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Conquering the Arena of Emptiness

By: Andrew Doherty
Date: 25/04/2010

I REMEMBER the 1968/9 season. My boyish enthusiasm was dissipated into constant disappointment. Our league record at the end of the season in the same division that we’re in now was: won 9, drawn 15, lost 22. Before today’s game, the record was: won 7, drawn 17, lost 19.

Let’s face facts. We were rubbish then and we’re rubbish now. We were lucky to stay up last year and only did so because of Luton’s plight. I actually have more sympathy for today’s opponents Darlington, who last year were a decent team before the financial gremlins stepped in. We’re just rubbish on the football field.

So here we are. Almost at the end of the line. I could have gone to see Ragnarok and Necro Ritual at the Infernal Damnation Fest in London today. Instead I chose to go to Darlington. Same thing really. My wife Celine came along too. She’s been loyally coming along and knows that we’re not a very good team. Earlier in the season she observed that we weren’t very good at passing. She witnessed grown men crying as we finally broke that run and secured three points against Shrewsbury. It was a false dawn. We fought for a while but from what I hear of the Torquay game we appear to have given up the fight. The mathematical possibility of survival is there but who believes it? What are the chances or expectations of us winning three matches out of three? Can we rely on Barnet gaining no more than one point from four games? I could not get away from the idea that today was the day when Celine and I would be able to capture the magnitude of the silent torture that our team has been inflicting on us. So here we were in Darlington, ready to go down with the ship. It used to be daubed on toilet walls that if Harwich was for the continent, then Darlington must be for the incontinent. What better place therefore to see our season go down the toilet?

Sod it, I thought cerebrally. We’re going to have a good day out today. I don’t know what we’re going to get. Gallows humour, if last year is anything to go by. Gallows humour is humour nevertheless. Let’s concentrate on the positives. Town fans are a great bunch, you never know what we’re going to see on the pitch, and it’s a new ground and a new place to visit. I’d never been to Darlington before and know no-one else who’s visited it either. I never imagined it to be an exotic place, in fact the only thing I knew about it was that it is a Quaker town with a railway history and accordingly it is on the East Coast rail line. I did carry out some research and discovered that Darlington has a Tourist Information Centre and not much else. Here it told me under "Performing Arts" that the life and soul of the town was La Bamba Night Club, which hosted Whistling Jack Smith in 1967 before being burnt down. I imagine it must have been rebuilt as there is evidence of the Tropicana North East Salsa band performing there this year. The devotees of Tiger Tiger must be writhing in envy. Today though the task in hand was to visit the Darlington Arena, Centre of the Underperforming Arts.

"Going somewhere nice?" asked the man in the station coffee shop, cheerfully? A grim, cold and nondescript place up north. "Darlington" was what I said. We nodded knowingly. In spite of the best efforts of East Coast Trains , we got to Darlington in time to have a look at the town centre. Actually, it’s quite nice. It has a proper square with an indoor market and a Venetian tower. But on to the matter in hand. The Darlington Arena is 30 minutes walk away. We saw lots of people wearing black and white shirts. Unfortunately these shirts had "Northern Rock" on them and belonged to Newcastle supporters. The nearer we got to the sumptuous stadium, the less sense there was of anything happening. A few Town fans were hanging round outside. We went inside and joined the Town throng. To our amazement it was upbeat and optimistic and so it continued. The enthusiasm certainly wasn’t commensurate to our league position. The players don’t deserve these fans. Elsewhere there were rows and rows of empty seats. "Is there anybody out there?" called out a wag in the Town end. There wasn’t. This was a 25,000 seater stadium with the princely sum of 1,911 people of whom some 350 or more came from Grimsby.

Town lined up: Colgan, Bore, Lancashire, Atkinson, Widdowson, Devitt, Hudson, Sweeney, Coulson, Peacock, Akpa Akpro. I don’t think we could have improved on this. Town started breezily and the width suited our passing game which was working well. After 6 minutes Akpro looked to have been tripped by the goalkeeper when through but the referee decided that the ball came first. On 15 minutes, Devitt shot through a sea of legs after a good build up and Liversedge in Darlo’s goal did well to sight it. Darlo themselves were having their moments and after 20 minutes the curiously named Tadhg Purcell beat the offside and went clean through. Colgan stood up well and blocked the shot. Three minutes later Town won a corner after more pressure. Sweeney’s corner was pinpoint and Lancashire’s bullet header rocketed into the top left corner. Darlington 0, Grimsby 1. Darlo’s Diop flattened Bore and got booked. The game was heavy on fouls and clumsy tackles and on 37 minutes Sweeney went off, holding his back. Leary came on as his replacement. On 40 minutes Colgan made another great save from a free kick outside the box, masterfully keeping his eye on the ball. Colgan was being tested but was up to it, earlier having had to race out and deny Diop from making progress. Atkinson got booked on 44 minutes when he was adjudged to have tripped a Darlo player cutting inside on the edge of the box. The resultant free-kick from a dangerous position was wasted. Then a minute into added time Peacock won a corner. Coulson and Devitt combined, and a sharp pass to Akpro resulted in the ball being blasted into the top right corner. The half time whistle blew. Darlington 0, Grimsby 2. Town were in good shape.

"I’m starting to believe again", I overheard someone say during the half time interval.

Town were enterprising in the first half. All the midfielders were linking up and creating movement, supported by Bore and Widdowson who were coming up from the back. Town’s open play policy, which was undoubtedly the right tactic, resulted in Darlo having too many openings to be comfortable. The communication between defenders wasn’t great. Twice I saw Town players getting in Atkinson’s way. Fortunately Darlo’s finishing was poor.

The second half started slowly. Darlo started to apply pressure. Town were struggling to get the ball out. Town had an appeal for a free kick when a Darlo defender appeared to pass back to the goalkeeper on 60 minutes, but it wasn’t given. Town had a better spell and Coulson put in a long cross for Akpro who headed back to Peacock. The goalkeeper had to dive full length following Peacock’s turn and low shot. Town were starting to take over again. On 75 minutes Devitt got a shot in after Widdowson put in a good cross, first going clear with a deft flick in the corner. Today’s attendance was then announced, prompting the Town songsters to remind the Darlo faithful "You’re ground’s too big for you". On the pitch, a pattern was developing. Darlo were reminding us they weren’t just there to make up the numbers. Colgan had to put in another great save followed by another one. Town were relying on breaks to alleviate the pressure but weren’t getting anywhere. The play was scrappy. Widdowson got booked for what appeared to be an altercation. Darlo then got another free kick on the edge of Town’s penalty box. The curling free kick was comfortably gathered by Colgan. The impressive Widdowson was fouled while surging up the left. There was a lot of physical stuff going on. About 5 minutes before the end, Akpro got trodden on and was replaced by the bustling Wright. After his goal, Akpro didn’t get a look in today. As the game went on, he kept finding himself on the flanks and not being given the service, but it didn’t matter. He and the team had done enough. The second half was poor but we played well in the first half. At least the spirit and determination were there throughout. Darlo’s finishing was terrible, and thanks to excellent work in the Grimsby goal by Colgan, my man of the match, the final score remained Darlington 0, Grimsby 2.

On the way out, I asked a Darlo fan for the Barnet and Lincoln scores and he kindly looked them up for me. Good news - Barnet lost. We survive for another week. "We’ve been like that all season" the Darlo fan moaned. "Awful". I sympathised. His world was empty, just like the stadium we’d just vacated.

Our new world may be places like Histon and Salisbury, and old haunts like Wrexham and York, but these trips are deferred for now. The Darlo fan who checked out the score for me expressed the wish that York and Gateshead would be in the Blue Square Premier next year so he could enjoy some good days out. I know what he means. Having resigned myself to the inevitable before today’s turn of events, I’ve been looking forward to that too so long as we make a fresh start, get people in who know about this league, people who care and are prepared to fight. The fear is that we go 10, 15, 20 matches into the new season and we won’t have won a game. Still, we’re not there yet. I’ll happily allow Town to string me along for a while and maybe in a couple of weeks we’ll wake up from our nightmare intact in Division 2. It can’t happen, can it?

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