1st Qualifying Round
Saturday 15th September 2007
Kick Off 3:00pm
Weather: Hot and sunny
Distance travelled: 97 miles
Planning the journey for this game, it seemed ever so straight forward. Forty odd miles around the M25, off at junction 1b, left and left again. Piece of cake. But somehow we ended up stuck on Dartford's one-way system with all the Saturday afternoon bargain hunters. You've heard of the ship of fools? This was the car of idiots.
However, this was only a minor blip and some expert navigational skills soon had us at Princes Park with time to spare. We were marshaled into the car park by a Liam Gallagher look-a-like and pulled up outside what can only be described as a very impressive ground. It was a hot, sunny afternoon and the newness of the ground dazzled in the bright light. The place looked very fresh and clean; it still felt new and even smelt new.
Once inside the ground (after a quick look around the club shop) I was struck by the design. It has a modern, ergonomic feel, lots of contoured wood and glass. It is pleasing on the eye. At the risk of being unkind to Sittingbourne, the contrast in grounds could not have been more stark. More Ikea than Woolworths.
The club bar is pretty smart as well, with large plasma TV screens, a pool table and gallery overlooking the pitch. And what a great idea to display famous quotes from players on the bar walls, including one of my all-time favourites from Ian Rush "I couldn't settle in Italy, it was like living in a foreign country".
So to the match. The game started at a frenetic pace, and the first half was very good. Dartford had a number of chances and seemed to unnerve the Sittingbourne defence from the off, and indeed took an early lead on 13 minutes with a well executed lob by Jay May. Soon after they hit the post, and with the away team's defence looking decidedly unsettled I expected a hat full of goals. To Sittingbourne's credit, they themselves looked very dangerous on the break; they had pace on the wings and managed on a number of occasions to get behind the Dartford back line. However, with only a lone striker up front, they failed to reap any reward. At the half-time whistle, Dartford just about deserved to be in front.
A trip to one of the refreshment bars during the interval was rather surreal. Having ordered a Cheese & Onion pasty, we watched three young girls behind the counter prod and poke a number of pastry wrapped offerings in an attempt (I guess) to find the Cheese & Onion variety. They looked rather confused (bless) but a prolonged attack on one pasty with a small stick seemed to convince the server that the said Cheese & Onion had been found. My friends in the meantime ordered meat pies which turned out to be Cornish Pasties. My Cheese & Onion specimen contained large chunks of chicken and mushroom. Keep trying girls...
The second half seemed to be played at a completely different pace. I guess the hot weather took it's toll (the referee called for two water breaks) and all the hustle and bustle slowly ebbed from the game. Dartford failed to make their superiority count, and as the game drew to a close you could sense that Sittingbourne may well get back into the game. This they did when Mitchell Sherwood struck a low shot to the keeper's right on 85 minutes.
And that's how it ended, 1-1. And yes, you've guessed it, another trip around the M25 to Kent for me for Tuesday's replay.
Overall a very enjoyable first visit to Dartford. The crowd of 870 must have been slightly disappointing, the smallest attendance ever at Princes Park to watch Dartford. But still a good turnout for a club playing at this level. There are a number of Conference clubs who would be happy with a crowd that size. The ground would not look out of place at Conference level, or perhaps even higher. It is evident after visiting Princes Park that Dartford have big aspirations.
But in the short term, they need to get past Sittingbourne in the FA Cup. And sort out their pasties.