Quite when a Fleet-Dartford fixture had this much riding on it is difficult to recall. The first league clash in 18 years back in 2010-11 certainly sparked interest but as a league game so early in the season, the result was largely irrelevant beyond local bragging rights and the acquisition of a single point each.
But Saturday’s FA Cup with Budweiser tie – the first meeting between the clubs at such a late stage of the competition – is arguably the biggest match between the Fleet and Dartford since the days when the Kent Senior Cup generated considerable local passion and drew four-figure attendances. It could see Stonebridge Road break the 3,000 attendance barrier for the first time since Canvey Island rolled into town in 2002 should the publicity, cheap admission and lack of local Football League games combine to reel in football fans across north Kent.
Fleet go into the game in good form – the midweek blip at Bishop’s Stortford aside – and before that reverse, confidence was sky high at Stonebridge Road about taking on a Skrill Premier side for the first time since relegation. Steve Brown was not a happy man after Tuesday’s 3-2 defeat and there are bound to be some line-up changes. There are, of course, enforced changes – the injured Joe Howe is unlikely to feature, though Alex Osborn is expected to return, while in midfield there are questions over who gets the starting places. In the last three games, Stacy Long has benefited from Daryl McMahon’s injury, Dean Rance’s suspension and a 4-5-1 formation respectively, but the Fleet are likely to revert to 4-4-2 against Dartford, meaning one of Long, Rance and McMahon will not figure in the starting line-up.
“Alex Osborn’s injury and the fact Joe Howe has been managing a slight groin strain for a couple of weeks and couldn’t last past the half hour mark led to a change in personnel before the Stortford game and a change of formation during it,” Brown told FleetOnline. “In many ways that game came at a poor time for us; it was a rearranged fixture squeezed into a week that has a monumental cup game at the end of it. I thought some of the players looked drained and short on energy which affected our performance as a team.”
With only Howe and the cup-tied Andy Pugh definitely out, Brown is hoping to see more fight from his side. Grant Basey’s injury – originally thought to be a recurrence of the serious knee complaint that ruled him out for much of last season – was not as bad as feared and he has resumed training. With seven substitutes permitted in the FA Cup, he could even find himself kitted out on Saturday afternoon.
“In some respects it’s a great distraction to be playing the cup game so soon after Tuesday,” Brown added, “and I’m hoping to see a reaction from the players who I know were extremely disappointed that our recent good run came to an end the way it did. It should be a cracking atmosphere and although it will be a tough game I’m expecting a competitive game which both sides will believe they can win.”
For all the column inches about Dartford’s injury problems, their supposed ‘second season syndrome’ and an indifferent start to 2013-14 in the Skrill Premier, they have – like the Fleet – lost only one of their last six games. In terms of personnel, it remains to be seen whether in-form loanee and ex-Fleet striker Matt Godden can carry on his scoring streak as Darts boss Tony Burman continues to appeal to parent club Scunthorpe’s better nature and wrestle permission from them to unleash Godden against his old side.
The Darts have something of a paucity of strike options with Adam Birchall cup-tied and Jason Prior also struggling to be fit. Ex-Dover defender Tyrone Sterling is also out and former Chelmsford midfielder Kenny Clark is waiting on a fitness test. However, captain Elliot Bradbrook and former Fleet youth player and local lad Matt Fry should both return after recent absences. Dartford also signed goalkeeper Tommy Forecast on loan this week, and he will serve as back-up to ex-Stevenage stopper Alan Julian – giving Tony Burman cover on the bench after several fixtures this season where he has done without a reserve keeper.
Despite their injuries, the Darts will still carry a considerable threat, with ex-Fleet trialist Mat Mitchel-King and Princes Park stalwarts Ryan Hayes, Lee Noble, Lee Burns and Danny Harris giving the visitors’ an experienced spine.
Beyond the Fleet connections already mentioned, there are plenty of reunions among other players. Dominic Green played on loan at Princes Park last season, Aiden Palmer, Anthony Cook and Billy Bricknell will know Kenny Clark and Max Cornhill from their Chelmsford days, Stacy Long and Jason Prior were at AFC Wimbledon together while Ben May and Elliott Bradbrook attended the same school. Bricknell and Cook, meanwhile, both have experience of scoring against Dartford in the past, the former in fact having netted for all three of his most recent sides against the Darts – Chelmsford, Dover and the Fleet (in a pre-season friendly).
Dartford will be aiming to make Round 1 for only the second time in 22 years, whereas Fleet will be hoping their 14th straight appearance at this stage of the competition will earn them their sixth advancement to the competition proper this century. Fleet have the edge in FA Cup meetings (see below), with five wins to Dartford’s three, but only one of those has come at Stonebridge Road* – a good statistic at least should the match go to a replay!
* Technically, it’s two wins at Stonebridge Road, but in the 2001 meeting, Dartford were drawn as the home team while ground-sharing with the Fleet – who had to use their own away dressing room!
Fleet v Dartford – head to head since 1946
|Venue||Matches||W||D||L||Goals||+ / –|
|Home||60||30||13||17||109 – 74||+35|
|Away||60||18||9||33||73 – 121||-48|
|Total||120||48||22||50||182 – 195||-13|
Fleet v Dartford – FA Cup encounters
|Venue||Matches||W||D||L||Goals||+ / –|
|Home||4||1||1||2||4 – 5||-1|
|Away||6||4||1||1||12 – 8||+4|
|Total||10||5||2||3||16 – 13||+3|