Published: 21:27, 10 May 2018
| Updated: 22:04, 10 May 2018
Right to the very end, Tony Burman put Dartford Football Club first.
Burman’s resignation on Thursday, after 14 years in charge, marks the start of a summer of major change at Princes Park following the Darts’ failure to secure promotion to the National League.
With some players calling time on their Dartford careers and others attracting interest from rival clubs, this is definitely the end of an era and while Burman could have stuck around and tried to build another team, tried to galvanise the club after two years of play-off disappointment, he knew his time was up.
Burman has given everything to Dartford. He is their record goalscorer, longest-serving manager and has overseen the huge growth of their youth system to the point where there is a clear player pathway from primary school age all the way into the first team.
For example, Ebou Adams’ transfer to Norwich City, then a Premier League club, would not have happened without Burman’s foresight and passion for the development of young players.
He was, and still is, Mr Dartford. But all good things come to an end.
And boy, were there some good moments along the way.
Burman led Darts to three promotions in five years as they climbed from Ryman League Division 1 North to the Conference Premier - and the ride didn’t stop there.
Dartford finished 2012/13 as the highest-ranked part-time team in England having taken the scalps of Newport, Hereford, Grimsby, Mansfield, Luton (twice), Macclesfield, Stockport and Forest Green. They also reached the semi-finals of the FA Trophy.
Burman’s stock was high but he stayed at Dartford when opportunities arose to move on.
And what happened next said more about him than any of those great results or glory nights.
Dartford suffered relegation two years running but in the tough times, Burman’s commitment to the cause only increased. He went full-time as manager and spent so much time at the ground he might as well have moved in.
Defeats hurt, and at one point there were 10 in a row, but Burman never hid. He never ducked an interview, never shirked his responsibilities, always vowed to keep working hard.
Hard work. Two words which epitomised a Tony Burman side, the one thing he always demanded, whatever the form of his players or the mood around the stadium.
Burman’s loyalty was mirrored by his best players: Elliot Bradbrook, Ryan Hayes, Lee Noble and Danny Harris, who stood by their manager through thick and thin. Even after tough seasons, contract talks only took five minutes. “Where do I sign, Tone?”
That core quartet, which will finally break up this summer, brought varying qualities to the Dartford side (the languid flair of Hayes, the indefatigable drive of Bradbrook) but they all shared one thing in common with Burman: integrity.
Burman’s players didn’t just want to win, they wanted to do things right, this was about more than football matches. Playing for Tony Burman’s Dartford was a lifestyle: if you were in, you were all in.
In all my time covering the Darts, across hundreds of interviews with Burman, he never bad-mouthed another club or manager, never burned bridges with old players, never let football matters skew his perspective on life.
Burman had dignity and desire in equal measure, a total gentleman but utterly focused on making Dartford successful again. He couldn’t afford to sign superstars but wouldn’t have chosen them anyway. It was effort over ego every time. Bad characters never made it as far as the changing-room.
The respect Burman has from his peers was evident in the wake of his resignation. Messages came flooding in from other Kent clubs, from ex-players, supporters, from just about everywhere.
“I’m proud of what I’ve done and proud of the guys who have worked with me,” said Burman when he reached 10 years in charge of Dartford in 2015. “When I do hand over, the club will be a better place for a new man to take over.”
It certainly is - and the time for change feels right.
Burman took criticism personally and this season there was a constant underlying narrative of his frustration at the vibes coming from the terraces. His use of leading scorer Alfie Pavey caused pages and pages of forum debate, which eventually boiled over in the final game of the season.
Pavey, suffering with cramp, was substituted 10 minutes from the end of Dartford’s play-off semi-final against Braintree but the change prompted one supporter to scream abuse at Burman from just a few yards away.
Taking stick comes with the territory as a football manager but it seemed to have worn Burman down this season. He could have dug his heels in and stuck around to prove people wrong again but when it came to the biggest decision of his managerial career, the club - as always - came first.
Tony Burman, as Dartford manager, only ever treated others with respect.
He deserves nothing less in return.
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