiated a new ground-share with Erith & Belvedere in time for the 1994-95 campaign and gained promotion back to the Southern League at the end of the following season. In September 1997 a disastrous fire at Erith & Belvedere put the club's future and standing with the Southern League into serious doubt and with this in mind a third ground-sharing arrangement was made with Purfleet (now Thurrock) in time for the 1998-99 season.

A fourth ground-sharing agreement was arranged with Gravesend & Northfleet in time for the 2001-02 season. This arrangement at Fleet’s Stonebridge Road ground, crucially back on the south side of the River Thames, coupled with an upturn in performances on the field saw a significant increase in attendances to help the financial position of the club. However, the biggest boost of all came on 10 April 2004 when Dartford Borough Council announced that it would provide funding and a site for the building of a stadium in Dartford in time for the 2006-07 season.

On Wednesday 13 July 2005 the Council passed the planning application for the new ground subject to no objections being raised by the Highway Agency or the archaeological survey; and in November 2005 contractors moved onto the new site.

An opening date of 23 September 2006 was announced for the first game, but towards the end of April it became apparent that this date would not be met and the club began the season back at Thurrock’s Ship Lane ground. The opening game at Princes Park Stadium was finally celebrated with a 4-2 victory over Horsham YMCA on Saturday 11 November 2006 in front of an all-ticket crowd of 4,097, likely to remain the record attendance for some time to come, and indeed is the ‘official’ capacity of the ground. Spectators didn’t have long to wait for the first goal, thankfully scored by a Darts’ player: Brendan Cass netting after 10 minutes and 27 seconds, a fact commemorated on one of the clubhouse windows that overlooks the pitch.

Located just five minutes from the M25, Princes Park could not be better located for a future rise up the Pyramid, and is well signposted. One of the main criticisms since the ground opened has been the relatively small car park (despite a capacity of 300) but public transport (FastTrack) links from the town centre and Bluewater Shopping Centre are both rapid & plentiful, enabling locals to leave their cars behind, and visiting supporters to ‘park & ride’ to the ground. I actually arrived some four hours before kick-off, having allowed for Christmas traffic that proved non-existent!

I was fortunate to be given an extensive tour by Secretary Peter Martin, and later by Co-Chairman Bill Archer, and I am grateful to both gentlemen for their time and hospitality.

One of the most striking things on first entering the ground, built at a cost of some £6.5 million, and funded entirely by the Council (the club pays just £1 pa rent) is the quality of the finish. I have encountered many new Non League stadia, of the no-frills ‘flat-pack’ variety, and I am pleased to say that Princes Park does not fall into this category. Interior walls are plastered and painted to a good standard, and numerous football-related quotations adorn the walls (and windows in some cases), which is a nice touch. The dressing rooms are of a good size, and it was a little surprising to find that reserved for the visitors to be the equal of that for the home team (although I didn’t check to see if the showers were permanently cold!). There does however, appear to have been a miscalculation with the officials’ changing rooms, which are clearly too small and will probably be enlarged at the expense of the rather spacious Treatment Room.

Upstairs are two large and extremely well-appointed function rooms, the profits from which are shared by club and Council. The main ‘clubhouse’ area has numerous comfortable seats; whilst the second larger area can be divided. Both areas have a bar, plus numerous plasma screen TVs and large picture windows overlooking the pitch.

At first glance the stadium, which is completely covered on all sides, appears rather bland and homogenous, perhaps not helped by bare concrete and breezeblock. However, one slowly begins to appreciate the design – by architects Alexander Sedgley – by walking around the perimeter. The sweep of the timber framed ‘living’ roof, which will eventually have a full layer of Sedum on top, is impressive. Sedum is a very low maintenance succulent plant, which as well as absorbing rain water, also has heat retaining properties. The species is preferred to grass for green roofs.

The sightlines are excellent wherever one chooses to stand; whilst movement around the ground is easy, thanks to a walkway that stewards (and I had never seen so many at a Non League game, anywhere) insist is kept clear at all times. Should promotion (or a big cup tie) dictate it, gates for proper segregation could easily be installed with a ‘buffer zone’ separating opposing fans.

Seating, all along one side of the ground is only about 3-4 rows deep and therefore does not provide a particularly elevated view; but disabled provision is very good with a ‘bay’ at each corner of the ground, and a dedicated lift enabling access to the hospitality area on the first floor. I am assuming the reason for the somewhat low tiering of the seating is the requirement for a low level stadium (the pitch is sunk some 1.5 metres to make provision for this) to reduce environmental impact.

In addition to the ‘living roof’ the stadium is ‘green’ in other respects: two man-made lakes collect rain water, enabling it to be recycled; whilst solar panels on the roof provide electricity for heating and hot water, but not the floodlights. Another early criticism of the ground has been the relatively poor illumination of the perimeter of the playing area when the lights are on, and having seen them in action some adjustment does appear necessary. The same is true of the Public Address system which isn’t very clear in some parts of the ground.

No doubt, any unforeseen design faults will become apparent with time: the gap between the perimeter wall and the roof for example, may well let the sunlight stream in during the summer … but also the wind and rain for the most part of the season! Equally, the refreshment facilities (one at either end of the ground) appear inadequate for the crowds the stadium is currently attracting, with long queues developing at the ‘home’ end when I visited for a local derby vs Dover Athletic. The lights in the toilets had also fused, but these are hopefully no more than early (if irritating) teething problems that will soon be addressed. One thing that perhaps only I would have noticed is that the dugouts will have to be replaced with those of an eleven man capacity should Dartford reach Conference South in the foreseeable future.

I have deliberately left arguably the most intriguing aspect of Princes Park until last. A wooden sculpture created by Sculptor Philip Bews, joins an impressive list of international commissions undertaken by Bews and partner Dianne Gorvin (www.bewsgorvin.co.uk).

The sculpture, presumably representing a supporter on the terrace, is 5.5 metres high and constructed from green (unseasoned) English Oak from the Forest of Dean. The head, torso and and legs are one piece, comprising an inverted forked section of a tree, while the two arms are jointed and bolted onto the torso. The feet are planted apart for structural stability and the arms are posed in an expansive gesture possibly showing celebration as the home team scores a goal. The figure’s left hand is fixed to one of the heavy timber beams supporting the stadium roof, which gives the sculpture stability.

As regards a title, Bews states that he has been referring to the sculpture as ‘Oak Man’, and sometimes ‘Dartford’s Biggest Fan’. He did suggest that the Dartford fans should eventually come up with their own name for the sculpture, possibly through suggestions or poll on the club website. He hopes that this idea will be taken up as he feels that it would help to ‘ground’ the sculpture in the stadium and the area in general.

Bews was first approached about the commission by the Dartford Council Leader, Jeremy Kite, who has been a driving force behind bringing Dartford FC back to a stadium in their own town. Kite wanted the sculpture to be literally on the terraces, among the fans, rather than more remotely in the club building or outside the ground.

The sculpture has certainly proved something of a talking point since the new ground opened and bestrides the terrace towards the car park end, opposite the main stand. One arm appears to be beckoning to the spectators behind the goal, whilst the other is stretched out towards the pitch. Thus far (and my visit marked only the fourth game played at the ground) it has avoided being daubed in graffiti. Whilst such a fate would be a great shame – and I would hope that any vandal intent on such damage would be swiftly identified and ejected – I can’t help thinking that were fans to simply add their initials to mark their visit, that maybe wouldn’t be so bad.

All in all, a fine addition to the Non League grounds of Great Britain; 8/10 for now. DB

More photographs on Page Two ...