The manager of Hawks’ play-off semi-final opponents was once sacked for being too successful
Now Steve King has Hawks in his sights as he attempts to continue a remarkable record in the sixth tier of English football.
King took over at Dartford - who visit Westleigh Park this Saturday in the National League South play-off semi-final - at the beginning of October last year.
He replaced Jamie Coyle and Adam Flanagan, who had resigned as joint-managers following a 3-2 defeat at Tonbridge the previous month.
When King arrived at Princes Park, the Kent club were sixth bottom after 12 games. When the season was halted in mid-March, however, they were sitting sixth top.
A run of 14 wins in 22 South matches had transformed Dartford’s season. When lockdown was imposed, they were top of the form table with 10 wins in 13 games.
That run was extended to 11 victories in 14 matches last Sunday when King masterminded a 3-0 win at Slough in the play-off quarter-final at Arbour Park.
After a goalless first half, goals from Charlie Sheringham (2) and sub Luke Wanadio booked the Darts a trip to the south coast.
In many ways, Dartford’s rise under King is no surprise. A quick look at his CV shows an impressive track record - the best by any manager in the top two tiers of modern day non-league football.
After managing Dulwich Hamlet’s youth team, he was promoted to assistant manager of the first team in 2001.
In the summer of 2003 - when he was 35 - he was appointed Lewes boss and guided the Sussex club to the Isthmian Division 1 South title in his first season. King then oversaw a successful play-off campaign that landed the Sussex club in the newly-formed Conference South.
King led Lewes to fourth place finishes in both 2004/05 and 2005/06 but on both occasions they were denied a play-off place due to the facilities at their quaintly-named Dripping Pan ground.
In 2007/08, though, King masterminded what remains his only promotion from the sixth tier - Lewes winning the Conference South.
Remarkably, he was then sacked - basically because of his success - and controversially replaced by someone with no previous managerial experience, Brighton & Hove Albion commercial manager Kevin Keehan.
Lewes director Kevin Powell, explaining the decision back then, said: ‘One thing I think is important is that at no time has Steve King been asked to get us promotion.
‘He's created the problem, if you like - and I don't mean this in a negative way - because he's been so successful.’
Lewes’ promotion-winning team was instantly broken up with a number of players moving to Hawks.
King had a short spell at Northwich Victoria before signing a two-year contract at Farnborough.
His first season there saw them promoted as Southern League champions in 2009/10 - scoring 100 goals and collecting 95 points - before they finished runners-up in the Conference South in 2010/11.
They subsequently lost the play-off final 4-2 at home to Ebbsfleet United - the first of his three successive sixth tier play-off final defeats.
King returned for a second spell at Lewes in the summer of 2011 but parted company with the club the following January by mutual consent following an internal investigation.
He was appointed Macclesfield Town boss in the summer of 2012, the Silkmen having just been relegated back to non-league football.
After taking them to the fourth round of the FA Cup in 2012/13 - they lost to eventual winners Wigan Athletic - his contract was terminated.
He was back in Sussex non-league football in January 2014, replacing Darren Ferguson as manager at Whitehawk.
The Brighton-based club only avoided a bottom three finish on the final day when Dover scored a late penalty to beat Hayes & Yeading.
H & Y duly finished in the final relegation slot, a point below Whitehawk but with a better goal difference, but were granted a reprieve from the drop when Hereford United were kicked off for financial reasons.
In King’s first full season in charge, he oversaw a stunning improvement - the club reaching the play-off final but losing to Boreham Wood, who had previously knocked Hawks out at the semi-final stage.
King left in February 2016 but returned in September 2017 with the club anchored to the foot of the Conference South without a win to their name. It would take them until New Year’s Day to register their first success, but after that they were third in the form table. The damage had been done, though, and King was unable to stave off relegation.
King left at the end of 2017/18 and was appointed Welling manager. In his only season he won the London Senior Cup - the first time Welling had lifted it in 29 years - and again reached the South play-off final, after finishing third in the league, losing 1-0 at Woking.
It was the sixth time he had led a club to a top six place in the sixth tier - having done it three times with Lewes and once with Farnborough, Whitehawk and Welling.
That enviable record has now been extended to seven after overseeing Dartford’s transformation, with Hawks standing between King and a fourth South play-off final in 10 seasons.
King is under contract at the Darts until 2022 and wants to take the club back to the top tier of non-league football - they finished eighth in the National League as recently as 2013.
‘The club has got great potential,’ said King. ‘The ground is probably the best in the division.
‘When I met the directors, they said they wanted to go back up. Sometimes I’ve been at clubs and they don’t really want to go up so that was great to hear.
‘I want longevity. I really want to stay at a club for a long time and build something.’
This weekend’s Westleigh Park clash pits two highly-experienced managers head to head.
‘Me and Kingy go back 20 years, when he was at Lewes and I was at Eastleigh,’ said Hawks boss Paul Doswell. ‘We’ve had very similar careers - a few promotions, a few good cup runs.
‘He knows this level inside out. He’s a full time manager so he can go and watch the under-23 games in the morning, and watch games in the evening.
‘I know he’s been accused of massively over-spending, but you can only spend what your chairman is prepared to give you.
‘He’s always been able to attract good quality players.
‘Dartford were sixth bottom when Kingy took over. Now they will be considered by some people as the favourites to go up.
‘We are very similar; I am not sure Kingy is really a coach and nor am I - we get other people in for that.’