Great Football League Teams 9: Darlington, 1990-1
Number 9 in our Great Teams series features a club that are sadly no longer among us. Darlington are currently bedding down in midtable in the Blue Square Premier – a situation that will provide much needed stability after the emotional tempests of 2009-10. Duncan Fletcher, head honcho of the superbly crafted Cruel Geography and a man whose loyalties are split between Darlo and Toronto FC, has penned this ode to a classic line up of yesteryear.
Since automatic promotion/relegation from the conference was introduced back in 1987, there are only three teams that have come up and gone on to immediately win Division 4/Division 3/League 2. Doncaster Rovers in 2003/04 and Carlisle United in 2005/06 were the latest, but the first team to do it was Darlington, in 1990/91.
This was by no means the most talented Darlington squad of recent memory. For me, that would be the 95-96 vintage which featured former and future top level players such as Mike Pollitt, Sean Gregan, Robbie Blake, Matty Appleby and Gary Bannister. What enabled this team to flourish was a rock solid defence in front of Mark Prudhoe, a journeyman goalkeeper who flourished at Feethams, but mainly a great manager in Brian Little. Immediately following relegation to the conference in 1989 after a 5-1 defeat at Scunthorpe in our penultimate game, fans had chanted through their tears that Brian must stay, and he did, building a team that swept all before them in a very enjoyable and entertaining season, clinching promotion at the first attempt. Little kept faith with his squad and former Portsmouth hardman Mick Tait was the only new addition to that team who would be a first team regular, of course. This meant that we still had the less than spectacular strike force of John Borthwick and David Cork, with Paul Emson on the wing, so while confident, most Darlo fans weren’t predicting a championship.
Tait played as sweeper in Darlington’s back 5, a formation we’d used the previous season, well before England had success with it at Italia 90, and proved a great replacement for Jimmy Willis who had broken his leg late in the Conference campaign. A few minor injuries to different defenders early on meant quite a bit of chopping and changing, leading to an inconsistent first few months, best illustrated by our league cup tie against Swindon, a 3-0 home win followed by a 4-0 away loss. It was when Willis returned in December, replacing David Corner, who had serious chronic injury issues of his own that forced his retirement, that things really clicked. From December 22nd onwards, the first choice back 5 of Les McJannett, Frank Gray, Willis, Tait and club captain Kevan Smith missed only two games between them.
A big win against table topping Torquay, followed soon after by a 4-1 new years day crushing of Cardiff City,and a 3-1 win over Carlisle United saw Darlo hit the top spot for the first time on January 5th, though it was only a brief stay as we saw out January with a loss and two draws, amid speculation that Brian Little might be leaving to join Birmingham City. Thankfully he stayed and we went on a great run that saw us only lose twice in the last half of the season.
That run included a stretch of 7 games without conceding a goal, covering all of February and two March games; Darlo winning 6 of those games despite only scoring 8 goals, and building a healthy 8 point lead at the top. The most memorable of those games though was the one they didn’t win, a 0-0 at local rivals Hartlepool, enhanced by the fact that for one of the very few times in history, both clubs were battling for promotion. Basically Hartlepool battered us but just couldn’t find a way past Prudhoe, who made many saves, 4 or 5 of them right out of the spectacular category. Always popular with the Darlo fans, not least due to his grateful acknowledgement of the away support no matter what the result, much more so than the rest of the team, this match really cemented his status as the fans’ favourite.
More Prudhoe heroics stole us a point against Blackpool, as we struggled through March and April, not scoring much, and winning only 3 of 11 games after the 7 game streak ended, though drawing enough to maintain our place at the top of the table. There was a lot of grumbling about the lack of entertainment – this was back when the Feethams home fans could swap ends at half time – so we got to see the forwards struggle up close in both halves. But, the results kept the crowds coming in, attendance at Feethams regularly topping 4,000 and much more than usual following away from home as well. Those who went all the way to Northampton at the end of April were handsomely rewarded.
The Cobblers had been promotion-contenders for most of the season but were slipping out of playoff contention and desperate for a win so most of the hundreds of travelling Darlo fans were expecting a tough game. Instead we tore them apart, 3-0 up within half an hour, capped by a magnificent third goal. A quick throw from Prudhoe to right back McJannett who took the ball to the half way line before playing the ball down the wing to Andy Toman, who crossed for Mitch Cook at the far corner of the penalty area, and he volleyed it first time across the goalie and into the opposite corner – less than 10 seconds from our goalie to the back of their net. From there we cruised home to a 3-0 win that saw the players really celebrating on the pitch as it put us within a win of clinching promotion.
As luck would have it, the penultimate game of the season was away to Scunthorpe, a perfect chance for revenge for 1989 and a satisfying redemption, but once again Darlo were disappointed, a scrappy 2-1 defeat meaning we went into the last game knowing that whilst a win would guarantee 1st place, a defeat could see us drop into a playoff spot.
The biggest crowd of the season packed into Feethams, and fortunately, it was a fairly tension free game – an early David Cork goal, followed by a second half penalty from Frank Gray, meant a very straight forward 2-0 win. Over the tannoy came a plea for fans to stay off the pitch so we could have a lap of honour, but that was just laughed at, fans jumping the advertising boards and creeping further and further on to the pitch, until the final whistle blew and a second straight season ended with a pitch invasion followed by Kevan Smith hoisting a trophy. Chairman Dick Corden rubbed his hands at the big novelty cheque, and fans remembered an injured defender with “there’s only one David Corner”. If the previous season had been more exciting, following that up with another championship with pretty much the same team was very, very satisfying.
Unfortunately this time, Brian didn’t stay, Little inevitably moving on to better things with Leicester City, taking Jimmy Willis with him, where they had more success, and for Darlo, that was the end of the good times. Assistant manager Frank Gray took over, but it was no smooth transition of power. He was no Little and with no new investment, Division 3 was one step too far for this squad – immediate relegation followed. 20 years later, Darlington now find themselves back where this great team started, as a non-league club, but without a miracle worker like Little, it’s going to be a lot harder to come back this time.