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A Brief History of Darlington FC

Darlington Football Club was formed in July 1883 when a number of representatives from several teams in the town met in a local grammar school and decided to form one club.

Feethams became the home for the new club, and stayed there until 2003, when the club moved across town to a new 27,000 seater arena. Feethams was leased from local businessman John Beaumont Pease in 1866 and the first turf came from the nearby cricket pitch. Two years after its formation the club ventured into the FA Cup for the first time but was beaten 8-0 by Grimsby.

Darlington were one of the original founder members of the Northern League in 1889 and went on to win the title twice in 1896 and 1900. The club turned professional in 1908 and decided to join the newly formed North Eastern League – although it would return to the Northern League most unexpectedly a century later. The opening day in the North Eastern League saw the club beaten 5-1 by Sunderland, but the club went on to better things in that league, winning it in 1913.

The club reached the last sixteen of the FA Cup in 1910/11. They started in the first qualifying stage and played eleven games in eight rounds beating first division giants Sheffield United along the way before finally bowing out against Swindon Town by 3-0 in the last 16.

The First World War had a big impact on Darlington and the club ran into money problems. Another Darlington team, the Forge Albion, took them over, and the new chairman, Mr J.B Haw, paid off the debts and also built the east stand at Feethams.

In 1920 the club finished runners up in the North Eastern League and won the Durham Senior Cup against the other professional teams in the county. The following season Quakers went one better and won the North Eastern League, and during the summer won election to the newly-formed Third Division North of the Football League. Quakers performed well in the new league, and after going through the home campaign unbeaten in their second season, they won promotion to the Second Division in their third, season 1924-25.

The second division campaign started with a 0-0 at home to Nottingham Forest with over 13,000 people inside the ground. They also played against Chelsea and Wolves, who they would encounter again in the FA Cup in the 1950s. They finished 15th in the table, above Fulham and Stoke City, but the following season Quakers finished second bottom and were relegated back to the Third Division North.

The club won the Third Division North Cup in 1934, on the one and only occasion when they have played at Old Trafford. Quakers beat Stockport County in the final by 4-3.

The club remained in the Third Division North until the Second World War which had a major impact on football in the country. Only a limited amount of football was played, but since there was a big army base at nearby Catterick,  Darlington played regularly in one of the wartime leagues and attracted some big name players, one of whom was Bob Thynne  who was capped for Scotland against England in 1944.

In November 1955 the club made history. At St James Park, Newcastle, Darlington played Carlisle United in the first ever FA Cup match to be played under floodlights in a second round replay which Darlington won 3-1. In 1958 the team became members of the new national Fourth Division – they had finished in the bottom half of the Third Division North the season before — and started to encounter teams that they had never before played at Feethams like Coventry City, Watford and Crystal Palace.

Quakers enjoyed one of their best ever FA Cup runs in 1958 when they became one of the giantkillers of the competition. After beating Rochdale, Boston and Norwich, they came up against First Division Chelsea. After drawing 3-3 at Stamford Bridge, Quakers beat the Londoners 4-1 in the replay at Feethams in front of 15,150 fans. In the next round they were drawn away to Wolves, who included England captain Billy Wright, but lost 6-1.

The sixties saw some ground improvements at Feethams. Floodlights were installed in November 1960, and were opened for a game against Millwall that Quakers won 5-2. However an electrical problem set the West stand on fire. The stand was gutted and it was later rebuilt in the exact same style. The Town End also had a roof put on it and soon afterwards got the nickname, the Tin Shed.

The third round of the 1960-61 League Cup saw Bolton Wanderers, with England striker Nat Lofthouse in their team, come to Feethams. Crystal Palace and West Ham had both suffered defeats at the hands of the Quakers and a record 21,023 packed Feethams hoping to see a similar result. It was not to be and Bolton ran out 2-1 winners.

In 1966 Darlington finished runners up to Doncaster and gained the club’s first promotion in 41 years, but the glory didn’t last long as they were relegated back to the fourth division the following season.

Quakers had another good run in the League Cup in 1967-68. They beat York, Southend, Portsmouth and Millwall before losing to first division Derby County, managed by Brian Clough, at the Baseball Ground by 5-4 in the quarter finals.

After just missing out on promotion in the 1969-70 season, the club’s fortunes nosedived.

Between the 1969/70 and the 1979/80 seasons Darlington had to apply for re-election to the Football League no less than five times, but fortunately every time the club was successful, probably because Darlington was easy enough to reach on the motorway and rail network, unlike other clubs such as Barrow and Workington. The club’s plight was also featured on a documentary by famous broadcaster Sir David Frost.

The eighties saw the club in a financial mess and fans were forced to raise £50,000 in just six weeks. The fans and people of the town rallied round and the money was raised to save the club. In 1985 the team won promotion to the third division under manager Cyril Knowles and stayed there for two years. But then successive relegations followed, and in the 1988/89 season the club finished bottom of the fourth division and were relegated to the Vauxhall Conference. Former Aston Villa striker Brian Little became manager and he led the club back into the league at the first attempt with a last day win at Welling and the season after that the progress was maintained  and the club was promoted again as Fourth Division champions.  However, after Little left for Leicester City, the club struggled in the Third Division and was relegated again.

Playing at Wembley had always been a pipedream for Quakers until 1996, when they reached the third division play off final against Plymouth Argyle. They finished fifth in the regular season after suffering only one away defeat in the league all season – they missed out on automatic promotion on the last day at Scunthorpe – and then they defeated Hereford United home and away in the play off semi final to reach Wembley. However, despite the backing of 13,000 travelling fans Quakers were beaten by a second half goal.

 

In 1997 the east stand at Feethams, which had stood for many years, was demolished and a new one built in its place, but soon after the chairman, Mike Peden, resigned. Local businessman George Reynolds took over, paid off the club’s debts and started construction of a new 27,000 all seater ground elsewhere in the town.

In the 1999/00 season Darlington were in the thick of the promotion hunt, but slipped up in the closing weeks and finished in the play off spots, facing their nearest rivals Hartlepool. Again, Quakers won both legs to set up a final against Peterborough at Wembley. Despite creating more of the chances in the game, Quakers were beaten by another second half goal.

The following season, Quakers lost in the FA Cup, but were then reprieved thanks to Manchester United. Darlo lost in the second round to Gillingham, but when Manchester United withdrew to participate in the World Club championship and indirectly help England’s bid to stage the World Cup, the FA held a draw for a lucky second round loser, and it turned out to be Darlington. They were drawn away at Aston Villa, and only just lost by 2-1.

At the end of the 2002/03 season the club said goodbye to its home at Feethams and moved into the new ground at Neasham Road. In the last game at Feethams Darlington played out a 2-2 draw with Leyton Orient on an emotional day, which also saw many former Darlington players return to the club as guests, one of them from as far away as California. The opening match at Darlington’s new home saw a huge crowd of 11,600 people attend but Kidderminster Harriers won 2-0.

However, crowds slowly dwindled, and within months the club was placed into administration. On the pitch Darlington were struggling as well and facing relegation. However David Hodgson, who had enjoyed two previous spells as boss, returned as manager and helped guide the club away from the drop zone, and in the spring of 2004, the club was rescued but the problems continued under subsequent owners.

The club reached the League Two play off semi finals in 2008 but lost to Rochdale, and the following year, even though the club was in the promotion positions at the time, chairman George Houghton put the club into administration for the second time. Consequently, the club had points deducted, promotion was missed, and almost all of the players and management team left.

Despite being under new ownership the following season (2009-10),  the club was relegated out of the Football League into the Conference for the second time in its history. The fans thought that there was a bright new beginning when Quakers battled through to Wembley for the third time in the FA Trophy   – overturning a two goal deficit against Gateshead in the semi final along the way – and on this occasion the previous despair turned into sheer delight when Chris Senior headed a last minute winner against Mansfield.

Unfortunately the win was not a springboard for success, and by the turn of 2012,  the club was back into administration for the third time. After overcoming several difficult hurdles and negotiating for many hours, a supporters group took control of the club with the aim of making it stable once again, but the FA controversially ruled, despite an appeal, that Quakers should be demoted from the Conference back to the Northern League – -an unprecedented drop of four divisions.

The new look club, now under fan ownership, wisely decided to leave the costly Arena and agreed a groundshare with Bishop Auckland at Heritage Park twelve miles away. Despite the relegation, the fans stood by the club, and an average attendance record for the Northern League of over 1,300 – around three times the previous official best in the league – saw Quakers win the Northern League title and promotion to the Evostik League First Division North with a triple hundred of points, goals and goal difference ahead of previous champions Spennymoor Town. It was a magnificent performance, considering that when Martin Gray took over in the summer of 2012, the club only had one player!

In season 2013-14, Quakers finished second in the table to Curzon Ashton, but lost in the play off semi final to Ramsbottom. The crowd average was still well over a thousand.

Happily in season 2014-15 Quakers went one step further, when they beat neighbours Spennymoor 3-2 and Bamber Bridge 2-0  in the play offs, and gained promotion to the EvoStik NPL Premier Division, the second promotion in just three years.

And they followed that up by winning that league, clinching the EvoStik League title ahead of Blyth Spartans with a remarkable 7-1 away win at Whitby in the penultimate game of the season. Quakers played six league games in the last fortnight of the season, with Nathan Cartman top scorer on 19.

Thanks to a huge amount of financial commitment by the fans and FSIF grant aid, Quakers moved back to their home town on Boxing Day 2016 to play Halifax Town at their new Blackwell Meadows ground – which is rented from Darlington Rugby Club — in the Vanarama National League North. Quakers won the game 3-2, and went to finish fifth in the table, but were unable to play in the play offs because the new ground wasn’t up to the required standard. Striker Mark Beck achieved a unique double – he was the last player to score at the old home of Heritage Park, and the first to score at the new home of Blackwell Meadows.

During the summer of 2017, more fundraising followed, and work began on a new playing area and a new seated stand.