Darlington, Lincoln, an extraordinary day and a date for the diary
On Wednesday morning, I had no real plans for the weekend other than watching Sky’s soaraway Super Sunday extravaganza. By Wednesday afternoon, Saturday was full. I was off to Darlington for the day.
That Wednesday, my girlfriend had been following the Darlo saga on Radio Tees. Captivated by the dramatic turn of events which saw the club given a stay of execution by a curly-haired man brandishing a briefcase full of cash, she had sent me a text message asking whether I fancied heading up to the Northern Echo Arena for their game with Fleetwood Town. Their previous outing, a 3-0 defeat at Barrow, was thought at the time to be the final match of Darlington Football Club’s long and proud existence. 1883-2012. And now, perhaps, beyond.
9.00am on Saturday morning: Neither of us had slept particularly well. My eyes stung through lack of sleep and the thought of getting up, let alone getting dressed, seemed as appealing as diving into a swimming pool full of chlorine without any goggles. In fact, it seemed as appealing as diving into a bucket full of manure without any clothes.
10.00am: On the road.
I timed my “we must be fairly close to it” perfectly, still half-expecting a ramshackle Conference ground despite the full knowledge of the vast expanse covered by Darlington’s unwanted colosseum. It loomed into view like a giant white spider crawling across County Durham, with those familiar triangular poles atop its structure – the same ones my own club’s stadium has; the same ones half of the grounds in the country now seem to have.
Spectacularly early, we bought our tickets and admired the £1 lampshades in the club shop. We saw David Craig from Sky Sports News. We nearly got blown over by the gale force winds and we ducked into the bar for refuge. There we saw Hartlepool shirts, Middlesbrough shirts, a Barrow shirt and even a Portsmouth shirt. There were one or two Darlo fans as well.
One of them came up to us and, seeing our scarves, struck up a conversation. Although I didn’t catch his name, other than the “Jasper Carrott” moniker his mate Jamie had given him, I did catch almost everything else he and Jamie said. We talked at great length with them about the past, present and future of Darlington FC and its connections with our club, Leicester City (Brian Little, Gary Coatsworth, Jimmy Willis and the horrible feeling of shaking a bucket for money outside your own ground in the hope that you still have a football team to support within a month). When we eventually made it through the turnstiles, the concourse looked exactly like the ones we see at Championship grounds every other weekend of the year.
It was always going to be an emotional day, but several things amplified this ahead of kick-off to the point where it felt like someone was writing a script. A rainbow appeared over the stand on the far side of the pitch, prompting several one-liners about a pot of gold. The tannoy played “Money’s Too Tight to Mention” by Simply Red. A brass band strode along the touchline and played “The Great Escape” next to the dugouts. When the players trotted out to warm up, there was a huge roar.
The whole occasion reminded us both of Lincoln City’s final game in the Football League last May. We were there too. Maybe we’re football rubberneckers. And maybe these days, the ones you wish never had to happen, make you see the positive power of the game.
The real heartbreak of that day at Sincil Bank was not the looks of panic on the faces of the Lincoln defenders when the referee pointed to the spot prior to Aldershot’s first goal, but what happened ten minutes from time. The ball was in the midfield area when a huge roar went up from the Stacey West Stand, named after the two Lincoln fans that perished in the Bradford City fire. The celebrations were the equal of those that would have greeted a Lincoln opener, had it happened, and they rapidly spread around the ground.
I frantically checked the Twitter timeline on my phone, but there was no news from Underhill. I kept repeating to those around me, “I haven’t seen it, I haven’t seen it.” I couldn’t confirm a Port Vale equaliser at Barnet, because it hadn’t happened. It was a horrible false alarm and an astonishing moment – a snapshot of ecstasy that, with the benefit of hindsight, meant nothing.
The mood soon turned to anger. Lincoln supporters were, and still are, angry at what their club has become. There was suddenly a nasty edge to the place, punctuated by cries of “You’re not fit to wear the shirt”. The referee got a bit of it and the Aldershot players got a bit of it, but the ire of the home support was reserved mainly for their own players. A few were hard done by, but there was very little fight in that grim second half. For the most part, the eleven men in red and white meekly accepted their fate and it was sad to see.
When the final whistle blew to end the game and Lincoln’s stay in the Football League, a couple of hundred fans sprinted onto the pitch. I had gone along to the game half-expecting a pitch invasion, but not in these circumstances. Many of the players simply walked off dejectedly, overtaken by angry fans. Not just angry, though. Some bordered on triumphant, as if they were claiming their pitch back from players that did not deserve to grace it. Perhaps defiance is a better word.
It all ended in confusion. There was nothing to run to, nowhere to go and nowhere to hide. Those that ran onto the pitch came to a halt somewhere near the players’ tunnel and slowly began making their way back towards their seats and the exits. It made you wonder what the ultimate goal had been – presumably to attack the players, either verbally or physically? Others stood in front of their seats and contemplated the future.
Lincoln fans experienced that horrible feeling the next morning when you wake up having slept away reality. You get a split second of everything being fine and then it all floods back at once. The nerves, the optimism, the hope, the despair, the anger, the defiance, the confusion… Lastly, the acceptance.
Darlington supporters have been through all of these emotions in recent days as their club has lurched further and further towards oblivion before stumbling across a ray of hope last week. They stood and sang for 90 minutes as their threadbare squad fought valiantly against big-spending Fleetwood. An unfortunate defensive error gifted the visitors the only goal of the game just before half time but the cliché is unavoidable – the result didn’t matter here as much as the size of the crowd and the determination of so many of those present.
The attendance of 5,638 is dwarfed by the 25,000 capacity of Darlington’s ground, which is itself reduced to 10,000 by local planning regulations, but it was also a huge increase on the club’s average attendance prior to the weekend. While some inevitably saw this as a stick with which to beat Darlington’s non-season ticket holders and the like, it seemed more like the obvious end product when a game comes along that every Darlo fan desperately wanted to attend. Of course, there were also plenty of us there who had never even been to Darlington before.
Throughout the day, we were greeted like, in my girlfriend’s words, “minor celebrities”. It felt almost like being at a funeral as a succession of people came up to us and thanked us for coming. We weren’t in it for that. It just felt like somewhere we ought to be. And people at funerals don’t often have a grin on their face when they say that. It’s hard to describe but if you want to experience it for yourself, take your scarf along to Darlington’s game at Hayes and Yeading this evening and chuck a few quid into one of the buckets outside.
Easter Monday: Lincoln City v Darlington, as long as the resurrection is completed. It’s already pencilled into the diary and we are hoping to go over it in ink.