Darlington Football Club History
Article by William Goulding
Updated Tuesday, 11th April 2006
Darlington Football Club was formed in July 1883 when amateur and part-time teams from the town met in Darlington Grammar School and decided to form one solitary club. It was decided that Feethams, next to the Park Ground cricket pitch, was chosen as the home of the new club.
In 1889 Darlington (also known as the Quakers, due to the town's religious background) became one of the founding members of the Northern League. It took the club seven years to first lift the trophy in 1896; four years later they won it again in 1900.
In 1908 the club took a huge step forward when it became professional. This lead to the decision to join the newly formed North Eastern League where they met up with some of today's bigger clubs, Middlesbrough and Sunderland. It was the latter who handed out a 5-1 beating on the opening day of the season.
The season of 1910/11 is a year that few Quakers will ever cast an eye back to, but in a way it is the club's best ever season. For it was in that faithful season that Darlington reached the Third Round (last sixteen in those days) of the FA Cup, the furthest the club has ever gone in the World's greatest cup competition. The Quakers had it hard, as they had to start in the First Qualifying Round. When they did make it to the competition proper, a First Round tie away at First Division Sheffield United looked above them, but a 1-0 win sent them into the Second Round. It was there that they beat Second Division Bradford Park Avenue 2-1 in a close game at Feethams. In the Third Round Swindon Town came to Feethams, hell-bent on spoiling the party. They did so, triumphing 3-0 and thus ending Darlo's best ever FA Cup run.
In 1912/13 Darlington won the North Eastern League for the first time in their history, but this was as good as it got for the club for quite a while. The First World War had big implications on the club's finances; they almost went out of business (for the first time, but not the last!). The club was bailed out by Darlington Forge Albion, their Chairman, Mr J. B. Haw, paid off the debts and continued work on the East stand until its completion.
After the war ended, the club resumed life in the North Eastern League, finishing runners-up in 1919/20, while also winning the Durham Seniors Cup. The next season (1920/21) Darlington improved on their second place finish, winning the North Eastern League title for the second time. The club had been applying for election into the Third Division North for some time, the second and then first place finishes promoted them to win their election.
Things went swimmingly during the first season in the Third Division North. Darlington finished runners-up to Stockport County by only six points. Things were harder the following campaign and the success of the previous season was too good to beat, they finished in ninth place. The next season (1923/24) the Quakers were better, looking more like the team which had earned second spot, they finished in a respectable sixth. But, in their fourth season in the Third Division North Darlington won the league ahead of nearest challengers Nelson, meaning the Feethams' faithful would be witnessing Second Division football for the first time the following year. Darlington stayed up the first season, but went down the second. They remained in the Third Division North for the next thirty years (partly down to the Second World War).
On 28th November 1955 Darlington Football Club along with Carlisle United Football Club made history. They became the first two teams to play an FA Cup match on a floodlit pitch. The game itself, a Second Round replay which Darlo won 3-1 was played at St. James Park, Newcastle.
In 1958 Darlington became founding members of the new national Fourth Division (now League Two). In it's first season the league boasted the likes of Coventry, Crystal Palace and Watford, who have all gone on to grace the top flight of English football.
Feethams was improved in 1960, when Floodlights were installed. The new floodlights were first used on 10th November 1960 against Millwall, Darlington ran out 5-2 winners. But, despite the good start disaster was around the corner. Shortly after the game an electrical fault occurred, burning the West Stand to the ground. The stand was gutted and was later rebuilt in exactly the same way. The other improvement which took place in the stadium was putting a roof onto the stand which later to be called The Tin Shed.
On 14th Nov 1960 Darlington reached the Third Round of the League Cup (not the biggest of achievements, I'll agree). Having already seen off Crystal Palace and West Ham, Darlington and their fans were optimistic of their chances against Bolton Wanderers. 21,023 people packed into Feethams (the Quakers' largest ever attendance), but it wasn't to be; Bolton won the game 2-1.
In the 1965/66 season Darlington finally won promotion again (the first time since 1924/25) when they finished runners-up to Doncaster Rovers - level on points, but 12 goals behind on goal difference. Despite the great season of England's World Cup winning year, the club was condemned to relegation the following year falling four points short of safety.
During the largely uneventful season (for Darlington) of 1967/68 Darlington reached the Quarter Finals of the League Cup (last eight) where they met up with Derby County away from home. A First Round 1-0 victory over local rivals York City, a Second Round 2-1 win over Southend United, a 4-1 thumping of Second Division Portsmouth in the Third Round and 2-0 Fourth Round win over Millwall lead the Quakers to Derby (under the stewardship of recently appointed manager Brian Clough and assistant Peter Taylor). Cloughie lead Derby to the Second Division title the following season and the First Division title three years later, but his side found the game against Darlo more than easy. At the final whistle the score was 5-4 to Darlington's hosts, the Quakers were out but by no means embarrassed.
In the year 1978 manager, Peter Madden made possibly the greatest decision any manager of Darlington has ever made signing Alan Walsh. Walsh arrived from Middlesbrough in October and the club never looked back on that decision. Before the Hartlepool-born goal-machine joined Darlington the club's leading goalscorer was Davie Brown, who had played for the club in the 1920s. Walsh became renowned for his lethal left boot; which provided Quaker fans with many a glorious moment. The best of which came against his hometown club Hartlepool in our biggest local derby. Trailing at half time Darlington looked down-and-out, but thanks to Walsh's amazing four that day Darlington got the win. In total Walsh scored 100 goals (87 League, 6 FA Cup, 7 League Cup) in 279 appearances (251 League, 15 FA Cup, 12 League Cup, 1 Other). Walsh joined Bristol City just before the 1984/85 season.
In the 1980s the club once again found themselves in financial troubles (not for the last time!). They needed to raise £50,000 in just six weeks or face expulsion from the Football League. Unlike the last time, one company was not needed to bail the club out, as the people of the town were largely responsible for raising the cash needed.
1984/85 saw the club win promotion from the Fourth Division when the finished in third place. A healthy 13th place finish followed in 1985/86, before the club returned to the bottom flight of English football. However, the club struggled to maintain their place in the Football League and dropped out of it for the first time since 1921.
The club had the reached the stage whereby it needed to be relegated in order to once again move forward. An immediate return to the Fourth Division followed after winning the Conference title. And under the excellent stewardship of Brian Little the club continued to flourish winning their second successive title and promotion the following year. The managerial skills of Little had not gone unnoticed and he was taken away from the club. His absence at the helm played a part in the clubs immediate return to the bottom flight, which had just been renamed Division Three. So Darlington were relegated from the Third Division to Division Three!
After languishing in Division Three for about three seasons the club was brought to life with the (first) appointment of now club legend David Hodgson (and current manager) as joint manger with Jim Platt. Although Hodgson was never a favourite of the board he helped to mould together a great team, and it was that team which reached the club's first ever play-off final in 1996 but by this time Hodgson had been relieved of his duties and it was just Platt who lead his team out. Plymouth was the team in the way of Darlington glory and it was the Argyle who ruined the day for all Quakers, winning a narrow game 1-0.
The following year, 1997, saw the old east stand at Feethams demolished and a new one built. It was the building of the new stand which created yet another problem for the club finances were at all an all time low and things were looking very bad. Without investment or a new owner the club would be sure to go out of business, taking part of the heart and soul of the town with it. It was at this time that a self-made local businessman, George Reynolds bought the club and paid off the debts.
He didn't stop there though he planned a meteoric rise to the top of the English game and decided to build a brand new 25,000 all-seater stadium to match his ambitions. George brought Hodgson back to club as manager and things got off the great start under the new chairman and manager, Hodgson was given money to spend on wages and big names like Marco Gabbiadini moved to the club. Despite being one of the best squads in the league Hodgson failed to steer them to a top three finish which would have equalled automatic promotion. As it was Darlington finished fourth, missing out on automatic promotion on the final day of the season. The play-offs yet again provided heartbreak as Peterborough won the final 1-0.
Hodgson left the club as a matter of pride after differences between him and Reynolds became unassailable. Darlington's fortunes changed for the worse following Hodgy's departure finishing 20th, 15th, 14th in the next three seasons under various managers before moving out of Feethams.
On Saturday 16th August 2003 Darlington moved into their new unfinished stadium. The new ground was then called 'The Reynolds Arena' after the chairman at the time, who had paid £27million for the stadium - George Reynolds. The stadium is said to hold 25,000 fans when fully filled, but being in the bottom tier of league football, Darlo fans have only had the chance to see 14,000 fans inside it so far. On the opening day of the ground Kidderminster Harriers were the visitors and in the mood to ruin the party, which they did with a 2-0 win in front of the biggest crowd to watch a competitive game in the new stadium; 11,600.
Things may have started badly, but things only got worse and manager Mick Tait finally got the axe in late October 2003 as Reynolds buried the hatchet and brought Dave Hodgson back to the club. At the time Darlington were 23rd in the league and they were in big need for saving; Hodgy was the man for the job.
Later in the same season the club went into administration (largely down to the cost of the stadium) and manager David Hodgson opened his little black book and called every famous footballer he knew, and arranged a charity match on Sunday 25th January 2004 with the aim of saving the club. Great names like Bryan Robson, Chris Waddle, Kenny Dalglish (along with son Paul), Bernie Slaven and the star of the show Paul Gascoigne all turned up to play against Quaker greats like Robbie Blake, Jason De Vos, Sean Gregan, Paul Heckingbottom and Neil Heaney. Although it's fair to say that the day dragged on a bit, and the queues were horrendous the day was a big, big success with over 14,000 fans turning up, which helped the club pay off some debts.
He steered the club out of the relegation zone and into 18th spot by the end of the season the turn around even lead the fans to dream of a promotion push the following season.
Towards the end of that 2003/04 Season chairman George Reynolds severed links with the club, and the stadium became known as the 'New Stadium' for the remainder of that season, and the beginning of the 2004/05 Season too. The club did not give it a more formal name because they wanted to eventually get a business to sponsor the stadium and on the 14th November 2004 Darlington's new owners finally got what they wanted, a sponsor for the stadium. Williamson Motors, became the first business to have the stadium named after them, it became known as the Williamson Motors Stadium (or WMS for short) until the end of the 2004/05.
During the 2004/05 season David Hodgson brought some big name players to help the club push for promotion former Leeds United forward Clyde Wijnhard, former Middlesbrough striker Alun Armstrong, former Barnsley, Blackburn and Middlesbrough forward Craig Hignett and former Celtic winger Bobby Petta all joining the club during the campaign. But ultimately this was another ill-fated season where yet again the final day of the season provided the biggest heartbreak a 3-1 win against Cheltenham still saw the club miss out on the play-offs on goal difference to Northampton.
Radio station TFM became the newest sponsors of Darlington's stadium at the start of the 2005/06 season.