From Wembley to Northern League for Darlington FC

IF a week is said to be a long time in politics, what a difference a year makes in North East non-league football.

Darlington fans at the FA Trophy Final 2011 at Wembley
Darlington fans at the FA Trophy Final 2011 at Wembley

IF a week is said to be a long time in politics, what a difference a year makes in North East non-league football.

What a difference the past few days have had.

Recent seasons for our grassroots sides have been bountiful, but this one just gone was eventful even by those thrilling, dizzying standards.

Twelve months ago, Darlington won the FA Trophy and not long after were among the bookmakers’ dark horses for promotion.

Who, then, might have foreseen what has followed? Who, given the previous decade, couldn’t see it coming?

A third spell in administration in around ten years finally did for the Quakers and not even the introduction of the 18-hour working day – by, singularly, Craig Liddle – was enough to halt their slide.

At least it was not into oblivion.

The decision against folding and returning as a phoenix club remains debatable, especially in light of the FA’s vague classification of the club as ‘new’, and the consequences, namely demotion to the STL Northern League, thereof. But those supporters responsible for keeping it afloat deserve immense credit, and for that support to sustain. Will it?

I remain unconvinced, but less so following the appointment of Martin Gray – a man with Darlington in his heart, the Northern League in his past and good men in the likes of Brian Atkinson, Sean Gregan, Tony Norman and Harry Dunn at his side.

“I am delighted to be given the opportunity to play a key role in getting Darlington back where it belongs after what has been a very difficult period for the fans and the club,” said Gray, still aiming to run his blossoming Martin Gray Football Academy concurrently.

Darlington FC manager Martin Gray

“If the fans continue to back the club financially I am confident we can put together an attractive and competitive team. My career started in the Northern League and it is a scene I know very well.

“There are a lot of good teams in the Northern League and we will have to treat it with the respect that it deserves, but we will be aiming to put together a team which will challenge at the very top of the league and the aim is promotion at the first attempt.”

The remit at Gateshead, albeit not at their first stab, is similar.

Year-on-year progress remains unchecked under Ian Bogie at the International Stadium, where successive promotions have been followed by a succession of survival, establishment and improvement in non-league’s top bracket.

Last year’s fling with the top spot, and subsequently more realistic but ultimately dashed hopes of promotion via the play-offs, provided a taste of possibility, and with plans for a new stadium, crucially of their own, that flavour must be enhanced this summer and beyond.

Replacing Jon Shaw, of course, will be quite a challenge, and what Tommy Cassidy would give for one so prolific at Blyth Spartans. The former Newcastle United star inherited a near-impossible task when replacing Steve Cuggy, whose managerial baptism was betrodden by ill-luck and under-performance.

But while a Great Escape always seemed unlikely, a handful of wins gave – and give – hope. The right players will give more.

As they enter the Evo-Stik, Durham City exit, admirable ambition having finally succumbed to the cruel reality of life up the pyramid, but in turn and consolation, they join the Northern League in rude good health.

Durham especially will savour the opportunity to challenge three-in-a-row Spennymoor Town’s Division One hegemony (they also claimed the Durham Challenge Cup), though West Auckland Town – bridesmaids, looking for and capable of better – are more likely challengers.

Dunston UTS too, and what fitting FA Vase successors to Whitley Bay they proved to be.

A step below, Team Northumbria were a cut above, champions of Division Two, cup winners once and runners-up twice, while Northallerton Town also claimed a trophy and Ryhope CW and Richmond Town four apiece in the Wearside and Teesside Leagues respectively.

This time last year Ryhope did the same. This time last year everything else was quite different.

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