Dartford's Green Army march on to new ground
Britain's first eco-friendly arena will be in the FA Cup spotlight when Port Vale arrive at Princes Park tomorrow
Modern-day Dartford folk are clearly not the fearsome lot they used to be. Wat Tyler's 1381 Peasants' Revolt against King Richard II's poll tax began in the north Kent town, which was also the starting point 173 years later for Sir Thomas Wyatt's final assault on government forces during a popular uprising to overthrow Queen Mary.
Fast-forward to the first decade of the 21st century and Bill Archer, co-chairman of Dartford Football Club, recalls dealing with the latest Dartfordian challenge to authority. "He was a chap in his fifties," Archer said. "He wrote something rude about the manager in one of the toilets. He felt so guilty about it that he phoned up the next day to apologise. He came in and saw me and went and painted over the graffiti. Then he banned himself from the ground until Christmas.
"In the four years we've been here it's the only time we've ever had a problem with graffiti or vandalism. The fans are very proud of their ground."
Welcome to Princes Park, which has been described as Britain's first eco-friendly, sustainable arena. From its stands constructed out of renewable timber and topped with a green "living roof" to the two lakes that collect rainwater to irrigate the sunken pitch (which helps reduce noise and light pollution), this is a stadium for the environmentally conscious age.
As the ground stages its first match in the first round proper of the FA Cup tomorrow, when Dartford take on Port Vale in front of a sell-out crowd of 4,000, it is hard to judge whether the club are prouder of their team, who last played at this stage of the competition 21 years ago, or their stadium.
The simple fact that Dartford are playing again in their home town is a reason for celebration, given that the club spent 14 years sharing with Cray Wanderers, Erith & Belvedere, Purfleet and Gravesend & Northfleet after financial problems led to the sale of the Watling Street ground where they had played for 71 years.
Formed in 1888, Dartford used to be one of the country's leading non-League clubs, but were forced to drop down into the Kent League. Since those darks days in 1992, however, the Darts have climbed their way back up the ladder. This summer Tony Burman's team won promotion to the Blue Square South, just two divisions below the Football League.
Their revival is largely down to the relationship between the club and Dartford Council. Archer and his board had been lobbying for years in the hope of returning to the town and a new Conservative council, led by Jeremy Kite, finally agreed to redevelop a sports ground near the M25 which had fallen into disrepair.
The council, which wanted the stadium to be as environmentally friendly as possible, paid for everything at Princes Park – at a cost of £6.5m – bar the entrance gates, which the club supplied. "Jeremy Kite wasn't a football person, but he's got the bug now," Archer said. "He's a director of the club and comes all the time."
Opened in November 2006 and still owned by the council, the stadium is used extensively by the local community, but the club manage all the facilities and enjoy the revenue they generate. There is an impressive clubhouse with bars and function rooms, an artificial training pitch, which will be supplemented by two artificial mini-pitches currently under construction, and even a nine-hole golf course.
"Everything the council have done has been first-class," Archer said. "There have been no cutbacks. When we said we needed a training pitch they built a top-class one, a 3G pitch, like the one Russia play on.
"We had to put together a big community package, which we do now have. We have two academy sides who are run from here and about 20 other junior sides that run under the Dartford FC banner. It's very much a community-based club. The council leave us to run it but we very much work hand in hand with them."
The main stadium has a capacity of 4,097, including 700 seats. There is even a lift to enable disabled supporters to reach the clubhouse, while a walkway around the ground provides access to all the seats and terraces. It also enables supporters to swap ends at half-time, although that will not be possible tomorrow as the club reluctantly had to agree to segregation for safety reasons. A next phase of development could see the capacity increased by 1,000 by building another row of terracing around the walkway.
"The ground is up to Conference standard and is expandable beyond that," Archer said. "It was built in the hope that one day we'll be playing in the Football League. We initially hoped that we'd be in the Conference South within five years – which we've reached ahead of schedule – and the Conference Premier within 10 years."
Among the many admirers, from at home and overseas, is the designer Wayne Hemingway, founder of the Red or Dead fashion label, who told Sky's Soccer AM programme that Princes Park was "the absolute No 1 stadium in the country", ahead of Wembley and Arsenal's Emirates Stadium.
In their 14 years away from the town, Dartford's hard core of supporters dwindled to around 300, but now there are 1,200 regulars, while the recent local derby at home to Ebbsfleet drew a crowd of more than 2,700. "We actually get more people here than we used to get at Watling Street, even in our heyday under Peter Taylor," Archer said. "The stadium definitely helps. It's a lovely facility and a safe environment where families are happy to come."
The most striking feature of the whole stadium is a remarkable 5.5 metre-high wooden sculpture of a man, which stands on the terraces, arms outstretched as if complaining about an offside decision. "The Oak Man" has been there for four years and there is not one sign of graffiti or vandalism on him.
Archer said: "In our very first meetings with the council I said: 'What we want is a ground that everyone in Dartford loves and is proud of and everyone who visits says: 'I wish we had a ground like this.' I think that's exactly what we've got."
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