It's a surreal experience going to the Northern Echo Arena, home of Conference side Darlington F.C. for the first time.
For a hundred years the club played at old Feethams, but when convicted smuggler George Reynolds took over as Chairman and owner in 2000 he decided upon what has turned out to become Reynolds Folly. In 2003 he opened Reynolds Arena on the outskirts of town with 25,000 seats, far too large. It quickly brought The Quakers into administration. After six months in jail in the 1960's he had amassed a £300 million fortune with bathroom fittings. He tried to sign Paul Gascoigne and Faustillo Asprilla without success. He finished up in jail a second time a few years ago..
They finished last in Football League Division II last season, and I was here to watch them host Altrincham F.C., The Robins, who are one of the few part time professional club in the Blue Square Bet Premier League, and are battling the drop, but had won the last two matches.
The Quakers are mid table and in fact go to Wembley on May 7th to face Mansfield Town in the F.A. Trophy Final. www.darlington-fc.net, but there is talk of building a smaller 10,000 seat arena nearer the town centre and selling the current land to a supermarket chain, which makes sense. A decade ago they made history by getting knocked out of the FA Cup, but still advancing with a lottery, after Manchester United withdrew to play in the FIFA World Club tournament in Rio de Janeiro.
They had also once knocked out Chelsea in a 4th Round tie in the early 1950's. Their club crest has a Quakers top hat and Stephenson's Rocket, the famous railway engine that is displayed in the town. Entering the impressive club I see the huge name plate 'Darlington FC ' fronting the reception desk, one of 25 Sandringham Class B17 engines made at the local railway works named after football clubs. It was number 2852 for the London North East Railway, built locally in 1936 and scrapped in 1959.
1,983 fans showed up in the vaste stadium, including almost 100 enthusiastiv Alty fans. Sitting next to me in the press box was 16 year old Alty fan Jack Jolly, under the supervision of Media boss Brian Flynn, who was as smooth as silk, commentating for the first time for Robin Radio.
It was bitterly cold and the pitch was a little hard and bumpy, but both teams showed bags of enthusiasm if not too much skill. It was definately a defensive battle with Stuart Coburn in the Robins goal in incredible form, stopping at least 3 near certain goals. He is their senior player, having played over 500 matches for the club. The Quakers, in black and white hoops had their fans on their feet shouting Darlo, Darlo, Darlo, and the small Alty contingent chanting, singing and waving flags in one small corner, with acres of empty seats all around.
The home team should have won easily, but in the last 10 minutes the visitors started to believe in themselves for the first time. Three minutes from the end they got the 3 points that might save them from the dreaded drop. Darlo had not lost for 13 matches and are still chasing a play-off place. Incredibly, Damian Reeves headed the winner for the Robins three minutes from time. They host fellow strugglers Southport at Moss Road on Tuesday evening in a 'get out of jail' vital match.