The Fall of Darlington

MUSIC journalist Dave Simpson risked his sanity a few years ago by attempting to track down every musician who had ever played in The Fall for a book he was writing. He started his long – and not always rewarding – search by speaking to the band’s eccentric frontman Mark E Smith in the bar of a Manchester hotel.

Smith explained that a major reason for the high turnover of members was a need to keep freshening up the band. “It’s like a football team,” Smith told him. “Every so often, you have to get rid of the centre-forward.”

There have been times this season when it’s been tempting to wonder if Smith has been running Darlington in his spare time.

Then again, even he would have struggled to keep up with all the chopping and changing at Darlo. While it’s taken Smith three-and-a-bit decades to get through 40-odd members, the Football League’s bottom club have used 53 players this season (although one of those, Dan Riley, was only ever an unused sub). Yes, of course it’s a league record.

And by the way, Darlo are also on their third manager of the campaign. Not surprisingly, a season of chaos has brought the fall to the Conference.

It’s not uncommon for clubs in the Football League’s bottom division to hit trouble – to the point where the ‘League Two club in crisis’ story starts to sound a bit repetitive after a while. This was the division, don’t forget, which saw four clubs have points deducted for various financial woes last season. One of those clubs was Darlo, and that’s probably the best place at which to start their story.

Two seasons ago, Darlington reached the League Two play-offs, losing to Rochdale on penalties in the semi-final. Last season, they were on course for another top-seven finish when chairman George Houghton – a property tycoon – put the club into administration, as debts reached £5million. The 10-point deduction effectively ended their season.

As Tees Valley businessman Raj Singh led a drawn-out bid to buy the club out of administration, manager Dave Penney left for Oldham and Colin Todd was appointed in his place, with future Sky Soccer Saturday jester Dean Windass as his assistant.

Singh finally assumed control in August, with Todd throwing a squad together composed largely of trialists and loanees. The season was never likely to start well. In late September, Todd was sent on his way after picking up two points from his first nine games.

Steve Staunton came in and signed a raft of loan players, gaining four wins in six months. A gamble on bringing in injury-troubled former Leeds striker (and one-time Celebrity Masterchef contestant) Noel Whelan failed to pay off, as he managed only three appearances. By late March, Singh had resigned himself to Blue Square Premier football – and had decided that Staunton wasn’t the man to get them back up.

Perhaps in Simon Davey, Singh has found the man to ensure Darlo’s stay in non-league football is brief. It’s only two years since Davey was leading Barnsley to the FA Cup semi-finals via wins over Liverpool and Chelsea, but a bad start to the campaign at Oakwell saw him out of work by the end of August.

He won his first game, at Burton. But on the night he followed that up by delaying Rochdale’s promotion party with a 1-0 win at Spotland, results elsewhere confirmed Darlo’s relegation. Dale eventually went up anyway.

Much has been made of Rochdale ending their 36-year stay in what is now League Two, but the loss of Darlington is significant too, as they were the division’s second-longest-serving members, having been there since 1992. With both sides leaving at different ends, League Two’s longest-serving members at the start of next season will be Lincoln and Macclesfield – who were Darlo’s opponents today.

Davey has given reasons for hope since arriving at Darlo, although there’s no sense of unconfined optimism. The blowing of a three-goal lead to draw 3-3 at Cheltenham last month, coupled with a 0-5 walloping at home by Notts County, suggested there is work to be done defensively. But on a sleepy, overcast afternoon at Macc today, Darlo got a clean sheet as a 2-0 win brightened their mood.

This has been a season of turbulence for Macc too, but for very different, much sadder reasons. The death of manager Keith Alexander in early March affected everyone at the club. The fact that the players managed to pull together under the guidance of Alexander’s former assistant Gary Simpson and steer clear of a relegation battle says much for their strength of character.

Macc secured their safety a fortnight ago with victory over Chesterfield. Today saw their final home game of the season, and a chance to sign off in style in front of their own fans.

It never really looked like happening. Darlington captain Ian Miller headed the opener from a Mark Convery free kick in the ninth minute. John McReady, one of the numerous Darlo youngsters given a chance amid the mayhem this season, twice passed up good chances to add to the lead. Just before half-time Macclesfield captain Nat Brown headed over when he should have scored.

As the home fans grumbled, Darlo’s away following – complete with drummer – looked determined to have a party.

At half-time, after a parade of Macclesfield’s 1970 FA Trophy-winning squad, there was a presentation to Andy Park, an 18-year-old Darlington fan who had planned to undertake a charity walk to Macclesfield from his home in Grimsby to raise money to buy a wheelchair for his girlfriend’s cousin.

“Sadly, Andy wasn’t able to complete the walk after suffering a bad head injury,” said Macc’s public address announcer as Andy appeared on the pitch with a bandaged head. “I’m sure he won’t mind me telling you that he was hit by an HGV near Scunthorpe.”

(Judging by Andy’s own account of the accident – which happened on Thursday morning – it was a miracle he wasn’t killed, let alone made it to the game.)

Darlington should have wrapped up victory early in the second half when referee Pat Miller awarded a harsh penalty, deciding Paul Bolland had fouled Nathan Mulligan. But Convery’s spot-kick was saved by Jon Brain.

Emile Sinclair fired wide a good chance to equalise for Macc, but they couldn’t find a way back. And with 12 minutes left, Michael Smith – the 52nd player used by Darlington this season – marked his second start for the club by heading in his first senior goal to make it 2-0. He was warmly applauded by the away fans in the final moments as he was replaced by player No.53, Jordan Marshall.

Perhaps, in a few years time, when the dust has settled on Darlo’s crazy season, Dave Simpson might want to follow up his masterpiece on The Fall by tracking down all 53 of Darlington’s Class of 2010, to find out what became of them. Or perhaps that would be a challenge too far, even for an obsessive.

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