A member of the last Fleet side to beat Dartford in an FA Cup game (2-0 in October 2001), Fleet legend Francis Duku went on to play in the First Round at Huddersfield and win the Ryman League in the same season. He recalls his time at the club in discussion with David Byrom and sheds light on his major new venture – Our Game Football.
When you are nicknamed “The Fridge”, it usually implies you are either a cool customer, or a big unit. Francis Duku, stood at 6ft 4in, is both of these things.
The big central defender joined the Fleet from Dulwich Hamlet in 2000 and was a mainstay of the Andy Ford-managed side that won promotion to the Conference Premier from the Ryman League in the 2001-2002 season.
Duku stayed at the club until 2004 and he says he has fond memories of his time at Stonebridge Road.
“I was approached while playing for Dulwich Hamlet”, he recalls.
“Apparently the story is that ‘Bondy’ [Alan Bond] – a bit of a club legend when I was there, who did lots of general jobs around the place – saw me playing for Dulwich and recommended me to Andy Ford.
“I initially turned down the seven-day approach as I was quite happy at Dulwich, but the next season, Andy came back in for me and asked me to play a couple of games as I hadn’t committed to anyone at the time.
“I ended up staying on for more than a couple of games!”
Duku admits he knew nothing about The Fleet before being approached by Ford and reveals he nearly missed the games he was invited to, due to not being able to drive but, thankfully, a fellow player gave him a lift.
The rest, as they say, is history.
“As I said I was only supposed to come in for a few weeks to play some games while I worked out what to do for that season so I didn’t come in with any expectations at all, but was pleasantly surprised”, explains Duku.
“I think I developed most as a player while I was at the club.
“It was the longest I stayed at any one club and the most successful period I had as a player.
“The team and management staff (Andy, Phil Handford and Ron Hillyard) were all a massive part of my development and enjoyment of football and I learned a hell of a lot about football, both on and off the field, while I was there.
“Playing for Andy was quite straightforward as he left you in no doubt what he wanted.
“Sometimes I didn’t agree with it, but at the end of the day he was the manager and I was the player, so I knew I needed to do what he wanted.
“I think it’s fair to say though he had a good knowledge of football and that came across in his teams and the success he achieved.
“A major skill for any manager is being able to make sure his players know exactly what he wants them to do when he gives his instructions, and Andy was definitely able to do that.
“Ultimately while playing for Andy, I had probably my most successful period as a player, so although it was not always smooth sailing and was hard work at times (he never ever gave us a night off if he could help it), I did really enjoy myself.”
Indeed, Duku says that one of his proudest moments in football was winning the Ryman League and getting promotion, because it “was the first (and only) league title I won in senior football, and we were also so unfancied to win it, I really enjoyed proving wrong all of those who had written us off!
“The stand out memories of that season were the two games against Canvey [who were The Fleet’s closest rivals, and favourites to win the league, all season].
“We won at their place 2-0 and I scored the second.
“Just after I scored, some lights went out at the stadium which caused a few talking points.
“The home game with Canvey was also memorable because of the atmosphere and the fact there didn’t seem to be a single empty space in the ground.
“It was a total sell-out and was a game so many people in non-league wanted to see at the time, but unfortunately we lost that 1-0.
“Finally the final day at Bedford, where we won 1-0 to be crowned champions.
“The build-up to that match was really nervous, as we were so close but still so far, but once the game kicked off, the nerves went and it was just another game we had to win which we did.
“The relief after the game though was huge but we knew it was job done!”
The Fleet’s first season in the Conference was one of mixed fortunes for Duku, who suffered a nasty leg break away to Weymouth as he tried to clear a ball with an overhead kick, leaving him out of action for eight months.
Yet when he returned to action, the side remained unbeaten for seven matches to avoid relegation.
Travelling, however, took its toll on Duku, who also had to balance a career in the city alongside football.
“The travelling in the Conference Premier was definitely harder and it was weird having to go up to places like Scarborough and Doncaster for games, but I really enjoyed it”, he recalls.
“The standard was obviously better, and the style of play of some of the teams was quite different at times, but being able to play in these games was what all the hard work of the previous season was for, and why I turned down better paid offers over that summer to stay, so I made sure I enjoyed it as much as I could.
“Managing a full-time career in the city with this was very hard though and I sometimes wonder how I did it!”
On his friends in The Fleet’s side during that period, Duku says: “Che Stadhart was probably my best friend in that side, as we sometimes had to travel on the train to and from Gravesend together, and we were both there for 3 or 4 years by the time we left.
“To be honest though, the team spirit at the club was up there with the best I have known so everyone got on and there really was a big group of players who were in it together and genuinely enjoyed each others’ company!
“I still speak to Che now; he and Steve McKimm are probably the only people I speak to regularly, but I have been in contact with Justin Skinner again recently and have seen many of the boys over recent years through playing against and sometimes with players from my time at the club.”
Duku left the club in 2004 and admits he is disappointed with the way he left, although he says he learnt some valuable lessons from the departure.
Now, he is the founder of Our Game Football, which is a support service for those involved in non-league football.
“I’ve had lots of experiences over the years, many good, but some bad and over the time I found myself helping a number of players who weren’t as confident or ‘in the know’ as I was,” Duku explains.
“When I had some of the bad times, friends of mine who played at higher levels, were able to give me some advice and contacts to help me get on, and I always thought help like this was missing in non-league, but would possibly be of more use, so as I approached the end of my career, I thought this would be something for me to focus on to try and make sure it happens.
“I’ve spent the last four or five years now developing Our Game and its services and drawing on my own experiences and those of team mates, opponents and friends who have also played at these levels, so I can make sure it delivers all we promise.
“It’s a massive project, but can make such a difference to the lives of so many players up and down the country in a way no one else currently does, so it’s something I am determined to see through to make sure it works.”
♦ Anyone interested in joining / seeing what Our Game Football can offer can visit www.ourgamefootball.com.