Ground Number 679
Wednesday 13th September 2017
Darlington 3-0 FC United Of Manchester
DARLINGTON 1883 - A BRIEF HISTORY
Darlington 1883 was formed in 2012 after the original club of 129 years had gone bust. The main reason for this was the huge running costs of their 25,000 capacity Darlington Arena, the brainchild of former chairman and safecracker George Reynolds. With the whole thing being totally unsustainable, the last few years of the old club's existence were painful with relegation from the Football League in 2010 and a ten point deduction, relegation from the Conference and eventual extinction a couple of years later. To the clubs credit they managed to see out the season, with supporters and local businesses rallying round to make sure they completed their fixtures and didn't leave any other teams in limbo.
They'd have to start the new club playing at Bishop Auckland, some 10 miles away until their recent move back to the town at the start of the year, and they'd also have to take a significant drop down the leagues. Starting out in the step 5 Northern League, they were eventually crowned champions after a long-running battle with Spennymoor Town for the title. Promoted to the NPL D1 North for the 2013/14 season, they would finish as runners-up to Curzon Ashton but would suffer playoff semi-final heartbreak, losing to Ramsbottom United. The following season saw another runners-up spot, this time to Salford City. Bernard Morley and Anthony Johnson were managers of the Ramsbottom side that had beaten them in the playoffs before moving to Salford. Despite them being beaten to the title, they would not be denied promotion a second time, defeating Spennymoor Town 3-2 in the semi-finals, before beating Bamber Bridge 2-0 in the final. The season before last saw them list the NPL Premier title and restore them to the level that the old club would have finished at, the Conference North. Last season they finished 5th but were barred from taking part in the playoffs due to lack of seats. This season they started well enough, winning their first 3 games. However, since then, they have struggled and were winless in 7 games prior to tonight's game.
In the FA Cup their best effort since reforming being the 2nd Qualifying Round which they reached by default this season before losing 2-1 to lower league Lancaster City. They've only played in the competition since 2014/15, with their only victory coming against West Auckland Town, who they defeated 3-1 in a Preliminary Round replay. This season saw their best-ever run in the FA Trophy since reforming, though again it was by default, losing a 3rd Qualifying Round replay to NPL Premier strugglers Marine. The new club have no local cup honours as of yet but have recently started a reserve side who play in the step 7 Wearside League. Formerly called Horden Colliery Welfare, they were taken over by Darlington following financial difficulties and moved to a local 4G facility, some 30 miles away from their original ground. It was a case of either do that, or the club go bust, with the former management teams and players retained.
I'd been wanting to go to Darlington ever since they got their new ground, mainly for the fact that I could complete the Conference North in groundhopping terms. I'd also enjoyed visiting the town and the people were nice and friendly, so it was a no-brainer for me. Initially, I thought I'd have to wait a while due to the distance, but then I saw that they were playing on a Wednesday night a few days before the game, back in March. So, hotel booked, I drove 250 miles only to see their game against Bradford Park Avenue called off at 4 pm due to a waterlogged pitch. In the end, after much frustration, I went to Shildon v South Shields on that night, but not without a late scare that the game may be off.
After my afternoon game at South Shields, I made my way south to Darlington. I got there just before 4 and with nearly 4 hours until kick off, I decided to walk into town. I'd parked fairly near the ground in a road called Upsall Drive, near the hotel that I'd stayed at on my previously aborted visit. Typically, it started to rain as soon as I parked up, though hopefully not enough to affect the game. Thankfully it soon stopped and upon walking into town, I'd forgotten how close it was to where I'd parked. First stop was cash converters as I still wanted a replacement digital camera. After many fails over the past week or so, I finally struck gold. A Samsung WB101 bridge camera was purchased for £38, around half of what it was listed on eBay for and a bit lower than what it had previously sold for. Having previously had a faulty camera from the Wycombe branch, next stop was Poundland to secure some batteries to test it. I also picked up Jim Leighton's autobiography and some Irn Bru.
Happy that the camera worked, I headed to a pub where I'd been before, The Quakerhouse, for a half of Celtic Marches Tutti Frutti cider, which was decent enough. I then went to another pub for another half, this time 'Happy Daze' at The Old Vic. This pub was home to a funny and friendly dog who enjoyed lots of attention from the customers as he propped up the bar. From there it was to Wetherspoons, The William Stead, the only one I'd not been to in Darlington where I had the roast chicken and chips along with a bottle of Hazy Hog cider. That was it drinking wise for the night, I'd purposely selected low strength drinks so that I was OK to drive home some 4 hours later. It wasn't the best Wetherspoons, with only lukewarm chips, but I couldn't be bothered to complain. With it now being 6.35, I made my way to the ground. Walking past other food options left me wishing I'd gone there instead, but what was done, was done. After fetching some things from my car, I made my way to the ground, arriving at 7.10.
There was a brief scare that the match may be off, but Darlington fixed the problem of standing water. Entry was a pricey £14 and they were still waving buckets at fans, wanting more cash for ground improvements. Programmes were £2.50, but it was a nice thick decent effort. I also bought a pork pie for £2.50 and that was excellent, one of the nicer pies I've had at football. The first half was a non-event, both keepers making saves, but chances few and far between. Right on half time, Darlington had Kevin Burgess sent off for a poor tackle. Maybe it was a tad harsh, but in the modern game, the rulebook says it was the correct decision. Darlington took the lead on 52 minutes, Nathan Cartman finishing well from inside the area after good setup play. I put FCUM Radio at this point as I was right up one end of the pitch. Darlington were awarded a penalty after 66 minutes and Matty Hughes, the man who committed the foul received his marching orders as it was his second booking. However, FCUM keeper Lloyd Allinson tipped the ball onto the bar to keep his side in the game. It was only a brief respite with Darlington well on top. The hosts extended their lead on 77 minutes when David Ferguson went on a good run before drilling home from outside the area. Around five minutes from time, Darlington rifled home the third thanks to Joe Wheatley. The visitors were already down to nine men at this point as Michael Connor got his second yellow card for an angry reaction to a foul. That was how it stayed until time with the result never in doubt.
The attendance of 1,178 had been boosted by a significant following from Manchester who had given their own team great vocal backing over the evening. The attendance was Darlington's lowest ever in the Conference North and lowest since a midweek game against Ilkeston in March 2016. It looked like a combination of high entry price and an indifferent start to the season had turned fans off. I left the ground at 9.45 with it taking around 15 minutes to get back to my car. I then drove to Sainsbury's to fill up with fuel before driving home. I left Darlington at 10.10 and it was a slow journey at first with a road closure on the A1M. We were diverted down a single track road and some selfish pig crawled the whole way along the ten-mile stretch making a long tailback as the two cars at the front wouldn't overtake. A couple more minor areas of roadworks aside, it was a good journey home, with me getting through the door at 2 am. I stayed up for another 90 minutes, before getting some much-needed sleep. It's been an expensive couple of weeks off work with me breaking the £1000 barrier on groundhopping spending a lot easier than I'd hoped. Over £400 of that has been in this past two weeks alone and it certainly makes you appreciate organized groundhops where you get to see multiple games in one day.
BLACKWELL MEADOWS is the home of Darlington Rugby Club but it has seen great improvements since Darlington FC moved in. From what I understand, the sole stand before the football club moved in was a small seated stand holding around 200 fans. This is set back a fair way from the pitch and you tend to get people standing in front of it. Since lodging, they have added a decent terrace behind one goal, this holds around a thousand under cover. There is also an additional stand on the far side and this adds another 300 seats. I'm not sure if this is enough for the step up but the rest of the ground is open standing and has a 3,300 capacity.
The bar at the ground is fairly spacious, although it is unmistakably the rugby club's. There's a better than average range of drinks though. Catering is well priced compared to other clubs with the pork pie delicious and a real highlight. The edge of town is a 20-minute walk away and this has a great range of places to eat and drink.
SCORES ON THE DOORS
1: Ground facilities & condition (for the level)
Not one of the better in the Conference North (5)
2: Area around the ground (parking, food/drink, public transport)
Not much in the immediate vicinity of the ground and parking is limited. 20 minutes from town. (6)
3: Welcome / Club Friendliness
4: Value for money
Poor value, one of the pricier in the Conference North and about a fiver too much (3)
5: Social Media & Website
Well maintained (7)
A good effort with lots to read, worth the £2.50 price (8)
7: Game entertainment
Took a while to get going (5)
8: Tea Bar
A good selection at reasonable prices (8)
9: Bar / Clubhouse
OK, but not much football related stuff (6)
10: Club Shop
Nothing at the ground that I saw, online store though (5)
OVERALL SCORE OUT OF 100: 59
AVERAGE SCORE: 5.9