Football: Feethams expects Hodgson to deliver

There was a time when Darlington could not afford to win promotion, but it is a different story now.
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IN ONE week during the pre-season a club signed four players. Newcastle United? Rangers? Both wrong. The epicentre of this flurry of moves was, of all places, Darlington.

True, they were all free transfers, but it underlined a change in direction at Feethams. The likes of Marco Gabbiadini, Gary Bennett, Craig Liddle and Adam Reed would not be attracted to the Third Division unless they believed Darlington are a club with their attention on a higher station in life. Maybe this football backwater is about to move forward.

It is an impression that survives a visit to the North-East. Feethams is still a glorious anachronism in that it is attached to a cricket ground but, on the east side, a spanking new 5,500-seater stand looms while even the terracing to the north - which looks old enough to have intruded on WG Grace's vision when he played at the ground - was getting a lick of paint.

The place, buttressed by new owner Mike Peden's money, oozes ambition. So much so, even David Hodgson is conscious of the expectation riding on his back, which is not something every manager of Darlington, who have never risen above the bottom two divisions, has had to live with.

"The new owner's ideas are certainly big, if not a little scary," Hodgson said. "We're running an awful lot before we can walk, so to speak, but if it pulls off, if the team and the commercial side are successful, then the club will have turned a substantial corner.

"A 10,000-seat ground can become a very lonely place if you're playing badly and there's no-one coming through the turnstiles. Right now that pounds 2.7m stand is bearing down on my shoulders - but that's the way it goes. I'd rather have that than a tin shed over there."

Hodgson, 37, comes across as a man who can bear the weight. A player who won a European Cup and two championships with Liverpool, he was a successful agent prior to joining Darlington in 1995. That option is still there, as it was when he fell out with the old board.

"The people who were running the club then didn't want to go into the Second Division," he said. "I was told we mustn't go up because we couldn't afford promotion, which made the whole thing a pointless exercise.

"Our playing budget was pounds 280,000 which was absolutely nothing, but we brought in a few frees, got them believing in themselves and if we'd gone up I think we'd have stayed there."

Hodgson left in November 1995, returning after almost a year to the day to find a club whose horizons had widened. Hence the summer arrivals to reinforce a side whose 19th position in the Third Division hid several positive aspects to last season.

"Players don't come for nothing," Hodgson said. "We all know that, but the players who have come to the club have had far greater financial offers from elsewhere. I know that for a fact. What helps us is that in terms of the Third Division we play attractive football.

"The table last year didn't reflect how good we were because we were badly let down by our away form - one win, 16 defeats. I don't know why, these things happen. I remember Leeds couldn't win a game away from Elland Road the year after they won the Premiership and, if Howard Wilkinson couldn't work out that one, what chance did I have?

Hodgson did not need the Football Association's director of coaching to discern that a defence that leaked 72 goals needed strengthening, which is why Bennett and Reed have been recruited while Gabbiadini, whose longevity makes his age of 30 a surprise, ought to be able to profit from a side who were second top scorers at home in their division.

It is Liddle's capture which pleases Hodgson most, however. "He's not a Third Division footballer," he said. "He was getting games in the Premiership the season before last. It's too late, he's signed, but he's too good for this level. And I'm delighted."

Liddle was signed from Middlesbrough, which is where Hodgson began a playing career that peaked at Liverpool. You would expect him to have a rosy view of his time at Anfield, but he takes the contrary attitude, blaming himself rather than the club.

"They weren't really the team for me, because of the system and the style they played," he said. "I'll never regret going to Anfield but I'd have been better suited to a club where the demands on me were greater. I was just one of many at Liverpool - if you think you're good we've got 25 better. It was that sort of thing.

"If the expectations were greater I think I'd have risen to them. I'd have been better off at a club where the demands were on me to work, to run up and down both sides of the field. I became a small fish in a big pool."

The effect, he admits, was not beneficial. "It didn't get in the papers, but I lost my way, went off the rails and spent a lot of time in night clubs.

"There's not one player at Darlington who could do something I haven't done, on the training field or off it, in a night club or a pub. If they can learn from my mistakes they will become better players."

Hodgson says he is trying to set Premiership standards without the money, apeing what Crewe Alexandra have done on gates well below Feethams' capacity. "Dario Gradi has given a lot of us hope," he said. "Every club in the lower divisions is trying to copy him."

Getting promotion this season would move Darlington closer, but Hodgson will not be emboldened to make predictions. "Every manager should be thinking, hoping it's going to be their year," he said. "I like to think with the players we have brought in, and the style we play, we'll be in with a shout."

At least Darlington would embrace success this time.