Princes Park

Ground No. 107
Visited - Saturday 11th November 2006
Result - Dartford 4-2 Horsham YMCA
Competition - Isthmian League, Division One South
Attendance - 4097

The story of Dartford’s nomadic existence throughout the 1990s had started back in 1987 when nearby Maidstone United sold their own ground, London Road, to move into Dartford’s Watling Street home. With the Stones making their way up the non-league pyramid, in 1989 they won the Conference title and were promoted into the Football League, however with this brought a need for improvements to Watling Street. Maidstone themselves put up the money to pay for these, but the financial burden soon became too much for the club, and in 1992 they were forced into liquidation, dropping out of the league in the process. The effect this was to have on Dartford was disastrous, when after purchasing the improvements from Maidstone (for £500,000), that debt in turn became too much for the Darts, and they were forced to sell Watling Street altogether just to stay in business. With no ground of their own, Dartford ended up spending the next 14 years touring both Kent and Essex, however, after many false dawns, in 2006 it was finally time for football to return to the town, with the building of Princes Park courtesy of Dartford Borough Council.

Thanks to updates on various forums, I’d been keeping my eye on the progress of Princes Park, and with it nearing completion, I decided to pay it a visit, with the opening day seeming the most attractive game. During their exile years, Dartford’s attendances averaged around about 300 for the most part, and the club had been expecting somewhere in the region of 2500 to turn up for the first match at the new ground, however the response was overwhelming, with the full 4100 capacity selling out weeks in advance. Fortunately, I’d booked my ticket, so when the day finally came round, I was looking forward to the trip southwards for what promised to be a historic day.

The journey down to Dartford went fairly well, after changing in London, I’d managed to get an earlier train than expected at London Bridge, so arrived into Dartford just after 10:30am. As usual, I spent a little time walking around the town first of all, before gradually proceeding down towards the ground. Normally, I wouldn’t have got there until later on, but with the gates due to open at 12pm, I decided to get there for that, and made the short walk from the town centre, arriving about half an hour early.

Despite the main Princes Road gates being shut, the rear ‘Grassbanks’ entrance was open, so I was able to walk up to the ground and have a sneak preview. I’d been reading that it wasn’t quite completed, however was a bit surprised to see that building work was going on at quite a pace, with builders in some numbers still working away as though there wasn’t anything going on later that afternoon! It was to such an extent that when walking around the outside and wondering whether there was a club shop, it wasn’t until I went back round a corner, to find that they had now put the sign above the door within five minutes of when I’d passed it before! Despite the work left to do though, the stadium was looking superb. The exterior of the Main Stand had been cladded with wooden panelling, which made for a rather attractive change from the usual concrete/metal designs at most grounds. Standing two stories tall, the Main Stand was the most impressive part of the exterior, with the other three sides being smaller, less imposing designs. That said, unlike other grounds, the quality of the build was there to see, with not a breeze-block in sight!

After going back round to the gates, ready for them to be officially opened, there was a bit of a wait, but they eventually did, allowing the waiting fans in to have a look at their new home. The turnstiles weren’t to open for a while longer, but the club had laid on entertainment around the perimeter of the ground, including a Buddy Holly/Elvis cover artist, a steel band, jugglers and the like, with various games for the kids, and beer tents for the adults! The newly signposted club shop also seemed to be doing a roaring trade as well, with long queues stretching well out of the door.

Having soaked up the atmosphere, it was eventually time to go in and have a look around the inside. Like with the exterior, it didn’t disappoint, and in fact was far better than I had expected it to be. On three sides of the ground were terracing 8 rows high, whilst the Main Stand was all-seated. Around the rear of the seats/terrace ran a walkway, which continued all around the ground, and the roof was supported by a number of pillars which lay in between this and the terraces, offering a perfect, column-free view of the game. The roofs rose and dipped to create a mild arch effect, and like with the exterior of the Main Stand, the underside was constructed of wood, which gave a nice (and pleasantly different) feel to the ground. Finally, the one main feature of note was a huge figure, entitled ‘The Wooden Man’. Standing some 18? feet tall, he stood at the rear of the side terrace, and from a distance, appeared to be holding up the roof itself!

After having a walk round, and taking some more pictures, I eventually found a place to stand, and had a read through of the programme before the game eventually got started. The kick-off had been scheduled for 3pm, but with a multitude of presentations, plus a minutes silence (being Remembrance Day) it was actually nearer 3:10pm when the game got underway.

Whilst I had seen games at Step 4 before, this was the first Isthmian League match I had actually seen, and the quality in the first half, perhaps with the players buoyed by the occasion, certainly seemed better than what I had seen in the Southern League. Dartford took the lead in the 10th minute, when Brendan Cass was able to get his head on a cross, to go down as the first scorer at Princes Park. It was all Dartford after that, and the Horsham YMCA goalkeeper found himself busy, before the visitors were able to draw level, with another headed goal, this time from a corner. Not prepared to lie down on their big day, it was the Darts who struck next, with Cass getting his second of the day not long before half-time.

In the second half, the game became more even, but not before the home side were able to make it 3-1. Eddie McClements was the goalscorer, with a fantastic shot from just outside the area, after he had bought the ball inside from the wing. Horsham were able to bring it back to 3-2, but the hosts put the game beyond them soon after when substitute Nick Barnes got the fourth, although it actually took a deflection, not that the Darts fans were too bothered at that! After that, there was only going to be one winner, and the rest of the time was played out before the referee blew his whistle to end the game.

The day wasn’t over at that though, and after the players had done a lap of honour, there was a superb fireworks display that finally brought down the curtains on what had been proved to be a day that couldn’t have proceeded better if the Dartford fans had written it themselves!

After seeing the end of the fireworks, I eventually left the ground and made my way back to the station, catching a train without too many problems, and arriving back home just after 9pm.

Overall, it had been a pretty good day out. I hadn’t actually been expecting to like the ground all that much beforehand, not generally being a fan of new grounds, and for this one in particular, the roofs looking too high for the stands, but once there, it really was fantastic. There really didn’t seem like anything I could find a fault with, and it’s a joy to see a new ground that has broken the mould in terms of not being a cheap, tin shed with little redeeming character. It seems a lot bigger than the 4100 capacity, and would actually be a big improvement on several league grounds, so it’s a place that I’d certainly recommend anyone to go along and visit.

The Princes Road Gates

The Grassbanks Entrance

Rear of the Main Stand

The Club Shop

Rear of the East Stand

Rear of the North Stand

Rear of the West Stand

The East Stand

The Main Stand

The West Stand

The North Stand

The Wooden Man

The West Stand

The Main Stand

The North Stand

The East Stand

The North Stand

The North Stand

Princes Park Panoramic 1

Princes Park Panoramic 2


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