Darlington hope for drastic action

Simon Turnbull talks to Jim Platt, who has transformed the fortunes of one of the North-east's less glamorous clubs just in time for tonight's Coca-Cola Cup tie
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With a bit of luck, Jim Platt might get an unsolicited gift sometime after he locks managerial horns with George Graham in the Coca-Cola Cup at Elland Road tonight and at Feethams next Tuesday. A group of Darlington fans are attempting to raise pounds 50,000 to buy him a goalscorer. They call themselves DRASTIC: Darlington Require A Striker To Increase Crowds.

In his first 14 months as a manager in English football, Platt has performed the minor miracle of transforming Darlington from perennial Third Division survival-fighters into genuine promotion material. Beaten 1-0 by Plymouth Argyle in last season's play-off final, they stand sixth in the table. Yet such is life on the breadline in the basement, Platt has not had the luxury of bunging a penny into the transfer market.

"We haven't spent a penny on players because we haven't got it to spend," he said between bites of his lunchtime sandwich after preparing his players for their big night at a young offenders' institution at Newton Aycliffe. Darlington cannot afford a training ground.

Five players have been sold to help balance the books since Platt arrived at the start of last season. The three key personnel he lost in the summer - sweeper Matty Appleby to Barnsley, midfielder Steve Gaughan to Chesterfield and player-coach Gary Bannister to enforced retirement - have been replaced by free transfers.

Darren Roberts, a striker released by Chesterfield at the end of last season, scored the only goal against Hereford United at Feethams on Saturday - his sixth already this season. In midfield, Brian Atkinson, who played for Sunderland in the 1992 FA Cup final, is another of Platt's price-less recruits.

"All of the players here didn't cost a penny," Platt emphasised. "Without being unfair to them, they're players nobody else wants, and you're trying to mould them into players someone else might possibly want."

Ron Yeats, Liverpool's chief scout, has been among those attracted to Feethams to assess 20-year-old Robbie Blake. Central defender Sean Gregan, 22, has also caught a discerning eye or two during the revival Platt has inspired in the Quakers.

It is not Platt's first managerial success. The Ulsterman who spent 11 years as Middlesbrough's goalkeeper and who won 23 caps for Northern Ireland guided Coleraine into the Uefa Cup three times.

When he returned to English football in the North-east last year, he still ran a business selling ladies' underwear and hosiery to market stalls. "George Graham probably didn't have to work when he was out of the game," Platt said. "But I've never signed on the dole and I hope I never have to."

Even at the age of 44, Platt still looks lean and lithe enough to earn his living the old way. Indeed, on Sunday he kept goal as a last minute stand-in for the injured Stephen Pears in Bernie Slaven's testimonial match - a gratis shift which took the Middlesbrough old boy (who earned a top basic weekly wage of pounds 350 in his time at Ayresome Park) to the home of the bold new Boro, where Fabrizio Ravanelli picks up pounds 27,000 after tax each week.

"I don't altogether agree with bringing in foreign players, because I think eventually it will be to the detriment of English football," Platt said. "But Middlesbrough were quoted pounds 4m-pounds 8m for players in this country who are not as good as the ones they've brought in. So I can see their point. I wish them good luck. It's good for the people of Middlesbrough. I hope they win something."

Platt was a member of the only Middlesbrough team - the one Jack Charlton built - which has won anything other than a second-class championship. "Some of the lads were dancing round the pitch, but I felt embarrassed," he recalled of the night Boro clinched the Anglo-Scottish Cup with a goalless draw at Craven Cottage in November 1975. "I stayed in the dressing-room. I didn't regard it as really winning anything."

It was different when Platt kept a clean sheet at Windsor Park on 17 November 1982. That was the night Billy Bingham's Northern Ireland minnows famously defeated West Germany in a European Championship qualifier 1- 0, thanks to an Ian Stewart goal.

The canny custodian-turned-manager will doubtless have that Belfast memory at the back of his mind when he takes his seat in the Elland Road dug- out tonight, even though he claims his players have "no chance" over two legs against Graham's inherited Premiership team.

"Upsets can happen in one-off matches," Platt said. "But in this situation you need your side to have two very, very good days and the Premiership side to have two very, very bad days."

Whatever the score tonight, and at Feethams next Tuesday, Darlington can expect two very, very good days (by their standards) at the gate. And bunging a few quid into the kitty to keep the club running is the name of the management game for breadline bosses like Jim Platt.