Three matches in three days, would I do it or not? Somehow I did manage to cram these important matches in, but more remarkably was the fact I survived on a diet of two pasties and a sandwich and just ten hours sleep. I racked up a total of 270 miles, saw four red cards and some fantastic matches.
Darlington’s play-off semi-final against local rivals Spennymoor was the second of the three matches, having seen Curzon Ashton beat cross town rivals Ashton United on penalties the evening before. Tickets were hard to come by, so a big thanks goes to Ash who kindly sorted me and Paul out for this sell out.
Darlington FC was founded in 1883, when a meeting was organised at Darlington Grammar School. There were concerns that only a handful of the area’s local clubs were entering the Durham Challenge Cup, so it was decided to amalgamate the smaller clubs and form a single big one. The club went on to become founding members of the Northern League in 1889.
Feethams was the home of the club from the time of their formation, all the way through to 2003 when it all began to go wrong. George Reynolds – a local businessman – funded and built the 25,000 seater Darlington Arena, which at the time was named the Reynolds Stadium.
The stadium was one of the largest outside the Premier League but just months after it was opened, Reynolds took the club into administration and left the club. The man who once claimed he would take Darlington into the Premier League was arrested a few months later for money laundering.
On the pitch, The Quakers were relegated to the Conference in 2010. This meant the Arena was the largest venue ever seen at that level of football, and with dwindling crowds averaging around 2,000 it was never going to be sustainable.
Hopes of returning to the Football League were quashed in 2011 when the club were placed into administration for the third time in less than a decade. Players were sold off and the club avoided liquidation at the last minute thanks to donations from supporters groups. Darlington saw out the season, but were relegated from the Conference with three matches to spare.
Darlington were relegated four divisions to the Northern League Division One after recommendation from the FA. Controversially, the authorities stipulated that the club would be treated as a brand new club and would not be able to keep the Darlington FC name. With no other choice and with a deadline looming, the fans opted to name the club Darlington 1883. In March 2013, the fans gained a majority share in the club meaning it is now 100% fan owned.
Starting off life in the Northern League Division One, the clubs main rivals were Spennymoor Town, who had won the title three years in a row but had refused to apply for promotion. Darlington won the league in their inaugural season, amassing a total of 122 points, 13 more than Spennymoor who ironically missed out on promotion.
The Quakers moved into the Evo-Stik Division One North and they finished 2nd in their first season, finishing nine points behind runaway league winners Curzon Ashton. Darlington lost 2-0 at home to eventual play-off winners Ramsbottom United in the semi-final.
Fast forward a year and Darlington were back in the play-off semi-finals, and this time they were up against Spennymoor Town who had finally made the step up from the Northern League. In the regular season, Darlington once again finished second, this time coming four points behind champions Salford City. Spennymoor on the other hand finished fifth, sneaking into the play-offs just ahead of Scarborough Athletic and Mossley.
The match was taking place at Bishop Auckland’s Heritage Park, where Darlington had groundshared since leaving the Darlington Arena. I had been to Heritage Park once already this season when Darlo beat Harrogate Railway Athletic 7-1. A hat-trick from Amar Purewal took him to 50 goals for the club, while Nathan Cartman – who later moved to Darlington – was up front for Harrogate.
Having had a day in school on placement, I caught the train to Thirsk from York where I met Paul. I hadn’t had chance to head back to my student abode, so I arrived in Bishop Auckland still in my suit, fearing that I was going to freeze by the end of the night.
We parked up in the industrial estate close to the ground and made our way around to Sainsburys for our tea. They were completely wiped out and my outlook for evening became even more dire. Cold, hungry and dressed like a tit I met Ash outside the ground where she handed over our tickets. Ingeniously, she had stapled the various parts of the tickets together as they were falling apart.
Segregation was in place for this match, so after heading through the Darlington turnstiles I met up with club photographer Tim who had got me a matchday programme. I maintain that ‘The Quaker’ is the best programme I have bought this season at any level of football, so well done to all those involved.
The club bar which is found in the upstairs bit of the main stand at Heritage Park was crammed full of people trying to get warm. I needed a cup of tea, so headed over to Ash and Charlotte where I was served my second weak brew of the season. I was then told by Charlotte that I looked like “an evacuee” before I was then questioned by an inquisitive woman as to where I was from as my odd accent obviously didn’t sound familiar.
With the ground filling up slightly, Paul and I decided to head out to find a place to stand. We were close to the segregation when an almighty gust of wind blew my ticket out of my hand. Of course, I’m a self confessed anorak, so I wanted to retrieve my memento of the evening before it was blown into the Sainsburys petrol forecourt. In my suit, I hurdled the fence and walked on to the pitch to grab it. I checked with the police officers first; I’m not a hooligan.
We eventually settled with standing behind the goal at the Darlington end of the ground, where there was some serious abuse being directed in the direction of Spennymoor manager Jason Ainsley. Not only is Ainsley the manager of Spennymoor, but he also played for Hartlepool which did him no favours. Also in the firing line was former Darlington defender Joe Tait, who ended up equalising for Spennymoor early in the second half.
1,987 were in attendance to watch what I consider to the best match I have seen all season. The ground only holds 2,005 and with segregation in place, this was reduced, meaning it was a full house. Admittedly, far more people could have been crammed into the ground but it could have become a bit dangerous if everybody piled at one end.
Darlington, in their black and white hoops attacked the end where the Spennymoor fans were congregated. However, it was the visitors who had the first chance of the match when Shane Henry got round the back of the Darlo defence and pulled the ball back into the middle, but Alan White got the ball away.
The home fans had to wait until the 11 minute mark for their first sight at goal. Gary Brown ran down the right and crossed the ball low into the six yard box, where Graeme Armstrong could only scuff his shot wide.
There was another chance eight minutes later when Nathan Cartman turned on the edge of the box before hitting the ball just over the crossbar. It was a sign of intent from Cartman who was the leagues top goalscorer, having become the talked about striker in the league when he was at Harrogate earlier in the campaign.
Already turning into a classic, the match began to receive the blood and thunder challenges which it was craving. Darlington’s Leon Scott went in late on Lewis Dodds, resulting in players from both sides participating in a testosterone fuelled scuffle in the middle of the pitch.
From the resulting free kick Andrew Stephenson won the ball in the Darlington area. He sidestepped a challenge and smashed the ball against the crossbar from a tight angle.
Spennymoor were on the attack again just moments later. Shane Henry pressured Leon Scott in the middle of the pitch and the ball made its way into the Darlington half. Such was the spin on the ball Alan White was unable to gain control of it, allowing Gavin Cogdon to capitalise. The former Durham City striker carried the ball forward and played it into Nathan Fisher who dragged the ball inches wide of the right hand corner.
Darlington opened the scoring on the stroke of half time. Gary Brown crossed in from the right hand side and Graeme Armstrong threw his body towards the ball, heading it into the back of the net. Heritage Park erupted and half time arrived and what ensued became the best half of football anybody could ask for.
An equaliser arrived on 60 minutes. Andrew Stephenson swung in a deep ball to the back post where Paul Johnson volleyed it back across the face of goal. It made its way back to Stephenson, who had a second attempt at getting the ball into a dangerous area. This time it caused confusion in the six yard box and Joe Tait was on hand to scramble the ball over the line.
A wonder goal gave Spennymoor the lead on 76 minutes when Liam Henderson headed on a long throw from the halfway line. The ball made its way to substitute Michael Roberts who curled the ball into the top right hand corner on the volley, from the edge of the box.
Darlington manager Martin Gray made an inspired substitution three minutes after his side fell behind. With his side winning a corner, he withdrew Stephen Thompson and replaced him with Liam Hatch. The corner was swung in and having been on the pitch less than ten seconds Hatch headed the ball into the bottom left hand corner.
Moors nearly regained the lead minutes later when Kallum Griffiths hit what would have been a goal of the season contender. The defender received the ball on the half way line, flicked it over the pressuring Darlington player and volleyed it towards goal from 40 yards out. Goalkeeper Peter Jameson was beaten, but the crossbar saved Darlington again.
With a minute remaining David Dowson hit a long ball forward for Graeme Armstrong to chase. With a lot of work to do, he took the ball around Paul Johnson before holding play up. Waiting for the Darlington strikers to catch up Armstrong played the ball to Dowson on the edge of the box who passed it into the bottom left hand corner. Queue mass celebrations around Heritage Park. On a personal level, I received various elbows to the head and fell down the terracing amidst the wild scenes around me.
It took a while for the match to resume due to a smoke bomb being set off behind the goal, while one wally took it upon himself to climb up the goalposts. Fortunately for the home fans, not much longer remained and they saw the match out. Martin Gray ran on to the pitch and slid in front of the Darlo fans. That’s how much it meant to everybody.
Mobile phone and internet signals had all but failed when the winning goal went in, meaning I had lost Paul. I ventured back to the car, where fortunately he was sat waiting for me. News came through from the other play off semi-final that Bamber Bridge had beaten Northwich Victoria to set up the final at Heritage Park just four days later. A logistical nightmare for tickets, but one I’m sure everybody at Darlington relished.
The play-off final saw Darlington beat Bamber Bridge 2-0 thanks to goals from Nathan Cartman and Graeme Armstrong, meaning that they will play in the Evo-Stik Northern Premier next season alongside the likes of Buxton, Skelmersdale United and Matlock Town.
Plans are in place to move back to Darlington in the coming months, with a groundshare with Darlington RUFC taking place. Blackwell Meadows will require car park work, a clubhouse expansion and other things altering to bring it up to FA ground grading standards, but it is a move in the right direction and it means that Darlington are going home after years of exile.
Match of the season, enjoyed in the company of fans who deserve more respect than they get. FC United seem to receive all the plaudits for fan ownership and running their own club, but Darlington fans deserve this too. Years of being messed around, starting from the bottom on their own and taking the club back to the town. Well done to everybody involved and thanks for another fantastic evening.
- DISTANCE TRAVELLED TO GROUND: 66 miles
- ADMISSION: £10
- PROGRAMME PRICE: £2.50