Published: 16:55, 06 May 2018
| Updated: 07:05, 07 May 2018
Dartford’s hopes of a return to the National League were left in tatters on Sunday.
Having missed out on the league title on goal-difference, Darts were given a second chance with a home play-off against Braintree Town.
But they blew it at Princes Park as Billy Crook's goal consigned them to a fourth consecutive season in the South division.
Dartford boss Tony Burman made three changes to team which started at Bognor on the final day of the regular season. Duane Ofori-Acheampong was preferred to Andy Pugh in attack while Nathan Collier and Alex Brown returned at right-back and central midfield respectively. Danny Harris and Ryan Hayes dropped to the bench.
Ofori-Acheampong's inclusion was clearly a ploy to match up Braintree's big backline as he took the central striker role between Alfie Pavey and Danny Mills.
There were hands on heads in the visiting technical area when Marc-Anthony Odoye sent a free header over from a corner, although that was at least closer than a wild Lee Noble strike from distance at the other end.
Quality was at a premium in the early stages as both teams tried to assert themselves physically. After a few rough challenges, Braintree's Reece Grant was the first player into the book for catching Noble late.
The home side should have taken the lead on 22 minutes when Noble's free-kick from the left dropped near the penalty spot but Nathan McDonald pulled off a great save to thwart Elliot Bradbrook.
Play started to open up and when Braintree broke at pace, Diaz Wright's cross from the left almost picked out Billy Crook, arriving late at the far post.
Marcel Barrington then cut inside from the left but dragged his low shot wide of the near post.
Back came Dartford, with Bradbrook playing in Mills down the inside-left channel. Mills raced into the box but McDonald saved with his feet and when Mark Onyemah delivered the ball back into the box, Ofori-Acheampong headed well wide of the near post.
Crook drove a shot across the face of Dartford's goal before the home side had shouts for a penalty turned down. Noble did well to win the ball near the byline and when Ricky Gabriel made a hash of his clearance, the ball appeared to bounce up and strike him on the arm but referee Lloyd Wood wasn't convinced.
Ronnie Vint gifted Braintree a shooting opportunity when he clumsily barged into Barrington just outside the penalty area but Luke Allen's free-kick was straight into the wall and Crook's follow-up deflected wide.
Dartford passed up another good chance four minutes before half-time. Bradbrook did well to win the ball in midfield, Noble sent Mills haring down the left and he did well to dig out a left-footed cross which Pavey headed wide of the far post.
But the first big chance of the second half fell to Braintree. Dan Thompson sent Reece Grant clean through with only Berti Schotterl to beat but the keeper was quickly off his line and made a crucial saving tackle as Grant tried to go round him.
That lifted Iron and their orange-clad supporters. Dartford failed to clear a corner and when Josh Hill helped the ball back into the danger zone, Okoye looped a header over.
Braintree were enjoying a good spell and Burman responded by sending on Hayes for Ofori-Acheampong with an hour played.
But still the momentum was with the visitors and Allen forced a low save from Schotterl after being allowed to walk into space in the Dartford box.
Jonathan Muleba drilled a cross-shot high and wide moments later but again it was too easy for Braintree to get into a good attacking position.
The warnings were there but Dartford failed to heed them. Braintree put the ball into the box again on 72 minutes and when the home side failed to clear their lines, Crook stabbed the ball into the net.
Wright powered a shot wide as the Darts struggled to stem the tide and frustration began to spread around the ground.
There were some boos when leading scorer Pavey was taken off with 10 minutes to go and Dartford run out of ideas as the clocked ticked down.
Tom Murphy's deep cross was volleyed wide by Hayes but the hosts didn't force a single save from McDonald in the second half as Braintree held on with relative ease.
Dartford: Schotterl, Collier, Onyemah, Bonner, Vint, Brown (Pugh 80mins), Noble, Bradbrook, Pavey (Murphy 80mins), Ofori-Acheampong (Hayes 60mins), Mills. Subs not used: Harris, Ibrahim.
Braintree: McDonald, Muleba, Gabriel, Hill, Okoye, Wright, Allen (Acorige 90mins), Crook, Grant (Michael-Percil 59mins), Thompson, Barrington (Wyatt 84mins). Subs not used: Frimpong, Bettache.
More by this authorSteve Tervet