30 April ~ In February last year, Darlington faced Rochdale in a top of the table clash between the two longest serving members of the bottom division. Darlington lost 2-1, the players looking oddly distracted. The next day the announcement came that the club was to enter administration for the second time in six years, haemorrhaging £54,000 a week and with debts of £5 million. Fourteen months later, in the same week that Rochdale finally ended their 36-year run in the bottom division, Darlington brought their own 18-year stay to a sorry close – dropping out the Football League for only the second time and providing an inevitable conclusion to a thoroughly miserable season.
From the outset, things had looked bleak. Following a summer of upheaval which the club spent not so much flirting with extinction as buying its mother flowers and shopping for a ring, we were saved from the abyss by local businessman Raj Singh. Having lost all the playing squad and managerial staff, Darlington began this season with an unrecognisable team of trialists and loanees hastily compiled by Colin Todd. Eleven League games and nine defeats later, Todd headed back to the Stone Age and Steve Staunton arrived bearing the look of resigned confusion that was to become his hallmark. Staunton presided over four wins in 23 games before joining the 52 (mostly dismal) players who have come and gone through the revolving door at the Darlington Arena. Effectively down by Christmas and with little to play for other than trying to edge past Doncaster's record low of 20 points, relegation eventually came as a relief.
Now, as a long and painful season judders to a close, opinion seems split about our prospects. The optimists highlight Simon Davey as an excellent appointment and talk of his close relationship with Darlington's favourite go-to man, David Hodgson, has gone down well. At Barnsley, Hodgson helped Davey to unearth a number of previously unheralded gems and there's hope that amid the army of obscure Faroese full-backs and dubious Djiboutian goalkeepers who will doubtless pass through the club a handful may prove talented, or at least profitable. Further hope comes from the fact that Singh has publicly assured fans of a "competitive" budget for the forthcoming season, while, of the few players to have impressed, Gary Smith has committed to the club and leading scorer Tadhg Purcell may yet be persuaded to stay despite interest from higher divisions. There is even some extravagant talk about the possibility of relegation being a good thing. A chance to strip away the dead wood. Start afresh. "Do a Doncaster."
And yet, as the doom-mongers point out, the Blue Square Premier is littered with clubs bigger than Darlington who have gone down and struggled to return. Chester showed this year that there is still a long way down before a club could have been said to have "bottomed out" with demotion from the League. Likewise, despite continuing reassurances that our ludicrously oversized stadium is not a millstone around the club's neck, attendances have begun to dip below the 1,500 mark and the visits of Histon or Southport are unlikely to provide a boost. Even attempts to re-engage disgruntled local businesses, such as the holding of a raffle to decide the shirt sponsor for next season, have come across as somewhat desperate and half-baked. The air of replete doom for those of an Eeyore-ish disposition is completed by the fact that the town no longer seems interested in its club, the floating fans on whom so many lower-league clubs survive apparently unwilling to forgive the rug being pulled from the previous season's promotion bid.
Whatever the long-term consequences of relegation, after four owners, two spells of administration and ten managers in the last decade, stability is now surely key to any future progress. We fans might have bemoaned the lack of excitement, but right now the thought of another 18 consecutive years of fourth division football is a dream that most would grab with both hands. Ron Hamilton