Five years ago a brand new stadium arrived in Darlington, even if Faustino Asprilla didn’t. This visit of play-off contenders to play-off hopefuls reveals a lot about life in League Division Two. Ian Plenderleith was there too
South Korea and Portugal built a number of stadiums for major international football tournaments that now sit underused and half-empty on match days, but at least they had their World Cup and Euro days in the sun. In Darlington, the 25,000-seat 96.6 TFM Arena has never been full to capacity and it probably never will be. It’s destined to spend its days under the eternal grey clouds of England’s fourth division.
It’s instructive to glance at the Looking Back section in today’s match programme. Ten years ago, Darlington were at home to Carlisle in Division Three, attendance 4,184. Thirty years ago, they were at home to Hartlepool United, Division Four, attendance 4,419. Today’s game against Lincoln City, a “League Two” fixture, attracts 3,878 fans. The only difference now is the stadium where the home games are played.
The ground is the white-elephant brain-calf of former chairman George Reynolds – a crook, thug, ex-millionaire and self-described “utter genius”, according to his autobiography Cracked It! (not intended to be a description of what he did to the football club, but close). Since opening in 2003 it’s almost had more names than fans. It was christened the Reynolds Arena for the man who took the team from their home of 120 years, Feethams, and promised the town top-flight football, finishing his book with the line “Next stop... the Premiership!”
Unfortunately for the megalomaniac Reynolds, his next stop was jail, for tax evasion. By the time he was caught with 500 grand in the back of his car, he had long since lost his fortune and had been jettisoned by the club, who were almost brought to ruin by the stadium’s costs. In the run-up to being named after its current local-radio sponsor, it has been called the New Stadium and the Williamson Motors Stadium. None of this alters the fact that it’s a functional, soulless structure that would better suit a new-town Championship club with Premiership aspirations, rather than housing a team that was never meant to move.
At least the club have survived, even if the stated break-even attendance of 5,000 is just out of reach. And should the team someday “do a Scunthorpe” and rise up the pyramid, all will be in place when the ground inspectors come. Plus, with 21,000 spare seats you’re at least guaranteed a good view.
That is, unless you’re an away fan. Buying tickets for the Lincoln end, I assure my fellow travellers that whatever the stadium lacks in atmosphere will be made up for by the freedom of a row to ourselves and an unobscured perspective. At £16 a ticket I’d expect nothing less (although kids only cost a fiver, and under-sevens get in for free).
Our tickets say we are in Block 37, but when we walk through the spacy catering concourse and into the ground, all Lincoln fans have been squeezed into Block 38. Netting has been secured over the first four rows of seats either side of the block to ensure that fans don’t spread out. I point out to a steward that my tickets are for Block 37, but he just shrugs (hold the front page of Stewarding Today magazine for that reaction) and when I ask him why the other sections are blocked off, he says he doesn’t know. We do, however, manage to find four seats at the top end of the travelling support.
But we’re not the last Lincoln fans to arrive. Soon it becomes clear that more tickets have been sold than are available in our block (a fact already suggested by our tickets having been for Block 37). Fans stand on the steps and look around, baffled. There are 21,000 free seats, yet they have nowhere to sit. Seeing a simple answer to this basic mathematical problem, some clamber over the netting and sit down in the empty seats, because the game is about to start. Which is like telling a steward his mother’s a whore and his dad’s George Reynolds.
The yellow jackets surround the fans who’ve found themselves unauthorised seats and yell at them to move back. The Lincoln fans ignore them. “You don’t know what you’re doing,” comes the supportive chant from the mass in Block 38. Soon the yellow jackets are joined by more senior orange jackets, with titles such as DFC Head Supervisor, Chief Steward and Deputy Chief Steward, all of them haranguing the refuseniks and talking into headsets. A dozen policemen look on in that dim and helpless way perfected by the British bobby (though I suppose it’s better than wading in with batons, continental style). Two of their colleagues are gainfully employed at the bottom of the stand video-taping the whole thing, which should make for cracking entertainment at the Darlington Area Policemen’s Christmas Ball.
A full 30 minutes and one short scuffle later, someone finally takes the executive decision to remove the netting and open up Block 37. “Hallelujah! Hallelujah!” sing the fans. Many supporters who’d been ordered to front-row seats with a view of the goal net and Lincoln keeper Alan Marriott’s arse now move up to get a better view.
It has to be said that the stewarding stand-off, led by the short and irascible chief steward (my personal man of the match), was without doubt more entertaining than the predictably dire first half-hour of football. “Visitors Lincoln find themselves firmly entranced in the top-end of the play-off pack,” said the preview on Darlington’s official website. And that’s how they’ve been playing the past few weeks as well. Looking set to secure a fifth successive (but probably fifth unsuccessful) play-off campaign, you wish someone or something would snap them out of the trance and let them move either up or down. They seem to be trapped in the League Two equivalent of Block 38.
Darlington, meanwhile, are just below the play-off pack and still have a spot to aim for, and after the first half-hour of hopeful hoofing and wayward distribution they suddenly remember the one advantage of their big stadium – it has a nice wide pitch. Greg Blundell and the ageing but still sprightly Julian Joachim begin to combine and threaten the Lincoln goal. Blundell puts Joachim through on the goal, but he shoots just wide. Then Blundell misses a simple header from a Joachim cross.
“Oh bollocks, oh bollocks,” squeaks the young fan behind me every time Darlington attack. And his scrotal fears are realised in the 38th minute when Blundell returns the flanking favour from the right and Joachim’s perfect glancing header to make the score 1-0 lends a touch of misplaced class to what has been a fairly abysmal first half. Lincoln’s only effort on target is a leaden free-kick straight at Sam Russell.
At the start of the second half, the chief steward decides to make a return to the away section, clearly not having done enough to amuse us for one afternoon. At the back of Block 38, around 150 younger Lincoln fans have been harmlessly watching the match from a standing position. The chief steward makes sure that every last one of them sits down. Just as he’s finished, a Lincoln fan stands, raises his arms and sings: “Stand up if you love the Imps!” And 150 fans do. This little theatre is repeated a few times before the chief steward finally gives up and disappears for the afternoon, perhaps to reconsider his life and career options.
On the pitch, Darlington threaten a second, firing a couple of good chances wide before Marriott pulls off a diving save from Evan Horwood’s free-kick. At this point, Lincoln manager John Schofield remembers he does have a couple of actual footballers, but both are on the bench. Veteran striker Jamie Forrester and Junior Mendes are introduced. The futile policy of banging the long one up to Mark Stallard, who moves more like a rusting drawbridge than a footballer, is at last abandoned.
What a beautiful but simple thing it is to see players pass the ball to each other on the ground. Lincoln’s game is transformed and they begin to apply some pressure. Their fans start to make noise at someone who’s not wearing a yellow or orange jacket, but after several promising moves involving Forrester, Notts County loanee Mendes and wide midfielder Ryan Amoo, the equalising goal is as direct as they come. Defender Lee Beevers is left unmarked at the near post to head home Jeff Hughes’s corner in the 78th minute and the general feeling now is that Lincoln are by far the greatest team the world has ever seen.
The game opens up completely. Darlington sub Alun Armstrong comes close with an overhead kick. At times you can almost hear the home fans. But it’s Lincoln who come closest to winning and in the four minutes of injury time they create more chances than they have all afternoon: Russell pulls off a brilliant fingertip save from Forrester; Beevers heads the resultant corner on to the inside of the post; Paul Mayo has a shot cleared off the line; and from the game’s last corner Mendes appears to have bundled the ball in, but the linesman rules it didn’t cross the line.
In the end, a point each is fair enough. Two teams who seem conjoined to the lower reaches of professional football have played poorly but provided enough excitement to make a few thousand come back again next week. The Lincoln fans wait behind to watch the highlights on the big screen, but when it comes to Mendes’s “goal” the screen goes black. Everyone sighs knowingly and leaves the arena.
Outside the stadium, a portly young Lincoln fan knocks on a car window full of fans. “Shall I do it now?” he asks eagerly. Without waiting for a reply, he removes his replica shirt, revealing vast swathes of flab, and begins to dance up and down. The car pulls off, leaving him a lone, semi-naked figure, grinning as he performs his wobbling waltz in the middle of the almost empty car park.
Say what you like about the standard of the fourth division. It might not necessarily be a footballer, but there’s always someone there to entertain you.
From WSC 244 June 2007. What was happening this month