Once part of the Football League furniture, Darlington F.C. will compete tomorrow in the First Round proper of the FA Cup for the first time since 2011/12, a season which, after the club was placed into administration for the third time in nine years, culminated in their demotion to the Northern League, the ninth tier of English football.
Since then, the club has risen up the leagues to the National League North without ever going beyond the second qualifying round of the FA Cup.
The symbolic meaning of this season’s run − which has seen the team beat Trafford, Leamington and Tamworth all away from home − is certainly not lost on manager Alun Armstrong, who joined the club from Blyth Spartans ahead of the current season.
“It’s fantastic. It’s something that we’ve missed over the years.
“This is where we need to be, we need to get the name of Darlington Football Club back into the public and hopefully this could do that.”
It is not lost on Ray Simpson, either, a supporter since the 1970s who has covered the club’s fortunes for various media outlets over the past thirty years and is now the club’s Head of Media.
“It symbolises what can be achieved when everybody pulls together.
“In some ways we’ve come full circle because back in 2011 when the previous owner decided to pull the club it was just after an FA Cup fourth qualifying round tie. Obviously we won the last game in the fourth qualifying round against Tamworth and we’d failed pretty badly in the Cup until now.”
Ever since dropping down the divisions, Darlington have operated under a fan-owned structure with the majority shareholder being the Darlington 1883 Supporter Society. In that sense, the club is relatively unique, and such an ownership structure comes with notable advantages over a traditional one.
“We are a lot more transparent that what we were under the previous owner,” Simpson said. “Everyone had a common cause to help the club survive and steadily climb the ladder again.
“We’ve gathered a lot of momentum and obviously we raised a lot of money. Since it all happened the fans have raised £1,000,000 in various ways to finance the club and set up infrastructure down at Blackwell Meadows.”
Their last match in the FA Cup, a thumping 3-0 victory over Tamworth which the Quakers could very easily have won by a larger margin, epitomised the vibrant yet ruthlessly effective style of play which has seen the team win six of their last seven games.
Central to their recent success, Armstrong says, is the attacking freedom given to the players by their tactical set-up.
“When we’ve got the ball, it’s up to them. I want them to express themselves. That will not change, it’s the way I want to play and the way I wanted to play as a footballer.
“When you do that, they work extremely hard to get the ball back and that’s a key part of how we play.
“As a young kid I started in the Keegan era and that sticks with you. The game has moved on a hell of a lot but when you look at Manchester City, Liverpool, you still want to attack with the intensity that they do.
“Everyone wants to be like that but you’ve got to find the right players to play like that.”
The right players, it seems, are young, ex-Football League academy players who have since dropped into the part-time game.
Darlington’s squad boasts plenty of them; Adam Campbell and Jamie Holmes were with Newcastle United, Lucas Bell, Louis Laing and Jordan Watson came through at Sunderland, and David Atkinson, Jarrett Rivers and Joe Wheatley all played for Middlesbrough’s academy.
“It’s just what I like,” Armstrong continued. “I want young, hungry lads that want to try and get back into the game.
“I think you get more from them rather than lads who are quite happy sitting where they are. I’m always looking for people who want to improve their game because at the end of the day if you don’t want to improve there’s no point keeping on playing.”
However, regardless of recent on-pitch performances, Darlington, like all clubs, face challenges of their own, as Simpson is keen to point out.
“It [the club] needs to improve its revenue streams because in this league it’s against full-time teams. You’ve got York City for example, they’re top of the table, Kidderminster too.
“Increasing gate receipts, increasing commercial revenue, getting out and about in the town, selling more merchandise. But it’s no different a challenge to any other club, you know, it’s not unique to Darlington, every club faces it.”
The week leading up to tomorrow’s game has seen striker Tyrone O’Neill, who had scored seven goals in seventeen games so far this season, recalled from loan by Middlesbrough, whilst first-choice goalkeeper Liam Connell, whose loan from South Shields has now ended, may or may not return to the club in time for the game.
“It’s been a tough week for us. Obviously Liam might be here, he might not and obviously losing Tyrone so it’s been a tough week like that but the lads have been top draw,” Armstrong remarked.
“They’re looking forward to it and we’ll get another training session in and it’ll probably be the most intense session that we’ve ever done because everyone’s desperate to play on Saturday.
“I cannot complain about the lads, they’ve been fantastic so far and we’ve just got to make sure we carry it on.”
Darlington’s opponents, Walsall, are on a six-game losing run and, having been relegated from League One last season, currently occupy 22nd place in League Two.
Backed by 700 travelling supporters and with £36,000 in prizemoney available for the winners, the game is about far more than a day out, as Armstrong was keen to state.
“I’m not going down there to make the numbers up. I want to go down there and win.”
Image courtesy of Mtaylor848 via Wikimedia Commons