Dartford 2 Basingstoke 1


Dartford 2 Basingstoke Town 1 (06/04/2012)

Dartford’s Princes Park is a ground I’ve fancied going to for a while, but I left feeling slightly disappointed. It might have been the fact that I went on a miserably cold May afternoon – even Barcelona looks depressing in the rain, so urban Kent is always going to struggle. It might also have been because I watched the game from the Basingstoke end, as well as perspective, and the team from North Hampshire would certainly have left feeling very hard done by from the proceedings.

I’d briefly popped up to the ground on a bright and sunny afternoon a year ago, en route to Ebbsfleet, but this time saw the ground approached from a puddle-strewn muddy car-park, and the sodden wood exterior looked more like it’d be at home on a garden shed, rather than the gleaming Ikea catalogue architect’s render it looked last year in the sun.

Inside, the depressing grey blanket of cloud sucked the life out of the place. It’s a shame as it is a really good, and different, ground for a non-league club. Aside from the green credentials, wooden beams, solar panels and roof covered in vegetation etc, it’s tidy, fully covered, and built to a very high spec.

Eight rows of light and airy terrace on three sides provide a decent view, and are enough to look imposing with good crowds like today’s. A flourish on one side is the figure of a giant wooden man, like Frankenstein’s Cuprinol monster, cheering his team literally to the rafters.

The opposite seated side doesn’t work quite as well, with just four rows of seats looking much smaller than the eight steps of terracing that would otherwise be there. A raised section over the players tunnel, with a little platform for club officials above, looks a little awkward. The large windows of the moderately proportioned, but ridiculously rammed club bars behind just emphasise how small this side stand is. It offers just 642 places of the ground’s 4100 capacity.

It also highlights one problem with the ground as it is – the lack of scope for expansion. Expanding on the main stand side would be impossible due to the club offices and bars, while it’d be problematic at either end due to the positioning of club shops, tea bars, toilets etc into a large block directly behind each goal. Only the opposite side has potential, but that is right up against the boundary of the site.

Mind you, the fact that expansion for a 4000 capacity ground in the Blue Square South could even be thought of as a potential problem just highlights the success of the ground. The overall quality of the structure, a million miles away from the dull Atcost grounds that give the impression that the ground is no more than an extension to a club room for hire, shows what a bit of imagination can do. Even the floodlights, arranged Swiss style on circles like upturned ski-poles, show the architects went out of their way to create something a bit different, and the Dartford public has certainly responded. Crowds have averaged 1200, around double the division average, at 2210 would be at this game where a draw would be enough to put them one game from England’s 5th tier.

Dartford, who finished 17 points clear of Basingstoke, and held a 1-0 lead from the first leg, were huge favourites, but it was Basingstoke who looked the better side for much of the game. Three or four good chances in the first half alone were spurned, and it looked like the only way Dartford would score was from a set-piece. And that’s exactly what they did early in the second half. A ball in wasn’t picked up, and was powered into the net to give Dartford what looked a possibly decisive lead.

As often happens though, the first goal in a tight game opens things up, and midway through the half a low ball into the box was struck across the Dartford keeper into the far corner to send the travelling fans wild with renewed belief.

Five minutes later Dartford were back in front in controversial circumstances. A goalmouth scramble ended with the ball in the back of the Basingstoke net, but with the whistle blown. As the players trudged away though, the ref appeared to change his mind and award the goal anyway, to the confusion, not to mention anger, of the Basingstoke players.

If the Basingstoke players weren’t happy with the officials after they, they were certainly crossing them off their Christmas card lists a few minutes later when Basingstoke had the ball in the new for a second time, only for it to be ruled out for offside. Two Basingstoke players attacked the ball at the back post. One was clearly in an offside position when the ball was headed in, but the one who actually headed it in didn’t appear to be at any stage. Either way it was ruled out. Whether he was offside, or whether the linesman flagged the wrong player by mistake, only he knows.

If Basingstoke needed any convincing it wasn’t going to be their day it came very shortly after, with another ball in coming back off the post, only to drop to the Dartford keeper to collect right on the line.

It was all a bit too much for one Basingstoke player, and wild tackle soon after saw him see red. You can sympathise with his frustrations, if not his actions, either personally or for his team, because as he trudged down the tunnel, he took Basingstoke’s remaining chances with him.

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