Monday, 9 January 2012

Darlo's Last Stand?

The sense of expectancy as I woke was similar to that before our trip to Wembley for the FA Trophy final just a few months ago - an overwhelming sense of nervousness and unease - but for totally different reasons this time.  Not a good feeling either.

I was out of the house by 5:30am and had a nice stress-free journey to King's X - Da Vinci's was just opening as I got there.  I had a ravenous appetite though and the breakfast hit the spot.

I walked up to Euston with my train being called just as I walked onto the concourse.  I was originally travelling on my own and had plumped for first class as it wasn't much dearer than standard.
Arrival at Barrow

But with the advent of administration and the prospect of this being our last ever game, I was joined by Iain Swalwell and Paul Brown, who had also left home at a ridiculously early hour, and they paid the £15 upgrade so they could join me. I'm worth it!

A nice quiet journey and we arrived at Lancaster to find John Bell on the platform - by rights he should have been at Barrow already but his connections let him down.

Our connection to Barrow was on time and it was a very pleasant journey with some beautiful scenery as well as opportunities for me to do a bit of bird-watching as we travelled between Arnside and Grange-over-Sands. A shame the weather wasn't a bit brighter.
Brian up for the ball

We arrived on time at Barrow and it was only a couple of hundred yards walk to the pub, the Duke of Edinburgh Hotel.  This place is owned by Lancaster Brewery and as such four of their beers were on sale: Blonde, Amber, Red and Black.

There were also some guest ales - Beartown Santa's Claws, Oxfordshire Ales Triple B, Wincle Wassale and Woodlands Oak Beauty.

The hotel bar was a bit quiet when we got in but it slowly started to fill with Darlo fans, including Rich, John and Andy who'd been on the same train as us.

However we were surprised when they didn't follow us but I'd forgotten that they had to go to Wetherspoons for their breakfast first. They also had retired Northern Echo columnist and Northern League chairman, Mike Amos, in tow.

I tried a good few of the beers on offer and they were OK without being brilliant - usually served with heads that were a bit too frothy and large for my liking so I decided to have a few bottles as well seeing as they had a decent foreign selection - I opted for Duvel and Brooklyn Brown Ale.

Trev joined us - as did old chum Neil Raper whose son Lewis famously gave Gazza a hard time when he (Lewis) ran the line - at the grand age of 11 - at the fundraising game several years ago.  It was good to hear from Neil that Lewis is making his way up the refereeing ladder.

MB-W goes down at the edge of the box
Just as we were about to depart for the Holker Street, Brian turns up - thankfully he was driving and is only allowed a quick half pint before we hustle back out of the door and onto the game.

We stopped for a few photos at the statue of Emlyn Hughes opposite the hotel - he is a celebrated son of Barrow even though his home town club weren't interested in him, Hughes having to join Blackpool instead as he started his career.

It took about ten minutes to walk to the ground and there was a huge queue at the away turnstiles when we arrived.  I left the others to join the queue while I circumnavigated the ground in order to collect my press pass.

Once inside there was already a healthy number of Darlo fans on the uncovered away terrace plus quite a few TV cameras ready to catch all the emotion that the occasion promised.

I set about getting a few fans' pictures - a lot of friendly faces, especially given the sad circumstances and it was especially good to see that Steve Harland had managed to swap his shift and get here.  Steve is doing a grand job hiring bands for gigs in Stockton these days and keeping the old punks of Teesside entertained.

As I was snapping the news came over the tannoy that the game was going to be delayed by 15 mins due to the queues at the away end.

Dancing with poles?
As the teams took the pitch there was a great roar from the away end but also a lot of applause from the home fans who were generous with their support for Darlo and their fans throughout.

The masses of Darlo fans were obviously hoping for a fairy-tale ending - if that what it turns out to be - for this last game. Sadly it was not to be but it wasn't the result that mattered.

The Darlo team for this historic occasion was Russell, Arnison, Hatch, Taylor, Brown; McReady, Chandler, Bridge-Wilkinson, Rundle; Hopson; Bowman with subs being Nixon (gk), P Gray, Harrison, Ramshaw and J Gray.

For a decent proportion of the first half Darlington gave as good as they got and pressed forward, attacking the Barrow goal in front of the Darlo fans and went close on a couple of occasions.

Unfortunately Darlo never really got into the flowing style that has become a trademark of their play under caretaker Craig Liddle and Barrow always looked that little bit sharper - no doubt the lack of training together in recent weeks can't have helped.

Spike Lee was injured and joined Liddle on the away bench - Liam Hatch was therefore drafted in with Kris Taylor to make up the centre-back pairing which meant Ryan Bowman was leading the Darlo line.

Unfortunately he got very little joy out of former Darlo loanee Danny Hone who was first to virtually all of the high balls during the game and was probably the pick of the Barrow defence.

Adam Rundle - note the sponsor
logo has been taped over
Adam Rundle, John McReady and Dale Hopson were all very busy and created some decent movement but failed to really attack the goal.

Barrow took the lead quite early on as Adam Boyes shot speculatively at goal - normally Sam Russell would have easily dealt with this sort of shot.  Perhaps his mind wasn't totally there as the ball proceeded to slip through his hands and into the net.

The home team then doubled their lead after Cook headed home from a cross.  Aaron Brown looked to have been fouled in the build-up but referee Amy Fearn didn't agree.

There was then a loud shout for a Darlo penalty as Mark Bridge-Wilkinson was fouled on the edge of the box.  The ref wasn't fooled and just gave a free-kick.  Paul Arnison came over to the linesman stood in front of me and tried to persuade him it was inside the box. Do they ever change their minds?

At the break I had a wander round and had a chat with a few old faces - former neighbour Geoff Thompson was wearing a replica shirt that was a bit tighter than it used to be.  I also saw the various members of the Darlington FC Rescue Group and had a chat with Doug Embleton who was busy taking his own shots of the occasion.

The game was also notable for the fact that it was the first time a female official has taken charge of a game at Holker Street and it wasn't exactly an impressive debut.  She seemed inconsistent, especially with regards to free-kicks, and made some odd decisions but to be fair, I've seen worse at this level.

She is quite a wee thing though and sometimes she seemed to take far too long sorting out the players when there was a freekick as the players towered over her and tended to ignore her.  Maybe an assertiveness course would be useful.

But I'm not trying to suggest she was in any culpable for the result as Darlington were not at their best and in the second half, chances were few and far between as the Quakers were on the back foot for the most part.

For the second half I'd positioned myself close to the Darlo dugout - Craig Liddle was constantly animated as he tried to get us back into the game but looked an increasingly frustrated figure as we failed to a significant impact.

Hatch was throwing himself into his defensive duties and in the end he paid the price as he had to go off with an injury, being replaced by one of the youth team, Scott Harrison, who made a good impression.

McReady was replaced by James Gray in an effort to put some more energy into our attack and then Rundle was replaced by another youth team player, Rob Ramshaw who made a ten-minute senior debut.

Darlo legend Craig Liddle
Unfortunately Martin and I had booked our rail tickets before the significance of this game was known and we had to depart Barrow station at 5:21pm. 

This meant missing the three minutes of added time and the subsequent emotional scenes as the players and fans applauded each other. Perhaps this was just as well as it probably would have been too emotional for us.

Our train was on time and we headed back to Preston accompanied by Trev, Pete, Karl and Mike and a few younger Darlo fans who lived in the north-west.  The journey was spent musing over some of the grounds we might end up visiting if we find ourselves lower down the pyramid in some form or another.

We left Trev, Karl and Mike at Preston - our connection at Preston there was also on-time - a cup of tea, a read of the programme (spotting the typo on the front page - the game was in 2011 apparently!) and then a snooze before we pulled in Euston on time twenty minutes earlier than planned.

Martin, Pete and I headed to the Euston Tap for some consolatory beers - it was pretty hectic for a Saturday night and the staff were only just coping. 

As ever though, some excellent beers on offer - I tried the Red Willow Ageless, Thornbridge Sequoia (which Martin got a taste for too) and the Northcote Brewery/Euston Tap Collaboration One for the Road.

The latter is the last brew to be made at Northcote as they have now decided to pack in brewing - which is a shame because One For The Road is very drinkable given it has about ten different hops in it (including some wild hops from Hackney).

And then time was called and it was time for bed.  The Euston Tap will be open for my business next week but will Darlo?

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