Fan's Eye View: Darlington: Darlo's faithful few waiting for worm to turn

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The Independent Online
IT MIGHT seem odd for someone born and bred in Teesside to have ended up watching a Third Division football club, but supporting Darlington FC does have its advantages. The Quakers, as they are nicknamed, or Darlo, as they are more commonly known, do make you appreciate when the good times arrive. Not for us the constant craving or ceaseless selfish quest for trophies and league championships - survival first by selling players and anything else on top of that has always been very much a bonus.

Geographically, Darlington stands 15 miles from their Premiership neighbours Middlesbrough, whose training ground at Hurworth is closer to Feethams than the Riverside. The past decade has probably been one of the most contrasting in the club's history. The fanzine I edit, Mission Impossible, has faithfully observed the goings on at Feethams for the best part of it and in March of next year a 10th anniversary bash will take place in the club's redeveloped pounds 2.5m East Stand.

Back in March 1989 such a sight would have been unthinkable, the club were battling to avoid relegation to the Conference and it was not until that month Darlo won a home game in the League in '88-89. All to no avail as we blew it big time in a crunch six-pointer with Colchester and the non-League trapdoor beckoned. However, fired by Richard Corden's money and Brian Little's inspiration the Quakers returned to their rightful place one year later.

Since then we have had one promotion, as Division Four champions in '90- 91, a trip to the Third Division play-off final at Wembley against Plymouth in May '95, one relegation and three further attempts to drop out of the League again.

There is only so much money the club can afford to spend without going out of business. There is a community feel among the fans that tends to get lost the higher up the League you go, and it is this spirit that keeps you going in the leaner times. Hence the reason why I can sympathise with supporters of Chester, Hull and Oxford United - it could so easily happen to us.

Many of the things that attracted me to Feethams in the first place have since disappeared under the weight of the Taylor Report - no longer can the fans change ends. But one piece of trivia that sets Darlo apart from all the existing Football League clubs is that Feethams is the only current ground that shares its facilities with a cricket club.

This season, under director of coaching Dave Hodgson's management (in his second spell), the signings of Craig Liddle (Middlesbrough), Gary Bennett (Scarborough) and Marco Gabbiadini inspired the team to a five- match unbeaten run that took us to the very pinnacle of the Third Division. Since then, however, the sale of Canadian defender, Jason De Vos, to Dundee United for pounds 400,000, under the jurisdiction of the club's owner Mike Peden, a Stratford-upon-Avon property developer, has contributed to the team's slide into mid-table - not helped by a couple of home postponements due to the state of the Feethams pitch.

Apparently the new stand was constructed above an old sewer which has since caused drainage problems. Advice came from a most unlikely source, Manchester United, who had been having problems of their own. The signing of 500lb worth of worms was the result. Hopefully they will have disappeared by the time we play United's arch-enemies, Manchester City, in the second round of the FA Cup.

Our neighbours Middlesbrough may rely on their foreign imports to attract the crowds at the Riverside but Darlo have their own overseas stars thanks to Hodgy's connections. One of them, the Austrian Mario Dorner, averaged a goal every two games last season. The former Sunderland player Gabbiadini has Italian blood in him.

One of the most progressive developments at Feethams has occurred via the club's own supporters. We now have a supporters' club, three fanzines, an exiles' organisation called DAFTS (Darlington Away Far Travelling Supporters), and a thriving online community that consists of official and unofficial websites, message boards and a discussion group calling itself Virtual Quakers. Not bad when you consider our attendances average around 4,000.