It wasn’t meant to end like this.
After 10 years, spread across some of Dartford’s finest seasons in the club’s history, their inspirational captain Tom Bonner has announced his retirement.
More than six weeks earlier, Bonner was a forlorn figure at his second home, Princes Park. Dartford were beaten in the play-offs. Again. Dartford were knocked out on penalties. Again. Bonner was the captain. Again.
Every year Bonner was driven to get Dartford back to non-league’s top table. He’d dined there in 2012/13 during his first spell at the club.
“When I signed seven years ago back at Dartford, that was all I wanted to do,” explained the 35-year-old. “I had good success at Dartford and I just wanted to get them back to where I believe they belong.”
“In the seven years, minus the Covid year, we’ve lost in the play-offs six times - the last three on penalties. It got to the stage where it was getting harder and harder to take, losing in the play-offs as well. That’s my biggest regret, something I’m going to live with is not getting the club promoted again but it is what it is I’m afraid.”
It’s why Bonner took so long to finally confirm his retirement. Many close to him knew it was more than a possibility.
At least the centre-back goes out on his terms, he deserved that right. It wasn’t a football decision - “I didn’t want to stop playing football” - purely the amount of dedication required to toil away for 10 months, with no guarantee of promotion at the end of it. After all, Bonner knows only too well how close the line is between success and what he’d class as failure.
“It was purely the thought of giving it one more go, lifting the trophy, winning the play-offs,” he reflected. “That’s all I cared about and the thought of doing it all again was hard but the outcome of winning…that’s exactly why it took so long. I just couldn’t commit, it’s a long season, a lot of months, even though the end goal is all I’ve ever really cared about. I just couldn’t do it again.
“It was a tough decision because it wasn’t based on my football ability or how I felt physically. I had a good season, felt physically well and I do believe I’ve got another two, potentially three seasons in me. But it was getting harder to juggle work and football.
“I’m 35 now and going into a business that takes up a lot of my time, especially on weekends. To focus on work I would have to give up football so it got to the stage where I had to look at my football.
“If I can’t give football 100 per cent then I wouldn’t do it, and that was the problem. There would have been nights I miss training, Saturdays when I wouldn’t be available, and it just wasn’t fair on myself or anyone else if that’s how I treated it.
“Towards the end of the season, I had a sit down with my family and said what am I going to do moving forward, I’m not getting any younger. The toughest part was losing in the play-offs as obviously I was so desperate to win the play-offs. I would have happily - and easily - retired then but that sense of unfinished business and not getting the club promoted is what prolonged it so long in the end.
“I always gave it everything but just being captain, being the leader, it always felt that it was on me to get it over the line. I know it’s not all on me, and I personally feel I couldn’t have done anything more in my time, but it’s still going to be a regret unfortunately.”
Only last month, Bonner pointed out he had been named in Team of the Season for seven of his 10 years at Dartford. “I don’t know if I was stroking my ego,” he joked.
But it’s more proof, if any was needed, that Bonner wasn’t winding down his career. He’s been as good as ever.
“You can’t lose pace if you never had it!” he smiled. “Physically I felt brilliant, that’s why the decision to retire has been so tough because I know I can continue to play and I’ve got something to give.
“Obviously Alan Dowson came in last summer, it’s a new manager and new ideas. I thought we worked well together, I liked his way of thinking, his way of playing. I’m not putting it all down to Dowse, I’ve got to give myself some credit but me and Dowse were a great fit. I wanted to play for him and do well for him. It was probably a mixture of him coming in and me looking after myself physically.”
So is Dowson the right man to take Dartford forward? “Absolutely. Without a shadow of a doubt.
“Dowse had a fantastic season last year and finishing second was no mean feat in that league. He gets the best out of players so I’m confident Dartford will have another good season and go one further. The gaffer brought the club together, not just by signing players that got on well, but there was a feel-good factor.
“Everyone appreciated what he did off the pitch, I could tell as soon as I walked in on the first day that it was a happier place. Everyone he signed was a good lad and we had a good bond in the dressing room. I don’t think that’s down to luck, I think Dowse knew what he was doing with the players he was bringing in.
“We lost on penalties but we finished second and lost on penalties in the semi-final of the play-offs. He created everything there for us to get promoted, and I think he’ll do the same again. You can see why he’s had such success in getting clubs promoted.”
And the role Dowson played in trying to convince Bonner to stay for one more year, it appears, was just as impressive, if ultimately also falling just short.
“I told Dowse I was probably going to retire before the season ended,” said Bonner. “I can’t speak highly enough of Dowse, the things he’s said and done to try and get me to stay, I won’t ever forget.
“Every time he’s on the phone to me he’s been trying to talk me out of it, and he’s said some really nice stuff to try and get me to stay.
“Even since I’ve announced my retirement, he’s still called me and tried to talk me out of it. He made me promise that if anything does happen that he’ll be the first person I will call.
“Since retiring I’ve had messages from everyone at the club, everyone has wished me well and told me I’m welcome down there whenever I can. It’s been nice reading some of the messages and getting some of the phone calls I’ve had.
“I want to be at Dartford as much as possible. Obviously, I couldn’t commit to playing but when I’m free and available on a Saturday then I’ll probably be at Dartford. I want to go to as many games as possible, not work for the club as such but to be involved and help out as much as possible. If there’s anything I can do, I want to be a Dartford man still. I want to keep that relationship I’ve had with the fans and the clubs going.”
Bonner has no interest in coaching or management as “that’s not where my interests lie”, although if you put the word Dartford after that statement he might have to think long and hard about it one day.
“I don’t know. I wouldn’t rule anything out. All I would say is I’d do anything Dartford wanted of me. I don’t know, I can’t really answer that. I know I’m not interested in going elsewhere and having a career in management or coaching.”
For Bonner, it really is all or nothing. No-one would begrudge him if he stepped down a few levels and enjoyed a payday in the twilight of his career. It’s not Bonner’s way.
“I’ve never played football for financial gains, if I did I wouldn’t have been at Dartford for 10 years!” Bonner stated. “Since I announced the retirement, I’ve probably had 12 offers. It’s been crazy. I thought everyone would wish me well and leave me alone but my phone has not stopped with lower-league managers.
“I said to them if I would carry on playing football, I would stay at Dartford. I’ve not retired for any other reason than I have to. It was Dartford or nothing for me, I’ve never had any intention of playing any levels below, no disrespect to those clubs or managers.”
Bonner’s been a figurehead for so many years at Dartford, he’s proud of his longevity and has so many great memories from that first season in the National League under Tony Burman after their 2012 Play-off Final win over neighbours Welling United.
“I was thinking about that the other day,” Bonner admits when asked about his durability. “I had 10 seasons at Dartford and one was affected by Covid. If you look at my average, I’ve averaged 50 games a season over the course of 10 seasons.
“I don’t think that’s gone under the radar in an achievement in itself but me personally, that’s where I can look back and say I gave it everything through good times and bad, good form and bad form, I had the shirt and was playing.
“I don’t think people realise how important that is, especially for a manager to have a player who is there through thick and thin. That’s one of the things I look back on with most fondness to be fair, how many games I played.
“Obviously winning promotion and beating Welling in the play-off final. Then the year we had in the National League there were so many highlights, little old Dartford in there with some fantastic performances, like Luton away, Wrexham away, Cambridge away.
“I think that’s where my fondest memories were and that’s what kept me going for so long, trying to get back to that level of football with the club. I’ve loved every minute, obviously it’s hard when you lose in play-offs and don’t get promoted, it’s hard to have that fondness.”
There is “one last dance” as Bonner puts it to come, though. Quite rightly, he’s been granted a testimonial by co-chairman Steve Irving, a game likely to take place at the start of next season.
“Steve Irving granted me a testimonial about six months ago and Dowse has said he’d help me organise it. So hopefully me, Dowse and the club can organise the testimonial and I’ll have one last dance, if you will.”