One thing is clear. Darlington FC, Darlington 1883, Quakers United – whatever they will be called – will have to arrest this alarming slide immediately. As things currently stand, Northern League football could represent an opportunity. In the weeks leading up to the season, curiosity and interest in the club’s activities will be heightened. Stay away fans may decide that a trip around Northern League grounds – especially at prices no more than £8 – represents an attractive proposition. So long as they are winning. The last sentence is the crux of the matter. If Darlington can get off to a winning start, interest and enthusiasm will be retained. It is not my intention for this to be a pointed comment, but more a statement of fact when I say that the winning bug is not something Darlington fans have recently been at risk of catching. But apathy and disinterest can soon evaporate when a side is winning. When you watch a winning team, each victory puts an extra spring in your step as you leave the ground and there is an odd, self-satisfied feeling at seeing your side perched at the top of a league table with every other name beneath you.
One irony is that had Darlington been placed in the Evostik League (as was their wish), they might have found life no more difficult than they are likely to in the Northern League. I would certainly make this argument for the Evostik First Division, where many Northern League teams would more than hold their own. The Northern League, however, presents an awkward proposition. Where will Darlington source their players from? The best Northern League sides have their players tied to contracts and Darlington would have to find funds to release them. Darlington could bring in players from higher levels, but would they be motivated and up for midweek trips to tightly packed Northern League grounds in November when a sodden pitch where the ball refuses to run true is a great leveller? The third problem that Darlington have is the timescale they are operating in. Once their personnel is established, they have a small window of time for their side to gel and to build in the awareness and understanding between players that only comes from time in a competitive game environment.
Darlington should finish somewhere near to the top of the division, but how they start will mean everything. They need the revenue and they need to move upwards from the Northern League as quickly as possible. In the same way as Manchester United fans can no longer be sure of winning a trophy each year, Darlington cannot take promotion for granted. They are entering unknown seas, where competing vessels will always raise their game a notch or two when they play them. It promises to be exciting, unpredictable and high on drama. As a side so used to being in more hot water than a pot noodle, Darlington should perhaps feel well and truly at home.