Disarray at Darlington
In his first contribution to The Two Unfortunates, Thom Kennedy enlightens us on the recent goings-on at the madhouse that is the Darlington Arena.
Peculiar things have happened to Darlington in the past.
There was the time Faustino Asprilla was paraded around the pitch ahead of signing for the club, only to flee the country as an alternative to the cold nights at Feethams. Then there was the fans’ forum when the chairman’s wife Susan Reynolds accused the players of match-fixing.
You might even point to the former chairman George Reynolds’ decision to move the club and its small but loyal fan base into a 27,500-seat super-stadium on the edge of town as something of an anomaly.
This June, though, when not one but two managers quit Darlington, one by e-mail, was something else altogether.
After 18 months of turmoil that saw Darlo finish bottom of the league with just 30 points, and stand eye-to-eye with financial oblivion, everything seemed to be settling down.
Simon Davey was already the Quakers’ fourth manager in a year, filling the seat in the dugout recently vacated by Dave Penney, Colin Todd and Steve Staunton. He moved quickly to begin piecing together a squad to challenge for the top spots in the Conference play-offs next season, and talked enthusiastically of his plans for the team and the successful campaign ahead.
With six players signed, Davey went away to spend two weeks coaching at a Florida soccer school run by Paul Scholes with solid foundations in place for the coming season back home. For the first time since Darlo’s League Two promotion push was suddenly halted by administration in February 2009, optimism began to seep among fans. Despite the awful 2009-10 campaign, season ticket sales had already surpassed the previous year’s total.
Halfway through his stay in America, rumours surfaced on a Hereford United website that Davey was to leave Darlington to take charge at Edgar Street. When it was revealed that was nobody at the club could get hold of him, the rumour mill gathered pace. Several outlandish theories arose over the boss’s whereabouts, plans, and even his mental state. Wild as they were, the rumours were based on one unavoidable truth. Davey had gone.
The ex-Barnsley boss resigned by e-mail after 77 days in charge of Darlington, and remained out of contact until he returned from the States 10 days later. When he was finally tracked down by a local newspaper reporter, he persisted in claiming he had been offered a position in the USA, but had heard from other clubs since. Days later the lure of Hereford trumped that of Florida, and he was unveiled as the new manager at Edgar Street. Nobody was surprised, but they were angry.
Darlington fans have been feeling sheepish since a cut-rate rescue deal rescued the club from administration for the second time shortly before the beginning of last season. When local businesses and charities were losing money to a club which had spent well beyond its means, supporters were hardly in a position to criticise others.
But Davey’s departure roused the dormant indignation within Quakers fans. The Welshman’s u-turn to join Hereford infuriated supporters who had previously admired him, and as a former Darlington target went to sign for Hereford, that frustration grew. As Davey sat down to a remarkably familiar press conference before his new public in Hereford, Darlo chairman Raj Singh said: “The supposed States job was a smokescreen for this whole charade and for Davey to think everyone at Darlington FC believes it is an insult to the club and our fans… It’s difficult to sit on the fence in these situations when someone is blatantly taking you for a ride, but I’m absolutely livid.”
The whole affair left Ryan Kidd, Davey’s assistant, in charge of orchestrating a promotion charge which suddenly felt very unlikely. Taking on the role, Kidd made all the right noises, and promised to keep the momentum of the early summer going. His time in charge, however, was to be even shorter than Davey’s. So recognisable has the sight of general manager Graham Fordy leading a new boss out in front of the home dugouts at the Darlington Arena become that you could make a serviceable game of bingo from the comments which always arise: ‘difficulties in the past’; ‘play football the right way’; ‘you’ve only to look at the facilities here’; ‘these fans have been through a lot.’ Bingo! You win a two-week stint as Darlington manager.
The extra word used at Kidd’s appointment was continuity. He knew the players Davey had brought in, and signed a two-year contract guaranteeing his loyalty to the club. But had a supporter gone on a fortnight’s holiday before his appointment, they would have arrived home to have missed the entire reign. After just 11 days, Preston-based Kidd resigned, saying he was uncertain about the job, entering the record books as he did so with one of the shortest managerial reigns in history. Why he left remains unclear, but after several targets defected to Davey and Kidd failed to find a willing assistant, it looks suspiciously like he began to doubt his own suitability for the role.
Former Kettering and Peterborough boss Mark Cooper joined up with Darlington the day after Kidd’s departure, after approaching the club and sealing a deal with remarkable speed. The sixth manager to take charge of the club inside a year — excluding the two caretaker reigns of youth team boss Craig Liddle — fans are already joking about whether he will be here to see in the new season.
Having been some supporters’ choice for the job before Davey’s appointment in April, Cooper seems a logical step forward and is well detached from the latest farce at the club. Fans at the Arena can only hope that the football he has Darlington playing next season is as dramatic as the soap opera performed off the pitch lately.