Caretaker Manager Chris Barker hopes to record a third successive win this weekend, as The Shots face another ‘six pointer’ against 22nd-place Dartford. Victory could see The Shots pull 11 points clear of the relegation zone, and three wins from three of what Barker admitted were ‘Cup Finals’ against teams in the bottom six could go a long way to securing Vanarama Conference status. Steve Gibbs previews the action…
Aldershot Town’s win at the Impact Arena saw them record back-to-back wins for the first time in three months. Although the margin of victory could have been greater – especially after a dominant first-half display – the final minutes were a typically nervy affair for The Shots, who displayed admirable spirit and resolve to hold out after Josh Scott’s red card made it 10 men apiece for the final eight minutes.
Barker was quick to give credit to his players, suggesting that this was a fixture which might have been lost just a month ago. Although the game’s 39th minute proved crucial – in Sam Hatton’s equaliser, from the penalty spot, and substitute Brett Williams’ strike almost immediately afterwards – this was a deserved victory.
However, whilst The Shots were dominant in Derbyshire, The Darts were feeling frustrated. Tony Burman’s side haven’t played since their 3-2 Valentine’s Day win at AFC Telford, as last weekend’s home game against Gateshead was postponed due to a waterlogged pitch, before Tuesday’s game at Alfreton befell a similar fate.
After avoiding relegation last season only when Salisbury City were demoted due to financial irregularities, Dartford have again struggled in 2014-15. They are, though, unbeaten in their last two matches – with victory at The New Bucks Head preceded by a creditable home draw against new Conference leaders Bristol Rovers – and have won two of their last four league games away from home. Yet December’s win at Wrexham was followed, albeit almost a month later, by a 6-1 drubbing at Dover Athletic, to highlight their own inconsistency.
As Burman told the Dartford Messenger this week, they are desperate to continue that burgeoning run after enforced time off: “It’s given the squad a rest (by not playing) and sometimes that can be OK. We’re in good spirits and hopefully it’ll be a decent game. There are a few teams still in that mini-league. It depends whether the bottom four start winning because that will put pressure on the teams above. It can still happen.
“It’s good to get a win under your belt but if you follow it up with a loss, it can put you back down in the same situation. There’s still a little group there under 40 points and anything can happen in the next 14 games. We need to keep the momentum going and move on.”
Although the fact remains that half of Dartford’s six wins this season have come against the division’s current bottom two sides, they are, perhaps tellingly, unbeaten in seven games against the Conference’s bottom seven, with four wins and three draws.
With both home and away records languishing as the third-worst in the division, Dartford have picked up 11 of their 27 points on their travels. Also enduring the third-worst defence in the Conference, they haven’t kept a clean sheet in 28 matches – dating back to a goalless draw against Torquay United on 23 August – and failed to win consecutive games since beating Hyde and Macclesfield Town in March.
Yet it is also 14 games since Aldershot Town kept a clean sheet, and finding a solution to such porous defending will be crucial to both sides’ chances of survival come April.
Two new faces appeared in Chris Barker’s squad for the trip to Alfreton, with the arrival of defenders Sean McGinty, from Rochdale, and Tom Richards, from Fulham. McGinty made an impressively solid debut at left-back, allowing Barker to revert to his favoured position of centre-back, in the absence of Joe Oastler.
It is now in attack where The Shots will be looking for options, after Ryan Jarvis was injured in winning a penalty and Josh Scott incurred a three-match suspension at Alfreton, and Kabongo Tshimanga returned to MK Dons at the end of his loan spell. Antonio German has arrived on loan from Gillingham – almost five and a half years after making four appearances on loan from QPR – and will bolster both central and wide attacking areas, where Tristan Plummer will also be hoping to return to the team.
However, Sam Hatton’s Man of the Match performance on the right of midfield last weekend will make it difficult for Barker to look elsewhere, and Damon Lathrope will be itching to be involved in a matchday squad for the first time in five months.
Dartford will be without the suspended Andy Pugh – scorer of their equaliser against The Shots at Princes Park in October and three goals in his last two games, before a sending off against AFC Telford – but hope to have winger and Club stalwart Ryan Hayes back from a hamstring injury to travel to the ESS.
Dagenham and Redbridge striker Christian Doidge has extended his loan with The Darts, and is likely to partner joint top scorer Harry Crawford up front, but Plymouth Argyle defender Jamie Richards may be playing the final game of his one-month stay at Princes Park.
Former Cambridge United centre-back Rory McAuley leads a defence susceptible to pace and in need of a degree of stability, even though teenage Brighton and Hove Albion centre-half Tom Dallison has also helped to cover for the departure, due to work commitments, of Mat Mitchel-King.
Veteran midfielder Peter Sweeney continues to be an invaluable option from the bench, to open up tiring defences with his incisive passing, but it is Club captain Elliot Bradbrook who is the true heartbeat of the team. The box-to-box midfielder has, like Crawford, scored six goals from a more deep-lying role which allows the creative Lee Noble to exploit space going forward.
The absence of Pugh could be key, and if The Shots win that midfield battle will be confident of superiority in both boxes.
Two 1-1 draws at Princes Park, in February and October 2014, have followed a comprehensive 3-0 home victory for The Shots at the start of last season. Brett Williams opened the scoring in a game which saw Manny Oyeleke and Aaron Wickham complete the scoring, before the striker rifled in a stunning late equaliser to secure a 1-1 draw for ten-man Shots after goalkeeper Glenn Morris was sent-off. Josh Scott put the visitors ahead in October, only for Pugh to cap a second-half resurgence with a neatly-worked goal.
Dorset’s Justin Amey has refereed nine Vanarama Conference fixtures this season, including The Shots’ 1-1 draw at Torquay in August and last month’s 1-0 home defeat against Kidderminster Harriers. He has issued 24 yellow cards and one red. Last season he also took charge of Aldershot Town’s 3-1 win at Barnet and 1-0 defeat at Braintree Town.
BBC Surrey’s Adrian Harms will provide full match commentary on the BBC Sport website, with Shots’ media team member Rob Worrall alongside him. Tune in to 104.0 & 104.6 FM for team news just after 2pm, followed by pre-match interviews and full match commentary via the BBC Surrey website at 2.55pm.