Fleet go into what is probably the most important North Kent derby in the history of the fixture looking to put Friday’s first away defeat well and truly behind them. With the clash against neighbours Dartford coming only five games before the end of the season, and with both clubs still in with a shout of promotion either automatically or via the play-offs, there has never been so much resting on this traditional clash of red versus white.
Never one to dwell on the past, Daryl McMahon is urging a response from his team on Easter Monday as Fleet aim to maintain the top spot they have held since September. And the manager wants players and home fans to unite for the cause – not just for the Dartford visit, but for the remaining games at Stonebridge Road.
“We need everyone pulling in the same direction,” McMahon told FleetOnline. “Now more so than ever. As much as we can, we need to make it as hostile as possible for the opposition. When the crowd are up for it, when they’re angry or fervent or both, backing our team, then it helps set the tempo and helps the players play it the right way like we did last Saturday against Hemel.
“If we can do that, Stonebridge Road won’t be a nice place to come. I want a stadium where no-one wants to come, where opposition players don’t fancy it because not only have they got to come against a good team if we’re playing the way we can, but you’ve also got a hostile – in the nicest possible sense! – crowd noisily backing their team. When you’ve got that togetherness, it creates a real force that’s hard to stop. We definitely need it in the run-in and now is the time to stick together.”
The Fleet boss welcomes back Tom Bonner (pictured) from suspension and with the skipper’s availability, the entire Fleet squad is up for selection. “It’s a good headache to have,” said McMahon. “The players know what this fixture means to the fans, I don’t have to remind them. At the same time, it’s three points at stake like every other game, three points we need, and cool heads come into play.” Bonner joins Kenny Clark, Matt Godden and Charlie Sheringham among Fleet players to have worn Dartford colours.
Dartford, meanwhile, will be without skipper Elliot Bradbrook who is suspended but if there was any suggestion they might lack leadership, the signing of former Stonebridge Road hero Paul Lorraine puts paid to that point of view… assuming our former skipper is declared match fit and is selected ahead of the Darts’ current centre-backs. His chances have improved given Callum McNaughton’s injury and the return to Luton Town of loanee Mark Onyemeh.
The Darts line-up isn’t likely to alter significantly from the side that lost 1-0 at home to the Fleet at Princes Park, though Ebou Adams left for Norwich City earlier in the season and Tony Burman has added two more loan players in defender Keaton Wood from Millwall and, late last week, midfielder Nathan Ferguson from Burton Albion. Former Fleet loanee Andy Pugh is battling a groin strain and he hasn’t featured in recent games, while full back Lee Burns limped out of Friday’s match.
Dartford’s last visit to Stonebridge Road, in January 2013, ended in a 2-2 draw thanks to a last-minute Nathan Elder equaliser and you have to go back to March 1979 to find the last time Fleet lost to their neighbours in a league match at home.
Having enjoyed an excellent run in the league in mid-season to haul themselves into fourth place, Dartford – who have not beaten a side in the top five this season – have had a torrid time of late, losing five of six games until Friday’s home win over Bishop’s Stortford. That victory, coupled with Gosport’s implosion and Oxford City’s inconsistent form, has given the visitors every reason to believe they can get back in the play-off hunt – especially if they can grab all three points at Stonebridge Road.
Dartford’s away form is similar to their home form, with seven wins apiece, though they’ve only won once on the road in 2016 – at Gosport.