The colourful former Sussex football boss on the verge of promotion to the National League

In summer 2001, when Lewes Football club needed a new manager and took a punt on a little-known coach from South London, nobody in Sussex had heard of Steve King. They have certainly heard of him now.

Friday, 31st July 2020, 7:00 am
Steve King, pictured during his Whitehawk spell

On Saturday King will be at Weymouth with his latest charges, Dartford FC, in the National South Play-Off Final. After away victories over Slough Town and, last Saturday, favourites Havant and Waterlooville, the Darts have high hopes of claiming a place in the National League.

It’s never dull with King. The Eastbourne-based manager has his admirers and critics in roughly equal measure, but his teams have a style and freshness that always entertains.

Howard Griggs – then of the Sussex Express – and I formed the sum total press corps at his first game, a 4-0 victory down in the lower reaches of the Ryman League. Seven years later, I was covering Rooks’ Conference South title triumph in the magnificent season-long battle with Garry Wilson’s formidable Eastbourne Borough ... arguably, the best two non-league sides that Sussex has ever produced.

Then pastures new, plenty of boardroom battles and touchline tussles – King was once sent off at Priory Lane, and accompanied to the dressing room by a Borough steward who happened to be his next-door neighbour. Only in non-league…

Back in Sussex after exploits elsewhere, King resurrected Whitehawk – an archetypal County League club – and took them on adventures undreamed of, squaring up to Dagenham and Redbridge to come within minutes of an FA Cup third round trip to Everton. I covered that one for BBC Five Live, and it was rather like that moment on a flight at 30,000 feet, suddenly thinking “What are we doing up here…?”

One game at the Dripping Pan saw King's Rooks 0-4 down at half-time – to Waltham Forest, since you ask – only to turn it round and win 5-4. Ridiculous.

But the maddest game of all was an FA Trophy game against, of all people, Weymouth. Steve Claridge was in charge of the Terras, with high-profile media backers and an expensive team, and a jam-packed Dripping Pan saw the two teams, like kids in the playground, swap goals relentlessly all afternoon. Weymouth ran out 8-5 winners, but nobody on the terraces cared.

This Saturday, the terraces down on the Dorset coast will be empty for the closed-doors play-off. “That’s frankly a bonus for us,” observes King. “Weymouth is a tough place to go, with a very partisan crowd. But we are approaching it professionally, staying over on Friday night, and I think we have every chance.

“My own record in play-off finals is the one thing I still need to put right, career-wise. Too many near misses. But in play-offs, the club that wins through is nearly always the club that comes into them with momentum. We are that team. We’ve got stronger and stronger, and we fear nobody.

“Havant should have been the favourites, on strength of squad and experience. But we saw them off. Weymouth had a very good win over Dorking, who have been going strong. I’ve watched them several times over the season, and they are not spectacular but organised and strong. Their close links with AFC Bournemouth have been useful, especially in their loan defenders.

“There are no favourites or underdogs on Saturday. It’s all on the day.”

The Darts are a well-run, well-supported club with superb facilities at their council-owned Princes Park ground, and a history of success. They are even quite handily placed to tackle those long northern trips in the National League, should King pull off a victory.

But before he rode to the rescue last October, the Darts were spiralling downwards. “They were really in the doldrums,” he comments, “fifth from bottom, no self-belief, short of leadership. Tony Burman (Darts long-serving manager) had stepped back and the club was drifting.

“Basically my brief was to keep Dartford in the division. I wasn’t really thinking of the play-offs. My first match in charge, we went out of the FA Cup – but then we had two wins and two draws in the next four games and we started turning it round.”

King will sometimes build a team from scratch – witness the awesome Lewes title-winning side of 2008/9 – but not this time at Dartford. “I did bring in six players, but they complemented the team I took over. We sharpened people up, we got players playing to their strengths.”

What he does is bring in game-changers: impact players like winger Ky Marsh-Brown, who has followed King everywhere, or playmakers like the powerful Jack Jebb – whose goals undid Eastbourne Borough in February, in the only defeat that Danny Bloor’s team suffered in 2020.

Lewes, Farnborough, Macclesfield, Whitehawk, Welling, Triumph and disaster, those two imposters, have each walked football’s beaten paths with King – but more often the former. At every club managed, he has overseen promotions,titles or play-offs, or thrilling cup runs. And even allowing for a few controversies, the balance is still in credit.

The final irony, of course, is that King has never enjoyed a Priory Lane coronation. It is a pretty open secret that, more than once, the vacancy has arisen but his agenda was not quite a fit with those who run the Borough. One day, no doubt, the full story will be told, but for now, King remains Prince of Dartford’s Princes Park. Weymouth beware...