Brief encounter produces painful romance at Feethams

FAN'S EYE VIEW; No 151: Darlington
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The past two seasons have seen a great revival in the fortunes of football in the North-east of England. Last season it was Middlesbrough returning to the Premier League and playing in a posh new stadium at the Riverside. This season it is the turn of Sunderland, although they will have to wait another year for their new ground. Newcastle have fought hard for - and nearly won - the Premiership. I think it was the former Sunderland great Len Shackleton who once called the North-east the "Hot Bed of Soccer". The great days are back again and money is pouring into these clubs.

In the midst of the euphoria surrounding the success of these famous and fashionable clubs it is easy to forget that there are two other League teams in the region who spend virtually all of their time battling for financial survival: Darlington, and that place on the coast whose name, for the purposes of this article, escapes me. This is the real world, the world of sell-'em-and-survive football. We gasp at the millions handed out for exotic South American imports by our neighbours while speculating on when Matty (Appelby), Shaun (Gregan) or Robbie (Blake) will depart for a song.

To mention in conversation that you support a club like Darlington is to raise doubts in people's minds about your sanity. You can see them adjusting their thinking as they prepare themselves to ask the inevitable questions: "Who?" and then "Why?" I seem to spend a disproportionate amount of my time giving answers to these enquiries, the tone of my reply depending on the superciliousness of the questioner. I ignore answering the first question, assuming it to be sarcasm. As far as the second is concerned, I suppose the simple answer is the one most football fans would give: it is the first team my father took me to watch when I was a small boy and there is a sort of sentimental (irrational) attachment to the club that has stuck ever since.

Darlington play at Feethams Ground. As football grounds go it's rather a pleasant place to spend a Saturday afternoon, especially in August and April when cricket and football are played on adjacent fields. However, the ground is now showing its age and plans are afoot for the first stage of an extensive refurbishment programme, to make it an all-seater stadium and bring it into the 21st century.

Like many fans I'll miss the terraces, especially the Tin Shed (North Stand) where the home fans torment the visiting goalkeepers. Before last season the visiting goalies had to endure the torment for the full 90 minutes since the home fans were allowed to mass migrate from one end of the ground to the other at half-time. However, another tradition has ended in the name of safety, so we now remain in our assigned enclosure - except of course to escape for the half-time pie and pee.

Life is never dull at the end of the season at Darlington. Since I returned from exile in Cheshire eight years ago I cannot recall Darlington finishing either below fifth from the top or above third from the bottom of the League in a season. No languishing in mid-table here. Last season was no exception, with a right royal battle for promotion that took us to the end of May and Wembley!

Last season was also exceptional for another reason: which club had the best away record in the four English divisions? Yes, check your tables, it was Darlington, with only one defeat on their League travels. For some unfathomable reason things tend to go wrong at Feethams - seven defeats, one of which provided the bottom club, Torquay, with their only away win.

Darlington FC (or "Darlo" - few refer to the club by their recognised nickname, The Quakers) call themselves The Friendly Club. Complain and they don't throw you out but invite you to the directors' box to watch the game in comfort with a half-time buffet. Certainly that was my experience when I wrote to the chairman about the awful public address system (actually it wasn't working on the day in question but it's so difficult to hear it is impossible cannot tell the difference).

I enjoyed my day as a guest of the club as I enjoy most of my visits to Feethams. The temptation to change to watch big-time football is great - Ferdinand, Asprilla, Juninho et al are all on the doorstep. But I know I won't, there's something comforting, almost paternalistic about supporting the little club with its constant struggle for survival. And, just for once, going one-up on the neighbours - a visit to Wembley.