The only way may be up for Darlington 1883. Tom Wade is determined to ensure the same goes for Blyth Spartans, and that they don’t pass Martin Gray’s men on their way.
The Quakers’ Phoenix-like rise from the abyss places them, as of Saturday, in the Northern Division of the Evo-Stik League, the Premier Division of which Blyth were demoted to 12 months earlier.
It has been a troubled period for the Spartans, with four managers - each handcuffed by economic practicality - over two years. But newly supported by former Bishop Auckland manager Colin Myers, and with additions such as Arjun Purewal and Robert Nolan, the latest Croft Park incumbent, Tom Wade, is determined to revive the Spartans’ fortunes.
“We just want to get started now. We’re all looking forward to the new season,” said Wade. We’ve had a good pre-season, the lads have worked hard and we’ve had a good look at a fair few players.
“Now it’s just a case of finalising the squad. We needed to freshen things up. A lot of the players had been here a while, but we’ve kept seven or eight of them and brought in 10 or 11 younger players with potential.
“We started looking around before the end of last season. We knew what type of player we wanted - lads who are fit, hungry and committed, lads who want to move up a level.
“So we’re pretty happy, we’ve got a good blend of youth and experience and it’ll be interesting to see how they develop.
“The last couple of years have been poor by Blyth Spartans’ standards. We’re not promising miracles but the aim is to get ourselves established in this league.
“If we can do that, let’s see where we are at Christmas and then kick on.”
Expect to see Darlington doing so from the off. The Ebac Northern League champions are the first club since Durham City five years ago to opt to go up from Step 5.
Though the foremost among several departures saw Joe Tait join Gateshead, the likes of Paul Robinson, Chris Moore and Andy Johnson have arrived.
And after a pre-season training camp at Catterick barracks, and with a long-term aim of returning to the Football League, manager Gray says a march on promotion must be the target.
“The lads set the standard last season, that’s what we’re about as a club and we’ve got to continue that this year,” said Gray. “We will be there, we’ll demand that from them because promotion is the target. We’ve got to make sure we’re in the mix come the end of the season and ready to go for the final push.
“There’s an automatic and a play-off place, so it’s slightly different from last year. It’s a step up, and you’ve got to respect every team you play against, as we did last year.”
The Evo-Stik’s broader geography means that after a season of doorstep challenges, Darlington’s closest rivals this term are Harrogate Railway Athletic. But with support vital to the club’s sustenance, Gray remains hopeful Quakers fans will continue to follow their team to the likes of Farsley, Cammell Laird and Ramsbottom United.
“The club’s back on the up and it’s important we keep a massive fanbase this year,” he said. “We need them to come along as they did last year. It’s down to them. The more support they give us, the more those running the club, who are fans too, doing things right, can invest in the team and give us the best chance of being successful.”