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Avoiding the Poison Darts
By: Andrew Doherty
MY brother and I share the same birthday. April 9th. He chose to spend it in a country retreat in Derbyshire. I went to Dartford. On hearing that I was visiting deepest North Kent for football, my work colleague Norman sucked air in apparent admiration. Norman’s from Immingham. Dartford is exotic to him. It’s as if I’d said I was going to the Nou Camp.
The opportunity now loomed for a comparative study of Dartford’s Princes Park and nearby Ebbsfleet, which I visited earlier in the season. The principal aim was football and the desperate struggle to gain points and cement our place in the play-offs. Football is now less a feast than a bout of indigestion. “Not losing” has become the key. Dartford have had a decent season and now have nothing to play for. They are dangerous opponents. Everyone’s dangerous. The away wins at Stockport and Macclesfield have boosted morale, and the sight of the names Hannah and Cook on the score sheet has been welcome. We need to gather momentum and this seemed to be happening until Saturday’s salvaged point against Southport.
Decisions, decisions. The FastTrack bus from Ebbsfleet or Dartford? Dartford it was, and I arrived at the ground nice and early. It was a grey, drizzly evening as I walked through the town. Dartford is a disorganised mix of modern concrete structures and traditional brick properties, all congested by a mini ring round the centre. The absence of character is replicated in the Princes Park ground, another modern structure bordered with mesh fencing and sharing the ambiance of a disused running track. At least the people here were friendly. An impressive number of Town fans mingled. Black and white was everywhere but then Dartford wear the same combination. Town wore blue tonight. The teams came out to the tones of “Two Tribes”. Town’s tribe tonight was: McKeown – Hatton, Naylor, Miller, Wood – Taylor, Niven, Disley, Colbeck – Cook, John-Lewis.
First Half. Within a minute Miller had to leave the field holding his head after a challenge, resulting in him being substituted and replaced by Thomas 5 minutes later. Dartford tried to take advantage of Town’s re-organisation. Sheringham took a pot shot which McKeown gathered easily. Dartford showed a willingness to shot and more purpose. Town’s first effort was a duffed shot by Taylor after a long cross from Disley. The rain became steady. The passing was poor. Dartford’s supporters in today’s crowd of 1201 were in good voice. On 21 minutes Hatton was forced into conceding a corner but Dartford’s lively Collier skied his shot. Nothing was happening for Town. Cook attempted to control the play but was being given no time or support. Niven made a couple of intelligent touches, but there was no interplay. Colbeck had a shot which forced the Dartford goalkeeper to punch clear but there was no threat. On 26 minutes a clever chip rose over Town’s defence. Collier made a mess of his shot but Town failed to clear the ball and Evans pounced, driving the ball past McKeown who almost saved the shot but in spite of a desperate attempt could not stop the ball from landing in the bottom left corner of the net. Dartford 1, Grimsby 0. Dartford deserved to be leading after all the pressure they had exerted. Until this point Town had blocked well. Hatton had a free-kick which Dartford defended well, and John-Lewis had a chance when Taylor intercepted and crossed, but the effort wasn’t cleanly struck. Then John-Lewis had a header which went straight to the goalkeeper. On 25 minutes Town put a purposeful inter-passing move together for the first time in the game. Taylor, John-Lewis and Disley were involved but fluid as it was, it still ended with a free-kick. John-Lewis then set up Niven who leant back before his contribution went over the stand. John-Lewis then provided a long cross but it was Dartford who were the more incisive of the two teams, working their way into the Town penalty area. Sheringham had a clear chance from 6 yards out and struck a fierce shot which McKeown reacted to and saved brilliantly. Dartford won a corner but the danger was averted. Cook was then tripped 25 yards out. Hatton waited patiently as the referee had to sort out a melee in the box as a Dartford player went down. None of the officials had seen anything so the game continued. Hatton’s shot was deflected for a corner, but Colbeck’s delivery was terrible. Taylor then laid on Niven who as before shot woefully high and wide, summing up Town’s performance in the first half. Forget Two Tribes. Only One Tribe had turned up here and that was Dartford.
Dartford were deservedly in the lead. Their passing was crisp, not always accurate but at least they were enterprising. Town were all over the place, stringing one good set of passes together over the whole half and relying on poorly taken half chances. Taylor and John-Lewis looked lively and Hatton had his moments, but overall we were dreadful. The one hope we had here was that Dartford were conceding a lot of free-kicks in dangerous positions.
Second half. Town started with intent as they passed the ball forward. Taylor supplied John-Lewis who had a mishit shot and then a second chance following a Colbeck cross which resulted in a spectacular scissor-kick which went well over. Cook then tested the goalkeeper, with John-Lewis following up. Dartford took advantage of the more open game and applied pressure themselves. Town struggled to clear the ball but the move ended when a shot was ballooned over into the car park. Taylor had a shot and then Collier tested McKeown at the other end, forcing a save. Hatton’s free kick on 53 minutes was headed out before Colbeck struck from 20 yards out but his shot was sliced wide. Dartford continued to lose possession and Town were benefiting by opening up attacks from midfield and using the wings. Hatton carelessly lost possession on the half way line, and Dartford broke out, finishing the move with a header. Town’s best chance so far came on 59 minutes when Colbeck crossed from the right to John-Lewis whose close range header was well saved by the Dartford goalkeeper. Taylor had a mazy run on 61 minutes and was fouled near the corner but he was now looking visibly tired. Southwell replaced him, but before that Colbeck’s free-kick found Naylor whose header from 6 yards was superbly saved. This prompted a Dartford break. Town were winning the midfield battle now and were getting forward patiently. This was promising but still the equaliser didn’t come. Niven, who had just returned from injury started to tire badly and worryingly broke down, leading to him being replaced by Artus on 65 minutes. Southwell burst through and Cook laid the ball off but John-Lewis couldn’t get to the resultant cross. Still, this was better. Artus tried to slot the ball through to John-Lewis who fell over the goalkeeper. In spite of a lot of tired legs after a long season, the players and especially Cook and Southwell showed skill but Dartford’s defenders proved to be equally alert. Colbeck won the ball on the right on 71 minutes and raced up the right but his low cross in front of goal eluded everyone. Town were now clearly on top. Dartford were still trying to pass the ball around, however, and were looking to create chances. McKeown had to rush out, then Naylor headed clear with the attacker advancing. On 78 minutes Cook was tripped 25 yards out. This called for a Hatton piledriver. But it was Artus who floated an adept chip behind the defence for Cook to run on to and cleanly head the ball into the net. Dartford 1, Grimsby 1. Dartford almost scored immediately, but McKeown saved low. Bradbrook had a good chance for Dartford from the corner but his header went wide and the player crashed into the post. With all three substitutes used, he had to carry on and the stoppage gave Town a bit of breathing space and caused Dartford to lose momentum. The tiring Dartford players now started to become nervous and began to clear their lines desperately. Thomas was booked for Town on 82 minutes after a scuffle with Burns. Town looked much fitter than Dartford and were playing confidently. Another flying run from Colbeck on 82 minutes met Artus whose header went just over. Thomas continued his battle up the left side with Burns who was blocking well, but on 86 minutes Thomas went free and crossed for Colbeck whose blasted low shot was blocked. Town won a corner. The left-footed inswinging corner from Artus curled over the defence towards the far post, causing panic. Cook and Thomas piled in and Thomas met the ball with his head, firing in from close range. Dartford 1, Grimsby 2. Town won a corner while keeping possession, then 4 minutes were added on for stoppages. Almost immediately Colbeck got sent off for kicking a Dartford defender in the corner. Dartford saw this as an opportunity to have one last assault on Town’s goal but Town were intent on just clearing the ball out, and the game ended when McKeown dropped on the ball after one final effort by Dartford. The final score was: Dartford 1, Grimsby Town 2. I rejoiced with the other hundred odd Town supporters.
Town showed a great deal of character in the second half after a lacklustre first half performance. The introduction of Artus and Southwell freshened things up, and Colbeck’s runs down the right were electric. McKeown was magnificent as usual, both Taylor and John-Lewis caused problems for Dartford and Disley mopped up efficiently and started moves but it was Cook’s overall workrate and skilful control, not to mention his goal, which made him my Man of the Match. More important is the fact that during the second half, the team clearly heeded the management’s instructions and although it was against a tiring side, Town remained focussed and determined and got what they deserved after some good play. And after tonight’s results, we’re in the play-offs! A few weeks ago, it was looking grim but with signs that we’re getting form and momentum back, and Hearn and Hannah on the bench, the end of our season could be very exciting indeed. Tonight’s victory at Dartford has given us a bright ray of hope.
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