Quakers shed years of hurt as return home draws closer
It was once of symbol of deep-running passion, it became a symbol of shattered dreams, but now Darlington’s Tin Shed has become symbol of celebration as the club prepares to return to its hometown for the first time in over four years.
Saturday 12th April 2012 was the last time the Quakers played a competitive match in Darlington.
On that day a Ryan Bowman brace and a Charlie Wyke penalty helped them to a 3-1 win over Kettering at the Darlington Arena, formerly known as the George Reynolds Arena.
In 2003 Reynolds, a former chairman of the club, had instigated a move from their much-loved, spiritual home at Feethams to a new purpose build 25,000 capacity stadium.
The Quakers signed off at Feethams with a 2-2 draw against Leyton Orient, with substitute Neil Wainwright going down in club history as the last goalscorer at the old ground, scoring with his first touch of the ball to secure a point.
The move to a new home proved disastrous, with the Quakers restricted to using just 10,000 seats due to local planning regulations.
Although over 11,000 saw their first competitive game at the Arena.
Kidderminster Harriers ruined the party, inflicting a 2-0 defeat on the Quakers’ big day.
The stadium slowly drained the life out of the club, although the passion from the supporters remained.
There were high points.
After relegation into the Football Conference in 2010 the Quakers won the FA Trophy the following season, beating Mansfield Town at Wembley thanks to a Chris Senior goal in the last minute of extra time.
However, all was not well behind the scenes.
The club were placed into administration, players left for nominal fees and contracts were paid up by the club’s administrator.
Moves were made to take the club into community ownership; the seeds of a revival were sewn.
Despite this, the club were relegated four levels down the league pyramid and into the EBAC Northern League Division One.
An appeal to the FA was rejected, the demotion was confirmed. From Wembley to West Auckland in the blink of an eye.
A new name was to be given, Darlington 1883, a nod to the year the club was formed. This was the same club, but the Football Association insisted on a new name.
The club’s perilous financial state saw them abandon the Darlington Arena and a new home was to be found, their only viable option being a ground-share with new Northern League rivals Bishop Auckland at the Two-Blues’ Heritage Park home.
That left Quakers supporters with a twenty six mile round-trip to “home” games.
The Tin Shed, once home to a boisterous home support, lay lonely and abandoned at a now derelict Feethams until 2012, when the foresight of local company TM Ward saw it stored in their yard for safe-keeping.
Slowly but surely the club got back on its feet, promotions followed.
Under the management of former Sunderland and Oxford United midfielder Martin Gray the club worked their way back up the pyramid.
After securing promotion from the Evo-Stik Northern Premier League last season (2015/16) the club found themselves in the Vanarama National League North, non-league football’s second tier.
But something still wasn’t quite right. The were still nomads, still living life away from their hometown.
On Boxing Day, when they host FC Halifax Town, that all changes. The Quakers return to Darlington for the first time in over four years.
Their new home, Blackwell Meadows, sees the club groundsharing with Darlington Rugby Club.
Much like the club itself, the beloved Tin Shed has been cleansed. The original steel still remains, much like the club’s history, but now it is clean, it is something to be proud of, it belongs to them.
Club director John Tempest has been at the heart of the work to take the club back to Darlington and he believes the sight of the Tin Shed will bring a tear to the eye of even the hardest of Quakers supporters.
“It’s going to be great,” he told NonLeagueDaily pitchside at the unveiling of the ground to the media. “I think a lot of people who haven’t been down to Blackwell Meadows perhaps might have a tear in their eye when they see the Tin Shed, certainly the older fans. It’s going to be quite a nostalgic day and Halifax [Town] have got 600 away fans coming so it should be a really cracking Boxing Day type game of football.
“It was stored by a company called TM Ward and he stored it in his yard for four years. But it is the original steel, it’s all been shot blasted and cleaned and to be honest, it looks brand new.”
Brand new is something Darlington will have to get used to.
A new belief, a new home to be proud of, a new sense of belonging.
And with their new home, Tempest believes that they will attract new support from a younger generation.
“For younger fans it was very hard to go to Bishop Auckland and if you looked around the ground it was more of an aging population. My kids are 11 and 14 and I wouldn’t have let them go [to Bishop Auckland] but already they’re talking about coming down here with their mates.
“And if you can catch them at that age you’ve got them for the rest of your life.”
Indeed a large part of the club’s return to Darlington is down to the supporters.
Since becoming a supporter owned club the Quakers have maintained their identity despite plying their business “up the road” in Bishop Auckland.
A loyal, passionate fan base has backed the club with, not just vocal support, but with financial support.
And that is something that Tempest believes will make the move back to Darlington even more special.
He added: “It’s a fan owned club, there’s no rich benefactor, the majority of the money has come from the fans – over £300k and the rest from the Football Stadia Improvement Fund.
“For me personally, it does make it more special. Everyone should be proud, not just us, everyone. We’ve got an immense volunteer group, we have around 50/60 volunteers on matchdays and they do it consistently and they don’t own – well some of them own the club. It’s a great set of people behind the club”
Boxing Day will be a watershed moment for Darlington. A start point, not an end.
An application has been made to the Football Association for the club to drop their 1883 moniker, a return to their old identity could be closer than many think.
But progress is still high on the agenda.
The club are competing in what can arguably be called non-league football’s toughest division.
The Vanarama National League North contains the likes of big-spending AFC Fylde, the Class of 92 backed Salford City, FA Trophy holders FC Halifax Town and former Football League clubs Stockport County and Kidderminster Harriers.
At the moment Blackwell Meadows has a 3,000 capacity, but the club believe that in order to progress they need to increase capacity to over 5,000.
Plans are already underway to make that a reality.
Malcolm Cundick, project manager of the move back to Darlington said: “We need to get up to a 5000 capacity. We were in a Category C when we started four years ago and now we’re up to Category B and fortunately, we’ve planned for that and we’ve got permission to build additional stands and there’s capacity at that end [points behind goal opposite Tin Shed] to grow to the 5000 we need for Category A.
“So it’s all there and built in and everyone is encouraging us, the council, etc to move on.
“They (the FA) have very very stringent rules – there’s a big green book which is called the Safety at Sports Grounds and there’s also the sports ground category specification that we had to comply with and carries a great deal of detail of what’s required.
“But we also had the planning to get through and that had 22 conditions attached to it, so that was a major period to sort all of that out. The only one we have left to do it to plant a few more trees.”
For now, attention turns towards Boxing Day, when FA Trophy holders FC Halifax Town make the trip to Darlington as the club christens their new home.
Demand for a golden ticket has, understandably, been high.
The game is a sell-out, history will be played out in front of 3,000 supporters, with 600 travelling from Yorkshire.
Tempest enthused about the “real buzz” around the town ahead of the game, something that he believes has spread to the club’s playing staff.
“My phone hasn’t stopped the last few days, people asking for tickets – yeah, that’s great – I just told them to pop down to Quaker retail and buy them.
“But there’s a real buzz, perhaps people who haven’t even been for the last four years. Moving forward, I think we should be looking forward to some decent crowds.
“The players are all raring to get down here and they’re going to walk out and it’s going to be, and it’s not just our fans, there’s going to be 600 Halifax fans at the other end, so it’s going to be a proper game of football on a Boxing Day.
“I just hope we win!” Tempest says with a smile.
Some would say by finally sealing a return to Darlington the club has already won, the folks in the fresh-looking Tin Shed will raise a toast to that come Boxing Day.
Article: Mark Carruthers (@marknldaily)