20 years ago the Stones, at their lowest ebb of existence, kicked off their league campaign against Camberley Town in the ICIS Third Division. Barely 300 people witnessed it.
In fact that Summer of 96 was one of stark contrast to today’s offering. English football in general was buzzing. The national team had come within a toe poke of the European Championship final; the Premier League welcomed some colourful imports, Middlesbrough’s Fabrizio Ravenelli (pictured below) arguably the most notable; and Alan Shearer, off the back of his international exploits, was to become the world’s most expensive footballer at £15 million.
Wealdstone, on the other hand, were a fallen giant. Starting life at the bottom rung of the-then known “ICIS League” for the second successive season.
Conference football, or any notion of it, was a rapidly vanishing memory and the Stones, now plying their trade at Edgware Town, were rebuilding the foundations obliterated by the dodgy dealings that saw them leave their Lower Mead home and almost consign the club to history just five years prior. And given the failure to climb out of the bottom division the season before, the pressure was already mounting on Bartlett to deliver in only his second season in charge.
Wealdstone would beat Camberley that day – coming back from a goal down to record a 3-1 victory. Better still was to come when they would eventually march on to claim the league championship the following May.
“Wealdstone are back…” was emblazoned across the “One Team in Harrow” book published as recognition of this small yet significant success. “…or at least on their way”… Perhaps a cautious reference to the arduous on-pitch climb that lay ahead coupled with the ongoing off-pitch uncertainty that would continue to blight the club for seasons to come.
20 years on and Bartlett now takes charge of his 22nd season and although the journey back to the top of the non-league game is not quite complete just yet, Saturday’s opener with Dartford represents Stones’ third consecutive term as a Conference South outfit.
This Summer has generally brought more excitement off the field than can be remembered for many a year and perhaps now, more than ever before, Stones have a solid foundation for which to re-establish themselves amongst non-league’s elite.
Despite the poor pre-season form, June and July will be remembered for one reason – the appointment of Peter Marsden (pictured) as club chairman.
Marsden has already hinted at a mentality change labelling the Stones “a sleeping giant” something reflected by the bookies with Wealdstone’s odds of returning to the Conference Premier tumbling.
Stones started as 50/1 outsiders, fell to as low as 14s with some bookies and have finally settled at 25/1.
Those odds would suggest that, whilst a title challenge is unlikely, the possibility of a play-off surge could be on the horizon.
After two season’s of playing catch-up, just one win from their opening 10 fixtures in successive seasons, Stones will be expected to start better on Saturday against a Dartford side they’ve got the better of in recent campaigns.
Last season’s Princes Park fixture saw the veteran combination of McGleish and Louis dubbed “Dad’s Army” in honour of their combined 77 years, net twice late-on to turn the game on its head and hand Stones all three points – the club’s second maximum over the Kent outfit last year.
With Louis now gone and McGleish promoted to Assistant Manager, Dartford will have new challenges to face come 3pm Saturday. And it will be a much changed Wealdstone line-up from the one that began last time these two sides met back in January.
Elliott Benyon is likely to make his competitive debut for the Stones leading the line following his move from relegated neighbours Hayes; Benyon, incidentally, scored the opener for them against Darts when the two sides met in March.
It’s unlikely he’ll be a lone debutant, with up to seven others expected to follow him onto the field in Wealdstone yellow. And much like last season Stones have been busy in the run up to kick off.
And there might yet be some last minute surprises with unattached Marvin McCoy a former favourite at right back and Gambia international Omar Koroma both featuring for the Stones in Tuesday’s win over Wingate. Both possess pace, something the current side is not blessed with in abundance.
Confirmed is highly rated Cambridge United youngster Dylan Williams (pic below courtesy of Ely Standard) who joins following a successful loan spell at Soham Town Rangers last term. Having played once in League Two, the 19-year-old is on loan until 2 January.
“He has got great energy and was comfortable on the ball” said Soham boss Robbie Nightingale when assessing his loan performance. “We tried him in a few positions – on the left, the right, in the hole and in his last two or three games, he played in a three in central midfield and did really well.”
If Williams can be as good as he’s talked up to be he will be much the player that Wealdstone need having struggled to find a replacement for last season’s top scorer Bradley Hudson-Odoi. The impressive speedster left for Champions Sutton United and his 11-goals and multiple assists from the wing will be missed.
Wealdstone looked like landing Luke Wanadio, an ex-Fulham scholar who has already made waves at this level with a host of clubs – most recently Staines Town before a move to Welling United and league interest followed. Ironically, though, Wanadio chose to join Dartford instead and is certain to make his competitive debut for them against the Stones this weekend.
Elsewhere David Hunt, Danny Green and Ricky Wellard are all in contention in the middle of the park with Eddie Oshodi, impressive throughout pre-season, and Ciaran Brown – another late deal – also in with a shout. The latter is another who has impressed in pre-season, the 18-year-old left-back scored the winner against Harrow Borough last week and joins from Bedfont Sports. Stones’ problems might come in central defence with last season’s favoured combination of Wes Parker and Tom Hamblin likely to be disrupted – the latter with an injury and the former allegedly returning from an Iron Man contest.
In terms of history, Dartford have not beaten the blues since October 1991 with Wealdstone undefeated in the eight encounters since then, winning the last three and drawing the other five. The two sides have never met on the opening day but have been paired as the second fixture on three previous occasions – 1991, 1984 (when Stones went on to win the Gola League), and 1974. A 2-2 draw in 1991, a 0-0 draw in 1984 and a 4-1 Stones victory in 1974.
If Darts fans want an omen in their favour it’s Wealdstone’s dismal opening day record. Just two opening day victories in the previous ten seasons – three defeats and five draws.
Dartford, meanwhile, have also had a busy Summer bringing in no fewer than five new players but manager Tony Burman admits a goalscorer has alluded them in the pre-season window. The rumour mill is rife with suggestion that the Darts gaffer has spoken to “at least ten strikers” over the closed season but with the financial demands being raised at an increasingly competitive rate, Dartford have been forced to concede that their targets have gone elsewhere. STOP PRESS: At the eleventh hour the club have brought in ex-Torquay target man Duane Ofori-Acheampong.
They have though managed to re-sign Tom Bonner who skippered Ebbsfleet last campaign. The 28-year-old centre half described his return as a homecoming adding “When I left Dartford, we were seventh in Conference Premier and when I look at where they are now, I’m not happy with it. I want to at least get them back to where they were when I left.”
Perhaps Bonner epitomises the mentality amongst the Dartford camp with captain Elliott Bradbrook adding “I’d much rather be in a dressing-room full of those sort of players [who want to play for the club], which is how this club’s always been run. That’s why our meetings in the summer take five minutes.”
Bonner is joined at Princes Park by midfielder Alex Brown (previously with Gillingham and Maidstone), Keaton Wood (a defender released by Millwall), and Ellis Brown (formerly with Tonbridge Angels).
Dartford, like Wealdstone, are another club aiming to re-establish themselves at non-league’s top table. Co-Chairman Steve Irving said at a meet the fans event earlier this week that Dartford aimed to be a “sustainable National League club within five years” and realistically targeting promotion to the Football League by 2025.
The bookies make Dartford one of the dark horses for promotion with odds of 16/1 reflecting this. Their 8th place finish last term saw the club finish with the league’s fifth best defence but it was goals that proved to be the issue – only three clubs outside the league’s bottom four scored fewer than Dartford’s 58 – but anyone arguing that will curtail their hopes need only look at Maidstone, who scored less (55) and went up via the play-offs.
Opening day fixtures throw up surprise results but Dartford’s pace on the flanks could be key and Wanadio, who nearly signed for the Stones, could have a big say in this game. Much like most of Wealdstone’s openers, goals aren’t likely to be easy to come by and one could settle it. Home win, 1-0.