Darlington – Saturday January 28th 2012

'Can't think of anything remotely funny to say about this...'

…and so it comes to pass that I do the right and proper thing on Saturday January 28th, becoming a ‘No-Show’ on the National Express from Loughborough to London, and very possibly disappointing hoards of Enfield Town fans curious to know how a ‘groundhopper’ might view their club.

Instead I encourage the lad to get out of his pit and switch off his X-Box, we commandeer the wife’s motor (more economical than mine) and set off on our two-hour, 130-mile motorway jaunt to the North-East of England, to do our bit for a desperate football club.

A bit of history. Back in the late 1990s, after leaving the last of the pubs I was running and gulping the fresh air of freedom, I decided to rekindle a passing interest I had in Darlington Football Club. This in itself went back to 1988 when, in one of my earlier spells of serial groundhopping, I had chanced upon Feethams where the bottom-of-Division-Four home team were up against division higher Oldham in the League Cup. The ground was buzzing, as were Darlo, who won 2-0. I vowed to return, and did so later that season amongst a crowd of 7,000 or so only to see them lose to relegation rivals Colchester and head unerringly for the Football League trapdoor.

Several years later, and free of the shackles of the pubs, I turned up at an away game at Doncaster’s Belle Vue, had a chat with Steve Harland, the guy who produced the legendary Mission Impossible fanzine, and was put in touch with a gang who regularly motored up to Feethams from the Midlands. And for several seasons I more or less became a Darlo fanatic, going home and away, including frosty January night games. The arrival of kids slowed me down a tad, but I was still active when George Reynolds pitched up and moved the club out of town. Maybe we thought it might be a good thing. Doesn’t look quite so good now.

Having stopped breathing on ‘Black’ Wednesday January 18th, the application of some financial CPR has fed some life back into the ‘corpse’ and the club gets to live – or die – another day. Last Saturday about 5,500 (official figures) answered the call against Fleetwood. Today we intend to be amongst the second wave to see Darlo take on York.

We arrive outside the stadium at around 12.15 and get the pick of the car park. There’s already a fair few folk buzzing around, but we take advantage of the early arrival to buy tickets, have a quick look round the club shop – understandably low on stock given the uncertain future – before walking the mile and a half or so into town to take in the old sights, and treat the lad to the Wetherspoons lunch which was part of the deal to entice him out of the house. The William Stead is just off the town centre, and is pretty busy, but we grab a window seat and I sample a pint of Blindmans Mine Beer, not exactly a LocAle brew (from Somerset), but pleasant enough to wash down a Veggie Brunch.

Before taking the free bus (courtesy of Arriva) back to the stadium, we do a bit of sightseeing, past the Pennyweight pub in the Market Place, which was our watering hole in Feethams days, and then the 200-yard walk down to the cricket ground, which has outlived its footballing neighbour. Through gaps in the fence I point out the Tin Shed, the covered terrace which still survives to preside over a blank space where once traditional floodlight towers, an uncovered bank of terracing, a £3.2m stand, and a host of memories used to live. Oh, and the grottiest toilets in the football league, who could forget those?

Nostalgia trip over, we catch the bus back to the Arena, and take a tour of the outside of the ground, noting how quickly the car park seems to have filled. Once inside, we feel for the single chap manning the drinks bar, hoping that just occasionally the queue will come to an end. It doesn’t. We take our seats, and admire the contours of the Arena, which apart from some boxes in the South stand, is pretty symetrical all round. Exactly half of the ground is open, and nearly 7,000 punters – including lots of youngsters and nearly 1,500 fans from visitors York – are in residence.

I remember going with Darlo to York shortly after George Reynolds had taken over. We were ‘Loadsamoney’ but struggling City were introducing their own ‘saviour’ to the crowd, a racing tycoon called John Batchelor, as I recall. Things didn’t work out exactly as planned. You can read more about this period in York City’s life by putting the above key words into Wikipedia. Little wonder that the visiting York fans have some sympathy for their Darlo counterparts today. We’ve all been there!

Darlo start the game with more than half of the squad aged under 19. When they have the ball their attacks are incisive but high-flying York are jealous of possession and much of the first half is uninspiring. That is until a free kick is turned into the York net just before the interval and the home fans build up a head of steam. A second, by 19-year old John McReady, early in the second half, puts Darlo further in the driving seat, but York step up the pace, notch two in a minute, and have the better of the closing stages. Most home fans are happy with the point.

As we pick our way out of the car park, the underlying question is ‘Will we ever be doing this again.’ There’s a plan on the table that would see the club stay at the Arena. My personal feeling is this should only be a short term measure, and that all interested parties must thrash out a strategy that would see the stadium site redeveloped, a new more-manageable ground built for Darlo (back at Feethams? We can dream) and the club live within its means. Oh, and be part-owned by the supporters.

Although I’m first-and-foremost a Forest fan – and we have our own problems – I’m sure I’d buy into that.

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