Non-league football has a tendency to be more transitory than league football. There remains a culture of boom and bust within the non-league game and this has always existed, but sometimes a match is thrown up which represents something more solid and more permanent and so it was with this afternoon’s FA Cup Third Qualifying Round match between Dartford and Chelmsford City. These are two clubs that were for decades stalwarts of the Southern League before falling on hard times. Having both lost their big, old, traditional non-league grounds during the 1990s, both of these clubs now have a new stadium and an upwards trajectory. This match is a chance to check up on their current progress.
Dartford and Chelmsford City are two clubs whose history has mirrored each others over the last couple of decades. They are both big clubs with large catchment areas, and they both had big, slightly old-fashioned but traditional non-league grounds. Chelmsford City were regular applicants for a place in the Football League during the 1960s and 1970s (they submitted a bid every year bar one between 1967 and 1976 but never managed to secure that elusive place), but fell into financial difficulties at the start of the 1990s and lost their New Writtle Street stadium in 1997, spending nine years playing at nearby Maldon Town and Billericay Town before moving back to Chelmsford to the council-owned Melbourne Stadium in 2006.
Dartford, perhaps surprisingly, only applied to join the Football League once (in 1936), but had their fair of success and had a couple of seasons in what we now know as the Blue Square Premier during the 1980s. However, they found themselves homeless and all but dead after a disastrous ground-sharing deal with Maidstone United in the early 1990s and had to regroup in the Kent Senior League. They spent over a decade playing at the likes of Cray Wanderers, Erith, Thurrock and Gravesend before moving back to Dartford in 2006. They are top of the Ryman League Premier Division, while Chelmsford, who were promoted two years ago but faltered during the second half of last season, are mid-table in the Blue Square South.
Chelmsford’s revival has been largely due to significant funding and the arrival at Melbourne Stadium of the former Canvey Island manager/owner Jeff King, who brought much of the Canvey team that swept much of non-league football before it in the early years of this decade with him. Indeed, some have noted that their relatively tepid start to this season has been partly due to the backbone of the team having not been successfully replaced as it has aged. Dartford, meanwhile, were rejuvenated by their return to their home town and the extraordinary Princes Park.
Built in 2006, Princes Park should surely be the template for small clubs seeking to build a new stadium. It cost £7m to build, and every inch of it breathes of the care and attention that was put into its construction. The bar resembles a town centre wine bar rather than the conventional spit and sawdust clubhouse familiar to people that regularly attend football at this level, yet it retains the atmosphere of a stadium because of the pre-match buzz of the crowd itself. Once inside, the ground is very intimate, with timber providing some warmth amongst the breeze blocks and a remarkable sixteen foot high sculpture of a supporter standing proudly in the terrace that runs along the north side of the ground. It is an utterly unique venue, and the people of Dartford have responded positively. Average crowds currently average over 1,100 and there are over 1,800 here today.
While Chelmsford have stalled slightly in the league this season (they currently sit in twelfth place in the Blue Square South), Dartford have flown out of the Ryman League traps this season. They’ve won nine of their opening ten league matches this season and their confidence shows with a lively start this afternoon. For all their confidence, however, the wind is taken out their sails after a quarter of an hour when Chelmsford take the lead. A corner from the right hand side swings towards the far post, the Dartford defence freezes for a second too long and Antonio Murray scores at the second attempt after his first shot was blocked.
It’s against the run of play, but it settles Chelmsford nerves and the visitors start to take control of the match. Edman gets through and has his shot blocked by the Dartford goalkeeper Andrew Young. Proceedings aren’t completely one-sided, though, and at the other end the Chelmsford goalkeeper Craig Holloway makes a brilliant reaction save from a close range header. Chelmsford’s tactic of containment and counter attack, however, is too much for the home side to be able to cope with and double soon double their lead when Dartford again fail to completely clear a cross from the right and Ricky Holmes drives the ball in from the edge of the penalty area.
Either side of half-time, Dartford create chances that could see them back in the game. Lee Burns hooks a shot narrowly wide just before the break and early in the second half the Chelmsford goal occasionally appears to be under siege with the ball flashing narrowly wide on a couple of occasions, but just after the hour Chelmsford tie up any lingering doubts over the result when Dave Rainford pings a free-kick almost lazily into the top corner to make the score 3-0. Dartford, however, continue to attack and with seven minutes to play Adam Flanagan heads a free kick from the right hand side home from close range. With two minutes of normal time to play, Jamie Day fires a long range shot against Holloway’s left hand post. This is Dartford’s last chance to claw their way back into the match, though there is still time for Edmans to manage one of the misses of the season from fifteen yards in front of an open goal, but he redeems himself three minutes into stoppage time with a strong run down the left hand side before pulling the ball back for Murray to volley in from six yards to complete a possibly slightly flattering 4-1 win.
It is tempting to read the almost constant stream of bad news coming from non-league football and assume that every corner of the game is shrouded in darkness, poverty and misery, this match showed another side of the non-league game. Affordable football played at three o’clock on a Saturday afternoon played at an outstanding facility in front of a large crowd. Moreover, the very existence of Princes Park – municipally owned and rented to Dartford FC at a peppercorn rate of £1 per year – demonstrates an environmentally concious, sustainable future which will guarantee the existence of a football club in Dartford for the foreseeable future. Considering what both of these fine old clubs have been through just to be here today, such ventures – and it should be pointed out that the local council were also instrumental in Chelmsford City returning to their home town – can only be applauded.
Highlights of yesterday’s match between Dartford and Chelmsford City are available here: