ANOTHER year older, another year wiser.
That’s Martin Gray’s optimistic method of viewing Darlington’s status as remaining at Step 4 in nonleague after missing out on promotion last season.
They did not miss by much, finishing second and losing in the play-offs. So near, yet so far and so a second round of trips to Padiham, Prescot and Radcliffe et al await.
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It’s the scenario nobody at wanted, though the manager believes the club is now better equipped for a second stab at promotion from the Evo-Stik First Division.
He said: “We know about the opposition, about the line-ups, the formations, the grounds and pitches we’ll play on, everything. We’ve got a bit more knowledge and a bit more experience and hopefully we’ll improve because of that.
“We’ve experienced the one promotion place scenario for two seasons now. In most leagues at least two go up and then the play-offs, so last season we would’ve got promotion had we been in the Football League or the Conference. That’s where we are, we’ve got to get on with it.
“We want promotion, that’s never been a secret. We finished second and we want to go one further this year.”
Wanting promotion is one thing, achieving it something else and it’s what many observers expect Salford City to do.
They are armed with the financial muscle that comes with being backed by Manchester United’s Class of ’92, and, based on Quakers’ second-place finish a year after winning the Northern League it is fair to assume a Spennymoor Town will challenge too.
“The league will be harder,” says Gray. “Don’t get me wrong, Curzon Ashton won the league deservedly, but Warrington have invested heavily, Salford have, obviously, and there’s Spennymoor Town and they will make it a better league.
“Bamber Bridge will be up there, so will Farsley, so it’s going to be tough. The competition is greater than last season, but we’ve had a season at this level so we know more about the level.”
No matter the standard of the opposition, Gray is more concerned about his squad and this summer has raised as many questions as it has answers.
Liam Hatch is a solid signing, but is he going to play up front or in defence?
Will Jack Walker, dropped for the play-off semi-final, start at right-back or is Gary Brown to be moved from centre-half ? And in the centre of defence, who is Gray’s favoured pairing from Brown, Hatch, Alan White and Chris Hunter?
Gray said: “We’ve talked about it as coaches and that’s what pre-season is for, to work out your best team and formation. We’ve got competition for places and a healthy, strong squad. We’ve got good problems.
“We’ve been trying different formations and pairings. We’ve talked about what we think is going to be the right formation, but that can change week to week. You get injuries, you get lack of form, so you’ve got to be able to adapt.
“One thing really important is to ensure all of the players feel part of it.”
Peter Jameson and Mark Bell have played an equal amount of time in goal during pre-season, is the former about to replace the latter as No. 1?
“We’ve been rotating them,” explained Gray. “We said we’d give them equal time, it would be unfair to give one more time than the other when you’ve got two good keepers.
“We’ve got to sit down and pick one, like we have with the rest of the squad.”
Improving his coaching team’s approach has also come into Gray’s thinking, though the manager was evasive in his explanation.
He said: “We’ve tried to improve as staff, we’ve looked at how we can be better off the pitch. I wouldn’t want to share that, but we can always improve off the pitch as well as on it.
“We’ll make sure we’re better this year than we were last year.”
COMMENT by Craig Stoddart
INTEREST in Darlington is waning, making it essential that promotion is achieved this season if the club is to avoid becoming a non-league also-ran.
There’s apathy in the air and stagnation at Step 4 is feared.
Season ticket sales are down and it’s due to a combination of factors, not least being the way last season ended: Comprehensively beaten in play-offs, while champions Curzon Ashton demolished Darlington 4-0 in March.
Salford City’s emergence coupled with strong squads at Warrington and Spennymoor Town has affected confidence in Quakers’ promotion hopes.
Remaining in the Evo-Stik First Division excites very few supporters of a black and white persuasion. Being at the eighth level of football was fine for a season, but anything more than that tests the resolve of even the most ardent supporter.
As does playing at Bishop Auckland. After two seasons away from the town, Heritage Park fatigue is setting in.
There’s nothing wrong with the venue; it’s modern, it’s tidy and good money’s been spent this summer on a fantastic pitch which means Quakers boss Martin Gray is happy to stay there.
The ground is easily big enough and it’s not too far from home. But that’s the problem: It’s not home and being tenants has become tedious.
While progress on moving to Blackwell Meadows appears slow, the homecoming and increased crowds that would bring is on hold.
There’s nothing like a few wins to puts smiles on faces, however, and despite all of the above, Darlington will be towards the top end of the table from an early stage and excitement will grow.
There’s been only a handful of additions, which says something for Gray’s satisfaction with last season’s squad.
Chris Hunter and Stephen Thompson were the stand-out performers last term and both remain, while captain Gary Brown will be involved from the off having missed most of 2013-14 due to injury. Adam Mitchell and Liam Hatch will improve the team once Gray has discovered his best XI.
There remains question marks over his most effective line-up, while new recruit Tom Portas must bolster a midfield which was a weak area last season.
The momentum created when winning the Northern League in 2013 has slipped, it’s now Gray’s task to bring back a feelgood factor.