The dust has settled. The empty champagne bottles have been discarded. Darlo have achieved their pre-season target and secured promotion from the NPL division one north. In a topsy tervy season where form went from poor to excellent to poor to excellent once again, Darlo managed to secure their passage to the NPL premier division via the nerve-jangling but extremely gratifying playoffs.
For me personally, it has been a strange promotion due to being away for the playoff final. I got to see everyone picking up their tickets on a manic Thursday knowing I wouldn’t be there. I got to find out, via text message, that the victory was secured and then I saw the scenes both at the end of the game and then at the Dolphin Centre on social media. Indeed, there’s a part of me that still wonders if Darlo actually were promoted given that I’ve not actually seen it with my own eyes.
Now that everything has calmed down, this is when Martin Gray has to really get to work. Back in the Football League, it used to frustrate me when year after year, our somewhat mediocre club used to take forever and a day to start making progress in the pre-season transfer market. Of course, back then, I didn’t really appreciate that the reason for this was because the club couldn’t afford to pay players over the summer months. The later they were signed on, the less money they cost. I used to sit looking at Teletext thinking ‘why are all the other clubs signing players and all we’ve heard is that the manager’s gone off on his fortnight holiday today?’
After three years in the lower reaches of non-league football, one thing that becomes apparent is that the top teams don’t mess around. With the same precision and speed of rattlesnake taking out some sort of rodent in a North American desert, the managers of non-league clubs that are going somewhere start snapping up their principle transfer targets.
As of today (Wednesday 13 May), Darlo haven’t announced any new additions to the squad although most appreciate that Martin Gray will have had numerous conversations with his targets and will almost certainly be close to securing the all important signatures.
As of today, the other thing that hasn’t happened yet, to some surprise, is that the names of those players retained and released have not been released. To be brutally honest, I don’t see this as being a big issue. As most readers of my blog will know, I have players I really like and those that I think could do better. However, despite this, I would be amazed if there were any major surprises in terms of those staying and going. Martin Gray has a certain type of player. Many have come and gone when it has become apparent that they don’t fit the mould. The players that are here now have managed to make it through pretty tough scrutiny and as such, I doubt the Darlo manager will let them go any time soon.
Of course, some of the concern from fans has been about the possibility of clubs higher up the pyramid snapping up our players. If I remove my Darlo-tinted glasses, I honestly don’t think that will be an issue. I thought Peter Jameson was a shoe-in for a move in the next couple of years but some slightly erratic in the closing months of the season may have put pay to that. Likewise, most fans seem to think that Adam Mitchell will be off with Gillingham a possible destination. Well, if I was a scout from a league club who had watched him on a regular basis, I would probably not be taking a punt on him. I have a belief that Mitchell is better utilised as a central midfielder than a winger and, if he wishes to break back in to the professional game, a move in to the centre alongside Tom Portas would help him enormously. Martin Gray hasn’t helped his cause for full-time professional football by utilising him recently at right back rather than in his natural midfield territory.
So, as far as I am concerned, I would expect minimal numbers leaving and those will be pretty obvious. I’m guessing that Liam Hatch, Mark Bell and the recently absent Jordan Robinson to leave. I would also expect Nelson Mota to be looking for a new club. That may seem a little harsh. I’ve actually wanted Mota to get some more game time but with Gray continuing to utilise him, if at all, from the bench, I wouldn’t expect the diminutive winger to stay.
Beyond that, I would not advocate any more departures. The core of the team is good. Plus, with forty six league games, significantly more travel and the possibility of runs in the FA Cup and Trophy, the likelihood is that Martin Gray may require a couple of extra players in his squad.
In terms of new signings, with the first team pretty much picking itself, it’s a bit difficult to speculate where the Darlo manager may look to strengthen. With the anticipated return of Amar Purewal from injury, it is unlikely that Gray will be looking to bring in any more forwards. Likewise, the defence looks pretty stable. Of course, there is always the chance that an orthodox right back could be brought in although if I was a right back with the possibility of joining Darlo, I would have significant doubts of usurping Gary Brown.
For me, there are probably three positions to sign players for. If Mark Bell does go, a new reserve goalkeeper is required to keep Peter Jameson on his toes. A quality central midfielder would not go a miss. To be honest, where such a player would come from is a tough ask. Last summer, I heard a lot of good words from those who had played with and against Adam Gell at Guisborough. Whether he has the quality to step up two divisions would be to seen. Gell is a bit more up and down than Tom Portas who seems pretty determined to be the more deep-lying Andrea Pirlo type than someone who will burst forward to support the forwards on a regular basis.
Finally, I think Darlo are screaming out for a new winger. Despite having pace to burn, I am always a little disappointed that Adam Mitchell prefers to tuck inside rather than skin his man round the outside. Likewise, Stephen Thompson prefers to cut inside due to his apparent loss of pace from the year before. As most readers will know, I have been advocating Rob Youhill at Harrogate Railway Athletic for over a year now. If there was a Martin Gray type of winger, it is the Rail’s wide man. Tall, fast, willing to take on his opponent and good on the ball, he would really complement this Darlo side. Obviously, logistics could be an issue.
One name that I keep seeing when I have a look on Uncovered is Blyth’s Robbie Dale. To this, I would say no. Of course, there is no real debate as there is more chance of me signing for Darlo than Dale leaving the safety net of Croft Park. However, I actually wouldn’t move for him. If you have watched Blyth in any other game than those against Darlo or on TV, you will know that he is as hit and miss as the weather in Bishop. Yes, he can look amazing. However, I’ve seen him in a couple of games where he was so uninvolved, he might as well have been sat in the stand next to me. Darlo already have one talented but inconsistent show pony. There really isn’t room in the team for another one.
As critical as I have been at times this season due to individual errors or a perceived lack of professionalism, the core of the squad at Darlo is good enough to be, at the worst, challenging for a playoff place. In reality, I would expect us to be renewing our battle with the millionaires (and billionaire) of Salford City. The couple of games I have seen at premier division level this last season have not exactly shown it to be of any better quality than the division we’ve been in. For three forty-five minute halves, we were the stronger side against a Blyth team that many believe is one of the best in the division. Sadly, the capitulation in the second half up at Croft Park spoke more about the need for Darlo to work on their defensive concentration and consistency than it did for Blyth’s quality.
What happens next? Well, in the next week or so, we will find out how much change Martin Gray feels he needs to make. Until then, all the speculation is just that. However, as far as I am concerned, stability and continuity of the squad is key.
Come on Darlo!