With the postponement of Fleet’s two festive matches this past week, we haven’t had the chance to formally wave goodbye to 2020. It likely wouldn’t have been a fond farewell to a year best consigned to history anyway and instead we look ahead to 2021 – and the first match of it at Princes Park against Dartford.
We may be old rivals, but we’re old acquaintances too and we’ve seen in the New Year with the Darts on numerous occasions since our formation in 1946.
Prior to that, there was only one New Year meeting with Dartford in our previous guise as Northfleet United, back in 1938 when the Fleet won 5-2 at Watling Street in the Kent League – a team that included future Tottenham Hotspur greats Bill Nicholson, Ron Burgess and Freddie Cox.
From 1946, Fleet v Dartford games tended to take place on Christmas Day and then Boxing Day (including the infamous tussle where the referee sent both sides off and abandoned the game).
So unlike the Boxing Day meet-up, a New Year fixture against our neighbours is actually a relatively recent development. The first January clash between the sides didn’t take place until 1983 – and that was the last time we won a New Year fixture at Dartford!
Paired together in the Southern League Premier on New Year’s Day 1983, newly relegated Fleet had Steve Brignall and Andy Wallace to thank for a 2-0 win in front of 1,137 at Watling Street.
It was a further eight years before another chorus of Auld Lang Syne could be heard in a North Kent derby, this time Stonebridge Road hosting the event on the first day of 1991.
Having finished in the top four of the league six times in the previous seven years, the Darts were by their own standards having a somewhat mediocre season. The Fleet, meanwhile, were having a disastrous one – bottom of the table under new boss Eddie McCluskey and saved from relegation at the end of the season only because of ground-grading irregularities at Rushden Town.
Fleet did plot a mini-revival over that festive season, however, with this surprise 3-1 win over the Darts a third victory in four games, the goals coming from Alan Day, Dave Flint and Micky Cotter in front of 1,263.
Dartford took their revenge in fine style 12 months later at Watling Street. As with a Boxing Day game three years previously, they rattled in five goals without reply to leave the Fleet following amongst the 1,152 crowd wishing they’d drunk more the night before and stayed in bed!
It was another shocking season for the Fleet, this time relegated for certain with no Rushden Town to save them, while Dartford’s immediate future wasn’t much better, this being their last full season before they were made homeless in the fallout from tenants Maidstone United’s collapse.
Dartford’s 1992 demise put an end to New Year’s Day derbies for another 21 years – but their return in 2013 was an exciting one. Once again it was a relegation-threatened Fleet facing a confident Darts side in the first and to date only New Year’s clash in the top division.
With Dartford having easily won the Boxing Day derby 3-1 at Princes Park, they were well on their way to completing a festive double. Jon Wallis and Fleet’s bête noire that season, Harry Crawford, sent the Darts into a 2-0 lead shortly after half-time and there seemed no way back for Liam Daish’s side.
But it was a thrilling second-half performance from the Fleet and moments after conceding the second, Liam Enver-Marum set up Nathan Elder to reduce the arrears. That signalled an all-out attacking display from the home side in front of a healthy 2,242 crowd and only for Darts keeper Marcus Bettinelli’s brilliance in keeping out Enver-Marum and Paul Lorraine, coupled with some unlucky finishing, Fleet should have equalised sooner.
As it was, they saved it until the very end when substitute Adam Williams helped on a long ball forward and Elder muscled his way ahead of the Darts defence to pounce and produce probably that season’s one true moment of utter, unbridled jubilation.
And finally… not only was this the last New Year’s derby v Dartford, it was the last meeting between our clubs until this Saturday. Once more Fleet were plotting revenge for a poor showing at Princes Park on Boxing Day, Dartford having won that one 2-1 as both clubs closed in on leaders Maidenhead United.
This game at Stonebridge Road lacked much sparkle in freezing wind and rain but it was all about the three points and a slice of payback for the home side. Our new Main Stand was open for only the second time to host a 2,564 attendance – a record for a New Year’s Day game at the Fleet – and they witnessed a solitary goal, Jack Powell’s well-timed delivery for Bradley Bubb converted four minutes before half-time.
So as the sixth New Year derby against the Darts approaches, Fleet look to improve on a record of three wins, one draw and one (hefty!) defeat in January fixtures against the side from up the road…