You can guarantee that every season there is a surprise package in the Blue Square Bet Premier, and this year’s one is most definitely Dartford, writes Mike Simmonds.
One of the favourites for instant relegation after winning promotion from the Blue Square South via the play-offs, the Darts have flourished in the Conference, sitting in sixth place after 17 games.
A desperate start to the campaign gave no indication of things to come as Dartford lost their opening three matches, but a 1-0 home win over Kidderminster kick started the club into action.
It began a run of four victories in a row, which became eight wins from 10 as they dramatically zoomed up the table.
Some notable scalps were taken along the way too as Darts won at Cambridge, beat leaders Newport at home, hammered Hereford 4-0, won 2-0 at Grimsby and also drew 2-2 at Wrexham.
They have found the going slightly tougher recently, suffering 4-1 defeats at home to both AFC Telford and Forest Green Rovers (in the FA Cup), as they come to Kenilworth Road with one win, two draws and three defeats from their last six games.
Dartford recruited wisely in the summer, especially in defence, bringing the vastly experienced pairing of Mark Arber and Richard Rose in from League Two Dagenham & Redbridge.
In recent weeks, they have re-signed Fulham goalkeeper Marcus Bettinelli on loan after the 20-year-old, who has just signed a new one-year deal at Craven Cottage, played 13 times earlier in the season for them.
Striker Adam Birchall also joined on loan from Gillingham, scoring in the win at Grimsby, but he has since been recalled by the League Two leaders.
The difference between the clubs can also be reflected by the fact that in the 2006-07 season, Hatters were a Championship side facing the likes of Stoke, Sunderland and Southampton, while Darts were plying their trade in Ryman League Division One South.
Still a part-time outfit too, boss Tony Burman expects it get to tougher next year when the impact of playing in the Conference wears off.
He said: “With the guys who are part-time and working, it was quite easy because they wanted to have a go at a higher league.
“Next year, once they’ve had a go, their work commitments come into it and yes we might lose one or two for sure.”
Nevertheless, the manager is still trying to add to his side in a bid to keep them as competitive as possible this season, adding: “We’re looking to bring someone in because of the amount of games coming up. The deadline is November 26 for bringing people in on loan and then we can’t sign anyone until January 1.”
Team news: Hatters are likely to be without Jon Shaw, while Danny Spiller and Garry Richards are also out.
Jake Robinson has returned to Northampton after his loan deal expired, but Mark Tyler, Alex Lawless and Dean Beckwith are all back in training and available for selection.
Dartford will be without leading scorer Harry Crawford, after he was sent off in Tuesday night’s 1-0 defeat at home to Forest Green Rovers.
Man in the middle: Karl Evans – Greater Manchester official has already shown 33 yellow cards this season, along with two reds, in just 11 games.
Last took a Hatters match back in January when he reffed the 2-0 home win over Newport County, where he sent off former Town forward Ryan Charles.
The season before that, Evans did a mixture of Championship, League One and League Two games before dropping down to the Conference.
Top BSBP scorer: Hatters - Stuart Fleetwood (10). Darts: Harry Crawford (6).
In charge: Tony Burman – the 54-year-old is a true Dartford legend, having played 488 times and scored 158 goals after signing in the 1978-79 season.
Appointed coach at the club in 1992-93, he was then player/manager in 1993-4, but resigned due to business commitments in 1996.
Returned as caretaker manager for a month in November 2001, he was then appointed manager again in January 2005 and has since seen led the club from Ryman Leagues into the Conference.
View from the opposition: Manager Tony Burman - “Luton are one of, if not, the favourites to get promoted. It’s a fantastic club with a lot of history and they’re desperately trying to get out of this league and back into the Football League where they probably belong.
“Maybe people are not giving us any chance and we’ve got a point to prove, I don’t know. We’re just pleased to be involved in such big games.”
One to watch: Elliott Bradbrook – midfielder is playing his first season at Conference level and has already netted four goals, including two in his last three games.
Friendly faces: Harry Crawford - spent time on trial with Luton at the start of the season, but the former Southend United striker couldn’t win a contract and joined Dartford.
Top scorer with six goals so far, but three were in a 5-1 win over Alfreton and was red-carded on Tuesday night, so therefore is suspended.
We’ve got form: Hatters have never met Dartford before, although the visitors have been to Kenilworth Road once, in 1972 when they played an FA Trophy second round replay against Wellingborough and won 3-0.
Did you know: Dartford were once managed by Graham Carr, father of comedian Alan Carr.
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