Darlo’s nearly season twenty years on
When George Reynolds took over Darlington Football Club in May 1999 he vowed to take them to the Premier League. With a fortune of almost £30m, it wasn’t entirely implausible at the time, yet as most know, Darlington’s exit from the fourth tier of English football would come later than Reynolds planned, and also not in the direction he promised.
For one season however, the fans in the Tin Shed dreamed along with Reynolds as it looked like David Hodgson would guide the club out of the bottom division for the first time in eight seasons.
Pre-season recruitment saw the likes of Andy Collett, Neil Aspin, Paul Heckingbottom, Martin Gray and Neil Heaney join the club, with many of these having top two division pedigree. They joined Craig Liddle and Marco Gabbiadini at the club, creating a strong squad for this level. The season started well for Darlo with three wins and no goals conceeded. Crowds began to increase at Feethams as they locals jumped on the feelgood factor.
At the beginning of December they sat in 3rd place, the final automatic promotion spot, four points off top spot. They continued their good form in to the new year, and with only five games left were sitting pretty in third place, five points clear of the chasing pack.
The wheels began to come off at this stage, with Darlington winning only one of their final five games, finishing an agonising fourth place in the table and missing out on an automatic promotion spot and having to settle for a play-off spot. Darlo dusted themselves down, with the extra incentive of local pride to play for in the playoffs. Local rivals Hartlepool had crept in to the playoffs courtesy of a final day victory over Hull City, creating a two legged derby with the prize a place at Wembley.
The first leg was at Victoria Park with Darlo hosting the return. The game at Hartlepool was a tempeteous affair with tackles flying in from the first whistle. Both sides had chances but lady luck shone of the away side as they grabbed a 0-2 win to take back to Feethams
Darlo completed business back at Feethams with a 1-0 win to take them to Wembley and a playoff final against Barry Fry’s Peterborough United. On 26th May 2000 33,383 fans made their way to Wembley to cheer on their respective sides.
Darlo lined up with the majority of the players who had taken them this far, with Gabbiadini and Duffield leading the attack.
The first half was almost all Darlington, with waves of attacks, yet they were unable to grab the all important goal. The second half was more even with both sides having their chances. The key passage of play was around the 70 minute mark with Gabbiadini having an excellent low shot saved when it looked destined for the bottom corner. Minutes later Andy Clarke rounded Collett and looked destined to score but was denied by a saving tackle from Craig Liddle. Less than a minute later Darlo failed to clear their lines and Clarke was through again. Collett could only parry the first shot back to the Peterborough man and he fired home at the second time of asking to give Peterborough a scarcely deserved lead. Darlington were unable to salvage anything from the game and it was the Cambridgeshire club celebrating promotion rather than the County Durham one.
The following season Darlo were unable to repeat their heroics, partly due to the loss of Gabbiadini to Northampton Town and finished 20th, only four points above bottom place.
Things soon began to turn sour at Darlington with a absurdly oversized stadium move, Reynolds going to prison, Tino Asprilla almost but probably never signing before financial collapse, reformation and a long slog back from the Northern League. How different things might have been if they had been able to win that playoff final twenty years ago.
For any Darlo fans brave enough, you can find the footage of the Peterborough final here.