Life beyond the Premier League: Darlo buzzing again after the four-league plummet

They start life as a new club in the ninth tier today and their manager Martin Gray is relishing the challenge, he tells Martin Hardy

Martin Gray is, for a moment at least, 19 again, driving along the A690 in his Fiesta XR2i, heading towards Roker Park for his Sunderland debut against Liverpool. Behind him is Brian Atkinson, team-mate and mate, in a Citroë*. Twelve months earlier Gray had been a Northern League player with Ferryhill. He has not slept a wink through nerves. The two are so excited that Atkinson drives into the back of his friend when the road goes into one lane because of an earlier crash.

"I pulled into the players' car park at Roker with me bumper hanging on the floor and me back end smashed in," recalls Gray. "Brian was supposed to be on the bench but he didn't make it. It was two hours before kick-off. I went in and the gaffer [Denis Smith] goes, 'Where's Atky?' I've gone, 'He's just smashed me f***ing car. He's gone to hospital with whiplash.'

"On the bright side, I'd stopped worrying about my debut!"

Gray roars with laughter. "I've just done myself telling you that story, haven't I?"

The fast lane to the slow lane?

"Yeah! That's it!"

There are more laughs, plenty of them. It is important; a sense of humour could prove Gray's most valuable commodity in the coming months.

On 25 May, Darlington Football Club were effectively relegated four divisions from the Evo-Stik Premier Division on the recommendation of the Football Association. It was the cruel, final knife twist after four months of determined efforts somehow to save a local side that had started with two men, Mott The Hoople blaring out of their Peugeot and a £50,000 12th-hour attempt to keep the club from administration.

Considerable sums of money from supporters, hours of effort, help from the local newspaper, The Northern Echo, hope and negotiation could not provide the necessary Creditors' Voluntary Agreement to pay off debts over three years. Owner Raj Singh, who has lost about £1.2m during his tenure, did not accept. No CVA meant serious punishment and so Darlington sank to the ninth tier of English football, Northern League First Division, where it all began for Gray (before he went big time in his XR2i).

From the apparent ashes came Darlington 1883 (the year the original side was formed), a new chairman, Denis Pinnegar, an advisory board. And hope. The new debt-free club are to share Bishop Auckland's two-year-old ground which has a capacity of 2,000. It is where they will begin their new life today, 'away' to their landlords, in front of a full house.

The 'old' 25,000 all-seater stadium built when George Reynolds was in charge and owned by businessmen Philip Scott and Graham Size through Darlington Arena Ltd is a white elephant that sits unused and unloved with no concrete plans in place for its future.

Then Gray, by now 40 and the owner of a successful company, the Martin Gray Academy, was offered the post of manager.

"I got a phone call from the chairman six weeks ago to see if I'd be interested in the job and it's something I've always kept a close eye on," he adds. "I've been around Darlington for sort of 10 years, as a player, as a coach, as a youth-team coach and as a caretaker manager. It's sort of 12 years later so, yeah, I'm an overnight success!

"I told him what my ambition was and that I want to make a difference. Hopefully, in 10 years' time, people will say, 'He took it on there and look at where we got to now.' I've brought good staff in with me, I have got Tony Norman and Brian Atkinson [ex-Sunderland] and Sean Gregan [ex-Darlington], and Harry Dunn, people with lots of knowledge about the game. It's really exciting times. The club has been hit as hard as it can be. The only way now is forward. It was the right time to step in.

"Initially, it was a real big kick [going down four divisions] for the club. We survived and then all of a sudden we got whacked with a stick. We've been hit that hard over the last few years, and certainly the last few months, there is an acceptance now. We had an open day and over 1,000 people came. We have now sold around 700 season tickets. There is a real positive buzz. What we will have this year is a massive crowd watching us round the Northern League. The grounds will be packed.

"The aim is to get promoted straight away but it will not be easy. It's a tough league. The North-east brings the FA Vase back every year and that proves it. We have to be respectful to the league, it is tough and there are lots of good managers out there. We hope to climb and climb and climb."

In the centre of a school field at the Southmoor Academy in Sunderland, 55 children of various ages are running around with footballs. "Right, everyone side to side," commands Gray. "Now, get a ball, a little burst of speed and then a trick, maybe a stepover." He follows his own lead; in his kit and in his element. This is the day job, the Martin Gray Academy, where he has built a business since he was last involved in football, as caretaker manager, at Darlington.

There is an obvious and natural progression from those who do well at his academies to a new youth team at Darlington at Under-18 level, as a football club – and a community – begin their slow rebirth.

"We have got kids in the school at Southmoor today, and other schools throughout the North-east and we are working with them and, hopefully, they can go into Darlington's Under-18 side at some stage," he adds. "It has that great support to it.

"There were two players left at the club when I took over and I sold one straight away to York for a nominal fee. He deserved to be in the Football League. So there was one player really!

"It was a blank piece of paper. We have met many players and we want players with the right mentality. There will be potentially 2,000 people here each week and some of the players have never experienced that. We will take a huge following with us and we will be regarded as the Manchester United of the division.

"We've signed 15 players and we have one or two more targets. We're very hopeful and positive and you have to be otherwise there is no point in doing it. The chairman has given me a good budget to work with in the league. The supporters' trust have given us £40,000 which has been a big help. The Northern Echo have become shirt sponsors and the editor, Peter Barron, has been a big help as well.

"People are coming forward now to show support. The signs are good, we just have to make it work on the pitch now. I came to Darlington in 1999-2000 when we went to Wembley in the play-off final. Twelve years later we are at Bishop Auckland and with no disrespect, it is chalk and cheese.

"I live not too far from Darlington. I know the game's changed but you used to go for a beer with the fans. The players will have to show their faces and spend a bit of time with the punters, and in the hospitality side of it. These people are putting good money in and they have to get something back. I will instil that into the players. We have to work together on this. It has to be a real community club. That is how it is run now.

"There has been sadness about what has happened over the last year but there is a desire to make it work. There has been a lot of hard work to get it back on track and now there is hope."

Hope. Always a good starting point. For anything.

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