Well this was a bit of ground hopping with a difference for me. Although I’ve always been primarily a Newcastle United fan, used to go and watch Darlington play whenever I wasn’t watching Spennymoor play. I’ve seen Darlington with the great partnership of David Speedie and Alan Walsh play upfront. They both went onto play for bigger clubs. David Speedie playing for Chelsea and later Blackburn Rovers. When he was at Blackburn Rovers his actions and the police reaction resulted in my making a formal complaint to the then Police Complaints Authority! That was the best part of 30 years ago when they were at Darlington.
Since then Darlington have been out of the football league, back in, up to the 3rd tier of English football, back down to the Football Conference, and now find themselves playing in level 9 of English Football. The FA do not recognise Darlington 1883 (their operating name now) as being the same club as the one I used to watch.
I am not going to recite the history of repeated administrations Darlington have faced. Nor am I going to repeat the tales of how George Reynolds built a new stadium on the outskirts of the town and moved the club their from the much loved Feethams ground they rented from the local cricket club in the town centre.
Feethams was known to some as The Wembley of the North as the entrance way was under the twin towers see below.
I remember watching Darlington hold Manchester City to a draw in the FA Cup back in the late 1990s. Indeed Darlington are also the only club I am aware of who lost in the FA Cup 2nd round yet played in the 3rd round without their 2nd round opponents being thrown out of the competition. In 1999-2000 season, Manchester United did not take part in the FA Cup as they were playing in the World Club Championships. This left a shortage of teams in 3rd round so they allowed one of the sides knocked out in the 2nd round to re enter the 3rd round. The so called lucky losers were Darlington who were drawn away at Aston Villa in the 3rd round. I went to this game with my father and my son. It was a slightly surreal game as there were 3 sets of supporters in the ground. Obviously Villa and Darlington fans together with a few hundred Cardiff fans whose away game had been called off so they went to this game. Darlington went down 2-1 that day and did themselves proud.
Darlington moved out of Feethams in 2003 into the Arena. This was a 25,000 seated stadium that everyone but George Reynolds thought was too big for the club.. It helped to hasten the club’s 3 recent visits to administration.
The last time I saw Darlington play was only 18 months ago in the Conference National game at Hayes & Yeading. That was just days before they won the FA Trophy at Wembley. I remember celebrating in the USA whilst on the Police Unity Tour after hearing that news.
Spennymoor like Darlington have had to effectively reform after financial problems. Some 7 years ago now for Spennymoor. Like Darlington they cannot use their name of choice, now being known as Spennymoor Town rather than UNITED, whereas Darlington are now known as Darlington 1883 much to the dismay of both sets of fans, but such are the FA rules.
I have taken time off work and driven 300 miles from Essex to be at this game, such is the importance of the game to both clubs.So to tonight to be watching Darlington now playing at Level 9 of English football against Spenymoor Town is a bit of a reality check..Many Darlington fans will object to me saying this, but Darlington are effectively a new club being created from nothing in the summer of 2012. They are playing their home games at Heritage Park, Bishop Auckland. I visited there back in April 2011 for the Bishop V Spennymoor game in its inaugural season. Then the pitch resembled a beach.
Tonight the weather should have made the pitch resemble the sea. It had rained heavily most of the day and I have to say I was pleasantly surprised at the state of the pitch for this top of the table clash. Darlington are top of the table, some seven points ahead of Spennymoor, but having played 5 games more. Spennymoor are unbeaten still in the league this season, but are still competing in numerous cup competitions whereas Darlington only have the league to aim for. Darlington have made it clear they want to gain promotion this season. There is only one promotion space available from the Northern League and Spennymoor have also applied.
The crowd tonight, on a wet windy night was an incredible 1832. This was Darlington’s highest home crowd of the season so far. There were in the region of 300+ Spennymoor fans. There is one covered/ partially covered end at Heritage Park. The Darlington faithful have adopted it at their new “Tin Shed” which was the covered end at Darlington. Unlike most Northern League fans they do not change ends at half time. They made plenty of noise, but sadly they have fallen into the mistake that a drum is part of the atmosphere at football. If you want noise to football, sing & shout. It is slightly ironic that the Darlington fans do not change ends at half time, as Feethams was one of the last grounds in the Football League where you could change ends at half time. It gave the ground character.
The main stand at Darlington home games is only available to season ticket holders. Here again, Darlington have done things differently with an increased price for seated season tickets compared to standing ones. Darlington also decided to pay for and install temporary seating behind the other goal. This seating was uncovered, and tonight it was not used. Who wants to sit in the pouring rain? I understand that this seating has been a bit underused all season.. People voting with their feet at the cost of £2 extra for seating on top of the £8 admission charge – most Northern League clubs charge £5 or £6 for seating/ standing admission.
The issue for me about the seating is the location of it. It means that no one is allowed to stand behind the goal at that end. This is where most fans like to go. It would have perhaps been better to site the seating along the touchline – if there was sufficient space there.
I would love to comment on the quality of the programme at the game, and would have done so if i had seen anyone selling them. I do not know if they had run out or if the programme sellers were lacking in visibility.
There were only 1 set of toilets available that were visible. I think there may have been a second set in the main stand, but I am not sure. This is insufficient in my view for the size of the crowds Darlington get. I’m sure that Darlington would do something about it if it was their own ground. As it is Bishop only get 250 or so at home games, so the toilet facilities are more than sufficient for their crowds.
The ground itself as far it goes is excellent. The main stand has great facilities in it and is used to raise monies for Bishop on a non match day. It only runs part of the side of the ground.
Apart from the Main Stand & the covered terrace at one end, the rest of the ground is both open to the elements and consists of a narrow tarmac path, no terracing there. There is grass behind this path and provides room for expansion should the need arise.
The game itself was a cracking example of Northern League football and was of a far higher standard than that shown at Enfield Town v Thurrock a couple of weeks ago – a level 7 game. Both these two sides could compete at a much higher leve3l on this showing. I am not going to write a review of the game as it would be subjective & biased and there are any number of these available already on message boards. A draw was a fair result and it would have been harsh on either side to have come away with nothing from the game. I would say that a draw was better for Spenymoor than Darlington as it was an away point and they have games in hand on Darlington. The season is only half over, so there is a long way to go and there will be numerous twists and turns during the season.
So, what do I make of the first visit to see Darlington at their 3rd different home.
1. Large & (relatively) vocal support. The Tin Shed makes for a decent amount of noise. Shame about the drum. I have seen more noise made by less fans at some grounds, but at home games below the Conference I have not seen as much noise.
2. The uncovered seats behind the goal – a mistake in their location, if not in having them at all. It seems that Darlington fans have mixed views about them. I would have preferred them to be down the touchline and to be covered.
3. Fantastic to see so many kids at the game. This has got to augur well for the future of Darlington. Too many clubs in non league football do not have the young fans coming in. Get them young and you will keep at least some of them.
4. The club will not remain at this level for very long. If they do not win promotion this season, they will do so next season without a doubt.
5. Darlington will only be in the Northern Premier League Division 1 for one season. The side they have put together in 6 months is a strong one and is getting stronger by the month. By the time they get to this level they will have an even stronger side. Darlington have an income via the gate of many times that of any other club, in terms of the number of fans, the higher prices they charge for admission, seats, car parking etc.
6. Darlington will I expect rise rapidly up the pyramid to at least conference North level, if not all the way back to the football league. The moving to the next level will greatly reduce the away following Darlington get as games will be much further afield- Cheshire instead of Tyneside. There is no reason to think promotion will significantly affect their home gates though.
7. One thing that does not do Darlington any favours at all is the attitude of a minority of their supporters who seem to vacillate between believing the world is against them and believing everything is done to hurt their club and then vacillating to the belief their club invented football at this level. Nonsense such as suggesting at the start of the season that they would have won the league by February or that any game against their club is the biggest game in the history of the opposition. This sort of arrogance/ self pity will put people off supporting the club or wishing them well. It does a great dis service to the many sensible die hard fans the club has.
8. I am left pondering one particular scenario. Darlington do not have their own home and currently play at Bishop Auckland’s ground. AFC Wimbledon were like this when they started playing at Kingstonian’s ground. They were also a fan owned club who aggressively priced their games like Darlington are. AFC Wimbledon eventually bought Kingstonian’s ground. It provided the base for AFC Wimbledon to rise up to the Football League. Kingstonian is several miles from Wimbledon. Could it be the case that Darlington, if they cannot find a new ground in Darlington, eventually buy Heritage Park: It has the potential to be developed easily into a football league grade ground with an already excellent pitch.
One final point is I’d like to welcome Stu, Steve and Jack to the delights of Northern League football instead of Premiership football. All enjoyed the game – the atmosphere and the pricing. For the good of non league football and the good of football fans, we need to get more converts to football at this level.
Extended highlights of the game are in the link below which is taken from the excellent website Northern League Football Premiership Passion which is run by Hayley. She produces some fantastic footage of Northern League clubs in both league and cup competitions. www.northernleaguefootball.co.uk