Quakers head for revival meeting at Wembley
After years of darkness, the FA Trophy final offers light to Darlington fans such as Stephen Brenkley
Saturday 07 May 2011
On a glorious Saturday afternoon in 1966, football history was enacted.
What happened that day has sustained fans through grim periods and invariably been revisited on the intermittent occasions in the succeeding 45 years that the good times have rolled again.
It was the day, of course, that Darlington secured promotion to the old Division Three with a gruelling goalless draw against Torquay United. Ten weeks later, England were to win the World Cup but, for those still celebrating the triumph of the mighty Quakers, that all but passed us by.
Darlington have had their fleeting moments in the sun since and indeed won a Division Four championship 20 years ago.
But it was that team of 1965-66 which won 25 of their 46 matches, still a club record, and featured the club's two longest-serving players, Ron Greener and John Peverell, that can be said to have provided the Quakers' greatest moments for supporters of a certain vintage.
Until now. The trip to Wembley today for the FA Trophy final against Mansfield Town may not be the stuff of dreams for most football fans but it could hardly have been more welcome for Darlington, passing through the latest of their gloom-laden times. Last year the club dropped out of the league (for the second time). They are broke, their difficulties compounded by a 25,000-seater ground built on the outskirts of the town in 2004, a good-looking white elephant which is rarely a tenth full.
Darlington were virtually thrust on me. Having been born in Blundellsands, Liverpool were my first love. But the family moved and Feethams, 20-odd miles away, was the nearest league ground. So began a lifelong devotion, the next heartbreak always around the corner. Fans of bigger clubs do not know the half of it and Liverpool's disappointments, which have been pretty conspicuous lately, have never hurt as much, nor have their triumphs, which used to be so frequent, supplied as much joy.
Part of the doubtful pleasure of supporting the Quakers was because of where they played until seven years ago. They shared Feethams with Darlington Cricket Club, who were their landlords.
The main entrance to the football ground, which has its own mini-twin towers imitating the old Wembley, took you round the cricket pitch. It is irredeemably sad that the Quakers left and the cricket club has lost something by their departure too.
Cricket came first pretty quickly but, even now, wherever I am reporting cricket for this newspaper in the football season, Saturdays at 4.50pm are spent trying to get the Quakers' score. Not all, actually. In the dark times I have been too scared to discover.
Ejection from the League, the reason Darlington were able to qualify for the FA Trophy, is never ideal. More than other relegations, it is death by a thousand buts. But for that daft sending-off, but for that missed penalty, but for that unlucky deflection, but for injuries, and so on.
But – another but – Darlington, though still uncomfortably close to folding, have had an enjoyable season. Fans have been more engaged by their tilt at the Blue Square Premier play-offs and their run to Wembley than they would have been by a dismal, just below mid-table, Division Two campaign.
Darlington have twice been to Wembley before in Division Four play-off finals and lost. I have frequently said to anyone prepared to listen that I would never visit the new Wembley until Darlington were there and so presumed it was a journey I would never make. But today with my wife and seven-year-old daughter, both of whom might prefer to be elsewhere, I am making it, and for the Quakers, followed by 8,000 fans it could yet be a new beginning.
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