Darlington FC - ready to bounce back after years of upheaval
PUBLISHED: 23:48 16 August 2012 | UPDATED: 21:45 20 February 2013
After years of trouble Darlington's football club are down, but definitely not out, as Steve Gibbs reports
It was once said that football is more important than life and death and the fans of Darlington FC have this year come as close as anyone to realising just how important their club is.
Just minutes away from extinction, on one particularly dark afternoon in January, their subsequent relegation from the Blue Square Conference Premier became a mere footnote compared to the troubles which have subsequently threatened to rob a community of its lifeblood and identity.
Now, battered and bruised but never beaten, and relieved to have a club to support at all, the future has a cautiously optimistic glow about it.
There is a lot of optimism. Everybody is looking forward to getting stuck into the new season, enthuses interim club chairman Denis Pinnegar. Trying to rescue and now build the football club has absolutely taken over our lives. And were not going to give in. Were just lucky were in a position to be able to do it.
Controversially demoted four divisions by the Football Association, for a raft of financial and administrative problems which have dogged the club for almost a decade, Darlington find themselves in the STL Northern League. And now, the clubs new board and fans are uniting behind new team manager Martin Gray.
Our target this season is promotion, says the former Sunderland and Darlington midfielder. Its not going to be easy, and well be respectful of the opposition, but weve got to be positive. The people around the town and the football club have been so positive. Hopefully theres now some light at the end of the tunnel.
The town too is feeling positive its shopping streets are bustling and its cafes, pubs and restaurants are busy.
For many, the football clubs venture into the Northern League and a ground-sharing partnership at Bishop Aucklands Heritage Park, is a journey into the unknown, but even ambitions of a return to the Football League have to start somewhere. It is not somewhere I ever thought I would see my football team play, admits supporter Richard Heslop.
However, we are where we are and as fans we must be humble. I see it now as an opportunity to visit new places, meet new friends and learn some useful lessons. The non-league scene seems very friendly.
The experience of Grays stellar managerial team, which includes former Sunderland winger Brian Atkinson as assistant manager, ex-Darlington defender Sean Gregan, and legendary Whitby Town and Blyth Spartans boss Harry Dunn as chief scout, will be vital. Building a team from scratch, Gray is demanding professional standards from semi-professional players.
Its got to be, its the only way I can work, he said. Weve got to be professional and meet the highest standards of my background in the game. Im a successful person and thats the way life is. You want to do everything to the best of your ability.
Character is vital, its the main ingredient, he added. We need people with personality, people who can play under real high pressure, because thats what well be put under. It will be every teams cup final next season, against us.
And Craig McKenna, project manager and current board member of the DFC1883 group which bought the club in May, said: Darlington are exceptionally fortunate theyve got Martin. Every day just reaffirms to me that he is the right man for this job.
McKenna oversaw the creation of the Community Interest Company which will give supporters direct input into Darlingtons future, and ensure that no individual will be able to own more than 15 per cent of shares in the club.
We need to get more fans to come forward and support the club. If they want their club to return to the position they had, that money is only going to come through investment. Are there going to be enough fans going to games on a week-to-week basis to drive the club back into the Football League?
McKenna has budgeted for a minimum attendance at Heritage Park of 800, compared to last seasons average attendance, at the Darlington Arena, of 2200.
Chairman Denis Pinnegar, a fan of 33 years standing, admits that several recent owners have seen the club as a property development opportunity first and a football club second, but knows that it will never be allowed to happen again. And he added: Were not going to win every game but we are going to have an exciting time. People who havent been to a match for years are coming back because they see this as a true crusade of the fans.
While the Arena, a vast and grotesquely opulent monument to one mans folly, remains empty, the football club it once housed will be welcomed like old friends as it moves on to pastures new, with the towns motto once more in its heart. Optima Petamus. Let us seek the best.