When riding the crest of a wave, it is inevitable that the wave will eventually break. So it was with Darlington’s impressive start to their Northern League campaign. On a perfect late summer evening with a terrific playing surface to match, Guisborough’s drive, determination and greater attacking edge secured an unlikely three points in front of the home side’s biggest ever Northern League crowd.
If my account of events is patchy, particularly regarding the first half, it is because I was occupied with selling raffle tickets around the ground. The visiting fans (as well as the large number of locals and neutrals who had turned up) willingly dipped their hands into their pockets to further swell the club’s coffers on a highly profitable evening. By non-league standards, Darlington are a big club. But none of their supporters carried this mentality with them to the game. I found them to be a credit to their club. They took the opportunity to have a prematch beer and some grub and to take in the atmosphere which quickly built up as more than 1300 supporters poured into the ground.
I have watched Guisborough for more than a quarter of a century and only once can I recall a crowd bigger, when Leek Town arrived for an FA Cup Fourth Qualifying replay in front of the BBC’s Match of the Day cameras. This is more than twenty years ago at a time where I could only just see over the barriers separating the pitch from supporters and struggled to even find a spot amongst the 2000 supporters that attended. On that night it took a volleyed Neil Hodgson goal to finally break more than four hours of stalemate and send Guisborough through to a First Round tie against Bury at Ayresome Park.
Whilst last night’s game did not carry the same importance as the Leek fixture, it was a big game for the home players. They looked confident from the word go. Buoyed by a last minute winner against Crook Town three days previously, Guisborough’s passing was slick and their movement off the ball was a constant threat. In the early exchanges, Bythway’s willingness to c ome short for the ball drew Darlington’s central defence out of position and allowed fellow striker McPhillips to run into the holes created. Allied with this, the tenacious Austin Johnson made runs from deep and the visitors were quickly on their heels. It was far from one way traffic. Purewal made dangerous runs forward, as did fellow winger Emms. From reading reports on Darlington this season, they have appeared at their most dangerous when utilising their pace and width on the flanks. But the two wide men were starved of service as Guisborough’s five men across the middle nullified any attempts to push forward. Darlington looked vulnerable from set-plays and from a McPhillips cross Johnson headed the Priorymen into the lead. The visiting fans – some of whom were still arriving – may have been surprised but perhaps saw this as merely a bump in the road. But the bump quickly grew in size as McPhillips added a second having been denied minutes previously by a brilliant save from Norton.
“Anyone for the half-time draw?” I enquired. “Three prizes – a bottle of red wine...cans of stella and a meat draw”.
“I’ll take the draw” said one Darlington fan. “On the pitch that is”. It was another example of the visiting fans’ ability to take things in their stride. “The fans have turned up but the players haven’t” he added. He then bought some raffle tickets and politely informed me with a chuckle at the end of the game that he didn’t win that either.
Having squandered further chances, I wondered whether half-time would represent a watershed. Guisborough’s momentum could be abruptly halted by a half time interval. Darlington had the chance to regroup and to make changes. It could have been the proverbial game of two halves.
Yet the second half began almost where the first had left off. Naturally, the visitors did more of the pressing and Guisborough were more content to sit tight and to break at pace. But Darlington struggled to puncture the home defence. They pressed, they pushed and they passed with more intensity but when they finally eluded the home defence ‘keeper Ben Escritt was on hand to save smartly.
With twenty minutes remaining, a moment of brilliance from Luke Bythway almost sealed the game. As he ghosted past his marker, Bythway spotted visiting keeper Norton off his line. His effort from forty yards was creeping beneath the crossbar, but somehow Norton scrambled back to tip over the bar. No matter. Captain Lee Bythway clearly decided to put his younger brother right and from the resulting corner he rose highest to head home. Still Guisborough did not sit on their lead and in the closing stages the impressive Gell surged through on goal. Most players would have shot with just the goalkeeper to beat, but spotting Johnson’s run Gell unselfishly squared the ball to gift his fellow midfielder his second goal.
There was time for Darlington to score a late goal through a neat finish from Nicholls, but the goal came half an hour too late. It was a mere consolation and could do little to erase the dominance of the scoreline or of Guisborough’s performance.
As the shockwaves reverberated around the non-league community, there were more knee jerk reactions than in a Doctor’s surgery. But this was one game. Guisborough fully deserved the points, but two days ago Darlington had won every game. Whilst it was a sobering experience for the visiting fans, a win on Saturday against Consett will quickly erase memories of this defeat.
I don’t suppose many Darlington fans thought their campaign would be trouble-free. This acted as confirmation. But there is still every chance of the Quakers being in the mix at the end of the season. This shouldn’t do too much to shake this belief.
For now, I’ll enjoy the win and allow my voice to recover after saying the words ‘meat draw’ at least three hundred times in the space of an hour. That – like the crowd – must be some sort of record.