Football: Fan's Eye View: Quaking in our boots: No. 28: Darlington

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The Independent Online
'TO LOSE league status once may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose it twice looks like carelessness,' as Lady Bracknell might have said if she had spent the last few years standing on the open end at Feethams.

Although most Darlington supporters probably have very pleasant memories of the Quakers' one- year sojourn in the Vauxhall Conference in the 1989-90 season I doubt that many are particularly keen to repeat the experience; the feeling is that next time may be terminal.

To supporters of fat cat Premier League clubs survival may not seem much of a goal, but to the Feethams faithful it is an outcome devoutly to be wished. A possibly pessimistic view of the club's chances this year are 6-1 against finishing bottom and

3-1 against being compulsorily wound up. Supporters of clubs like Darlington have deep reserves of stoicism but a twilight existence in the HFS Loans First Division or similar may just be too much to bear.

In order to cheer up recent recruits, or those with short memories, the Darlington fanzine Mission Impossible is running a review of the 1972-73 season, the nadir of which was a 7-0 defeat at Bradford City on 23 December, followed immediately by a 7-0 home defeat at the feet of the eventual champions, Southport; Darlington finished bottom, of course, just behind Northampton. They also finished in the bottom six of the division in six of the next seven seasons.

A slight upturn in fortunes in the early Eighties failed to prepare the remaining supporters for the shock of promotion in 1984-85 under the sadly missed Cyril Knowles. This was the start of a sequence of six promotions or relegations in the next eight years leaving us, of course, exactly where we started a struggling Fourth (all right Third) Division outfit.

But I for one wouldn't want to have missed this period; two championships and two bottoms in the last four years may have severely tested the recuperative powers of those supporters of a nervous disposition but it certainly wasn't boring; to those who remember the Seventies and early Eighties this is surely sufficient.

No doubt there are those of a delicate nature who pine for the mediocre certainties of earlier days but give me the heady excitement of recent times. Whether the current manager, Billy McEwan, is leading us to oblivion (a la entirely unmissed Dave Booth) or to glory (a la wonderful Brian Little) is unknown, but memories of recent times have bred such feelings of insecurity that every game seems pregnant with fascinating possibilities; four games without defeat bring forth dreams of a play-off place, more recently six games without a win lead to nervous examination of the bottom third of the table.

And all the time titbits of information through the grapevine suggest that the very existence of the club is in doubt. Certainly the making of a video to tout the club's best and most popular player, goalkeeper Mark Prudhoe, is scarcely designed to leave the diehard supporter sleeping soundly in his bed. Talk about mixed feelings: if we do sell him can we avoid the Conference? If we don't can we avoid the Northern League?

All Manchester United supporters have to worry about is when they will eventually win the League. Will the red hordes ever know the tormenting uncertainties of life in the slow lane? (Possibly the hard shoulder may be a more apposite metaphor). I doubt it.

At times of self-doubt or moments of particular clarity I wonder whether I was wise to introduce my sons to the dubious pleasures of supporting Darlington, particularly as I am an exile living in the Lancashire corridor between Manchester and Liverpool, and they have to suffer the inevitable incredulity of their school-mates - but I console myself that this will give them a mental toughness akin to Johnny Cash calling his boy Sue. Whether they'll eventually be as forgiving, only time will tell.

However, one consolation of involuntary exile is that I tend to see more away games where the feelings of comradeship are keener, the expectations of success are lower and the (occasional) celebrations are less confined.

So it may not appear much of an ambition but if Darlington are still in the Third Division next season, still poised between joy and despair, I for one will not be unhappy. After all, as Oscar Wilde said, but presumably about some southern team, 'This suspense is terrible. I hope it will last.'

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