To say that fans of Darlington have been dealt a tough hand in recent years would be the understatement of the century. Ten years ago, there were empty promises of top flight football, big name signings were just around the corner and a new stadium was on it’s way.
Only the latter came to fruition, The Northern Echo Arena now stands as a vast structure, standing as an impressive icon of the club’s ambition. In truth it is the biggest white elephant in the Football League, and is an easy target picked up on by fans who slate Darlington as the laughing stock of the professional ranks. Years of mismanagement have led the Quakers to their present rut, rooted to the bottom of League Two, seemingly without a prayer of avoiding the drop into the Blue Square Premier. Currently 19 points from safety, it was announced on Monday that the club had parted company with their manger, former Republic of Ireland international Steve Staunton. The Irishman, who’s only previous managerial position was a short-lived spell in charge of his mother country, managed just four victories in his 23 game tenure. In spite of some positivity from Quakers fans who felt that the side had improved under his stewardship, the decision was taken to change things at the top again.
Granted, Staunton’s record would not make happy reading for any side, but Darlington were expected to struggle this season. Having faced administration last season and being forced to radically trim the squad over the summer merely to survive and make the big kick-off in August is indicative of the dire straights that they have found themselves in. The demise of the club is not a story to be told during just the last season or two, it is a tale which has developed over a much longer period. It seems that they may now be about to reach their lowest low. Quakers fans will certainly be crossing everything that it does not get much worse. Many would look at the club and wonder exactly where it all went wrong. This writer visited the Northern Echo Arena last season and was wowed by the impressive facilities on offer in County Durham. Plans had long been in place for a surge up the leagues, but the club stretched too far under separate owners George Reynolds and George Houghton. The dream of leading Darlington into the Premier League, amongst English football’s elite seems to have been a vision too far. Since the move to their impressive new home, the club did not even make it into League One. It seems that they were some way off achieving their goals.
So what to make of Staunton’s sacking. The issue here is timing. The decision from above comes against the backdrop of another home defeat at the weekend. A record low crowd of less than 1,500 were on hand to witness Staunton’s final game at the helm, indicative of the slump that the Quakers now find themselves in. It would seem that turning the season around, although a preference, is not a possibility. Staunton moving on suggests that Darlington is now a club facing the facts. Next season they will be playing in the Blue Square Premier. It would appear that the board felt that the former Liverpool defender would not be the man to stabilise the ship and lead them on a charge for a return. It would be hard to find a realistic football fan anywhere in the country who honestly felt that Darlington could maintain their Football League status following their disastrous start to the campaign. Many would argue that they should have been preparing for life after relegation a lot sooner than this. However, no football club can be seen to be waving the white flag too early.
As soon as a club gives in, where can the optimistic fan turn to? Darlington have battled on admirably and should the seemingly inevitable happen, the Football League will be a poorer place without them. Of course, nothing is confirmed yet, and this writer would like nothing more than to be apologising, and retracting all talk of relegation come May. However, it would be a tall order to avoid the trap door now. The fall of the Quakers is a stark reminder to everyone of just how fragile an entity a football club can be. We all hold at least one of them dear to our hearts, but even the coldest of fans will have some sympathy for Darlo. Yes they have spent beyond their means and dared to dream a giant leap too far from reality, but nobody would wish such plight on their worst enemy.
There are lessons to be learnt by too many to name here from the events that have passed at Darlington. It is only a shame that some have had to suffer so severely for these lessons to be learnt.