At the end of their first season since being relegated four divisions by the Football Association following a financial catastrophe, Darlington are on the verge of winning the Northern League title after what has been an unforgettable season. CRAIG STODDART speaks to Quakers captain Gary Brown about ten of the campaign's key moments
The ideal choice. Even prior to his appointment, made by then chairman Denis Pinnegar, he commanded the supporters' respect having been in the professional game most of his life, spending a decade with Darlington, first as a player and then fulfilled various coaching roles.
Gray made his name as a hardworking midfielder and that characteristic has been reflected in his team, which has also been very fit, a fact borne out by the number of goals they've scored in the second half of matches - 86 of 139 have been after the break.
It may be semi-professional in the Northern League, but Gray has implemented a professional approach. He even arranged for the players to wear a club suit at home games.
"One of the things that took me by surprise was that right at the beginning he said he was going to run things like a Football League club," said Quakers captain Gary Brown.
"I've never been a pro so I wasn't sure what that was going to mean, but in training we'll do things that I'd not done in the Northern League before. And Sean Gregan's told me things that when I think about them seem obvious, but I didn't know it until he told me and you listen because he's been there and done it.
"If anyone ever has a go at us it's only coming from pure jealousy. There was a West Auckland player the other week arguing with me and Joe Tait, saying 'You're carrying on like you are pros', but everyone wants to play at a club that's ran like Darlington."
GARY BROWN APPOINTED CAPTAIN
He once referred to himself as "just a hairy-arsed pipe fitter who loves playing for this club," but he's much more than that.
Embodies the never-say-day spirit that all managers want from their captain and many a time has been man of the match.
Yet, the former Durham defender revealed that last summer he was not sure if he was good enough.
He said: "I'd only ever been captain for odd games here and there, but apart from that I'd never done it before so it was a massive honour at the start of the season. Especially when I looked around and saw the quality of players we had.
"It sounds funny now, but before I'd signed anything I was even thinking it would be great just to get signed on and be a part of it, even if I was only getting ten or 20 minutes here and there.
"I don't know if I underestimated myself, but I didn't think I'd get in the team, let alone be captain.
"Without a doubt it's been the best season of my life. I've enjoyed playing football more than I ever have and I feel I've played the best I ever have."
RESPONSE TO FIRST DEFEAT OF SEASON
The true test of character comes in adversity, so they say, and Darlington showed resolve when reacting to their first defeat by stringing together 13 wins in a row.
They'd started with four successive victories, but then they lost 4-1 at Guisborough Town, a match Brown missed after going on holiday to Las Vegas.
Gray replaced him with Matthew Grieve, but following a deserved defeat he didn't play another league game. The manager quickly brought in Joe Tait and Darlington didn't look back.
The captain's trip had been booked well in advance of him even signing for the club, but his jolly to America surprised fans still adjusting to supporting a semi-pro club.
TEAM REGULARLY STRENGTHENED
The verdict among many in the Northern League fraternity at the beginning of the campaign was that Darlington were in for a shock, but the team that is finishing the season is stronger than the one that started it.
As Shildon manager Gary Forrest noted last weekend, there's a small pool of talent among Northern League clubs, most of which was under contract elsewhere by the time Gray began building a team from scratch, so he was playing catch-up from day one.
The better players took some convincing, which was understandable as Darlington was a new venture. Once the season got underway and Quakers were winning most weeks in front of over a thousand people, however, Joe Tait, Craig Gott and the talismanic Stephen Thompson all arrived, soon followed by Mark Bell and Terry Galbraith.
Of the XI that started on August 18, six are no longer with the club.
Brown said: "Even when I went to that first training session I thought 'this squad can go somewhere, maybe not this season, it could be too early, but this squad could achieve something'.
"But then there's been a lot of changes since, with Tommo, Taity and Tez so you can see it's got a lot better."
Although a healthy budget has been a factor, Gray deserves credit for being able to build a team so quickly - and chief scout Harry Dunn clearly has an eye for a player.
NO CUP DISTRACTIONS
Spennymoor's place in the FA Vase final and Shildon reaching the semis is enough to suggest that Darlington would've had a reasonable chance of success had the FA not prohibited them from the competition.
They were permitted to play in local cup competitions, but Gray had no interest in winning either of them and his stance has proven wise.
Lacking in prestige they may be, but the Durham Challenge Cup and Northern League Cup take precedence over league games, which are postponed in order to accommodate cup fixtures.
As a result of intending to win each competition they entered, Spennymoor have become embroiled in a fixture backlog that will see them playing until May 17.
Although Moors' intentions are noble, Gray's men have suffered no such problems as promotion is all that has mattered.
A MIXED WELCOME
For the most part, Darlington have been warmly welcomed by opposition that had previously represented pre-season friendly destinations.
A camaraderie exists between clubs, one that sees most NL followers wanting Spennymoor to win the Vase next weekend, for example.
It has certainly been a novel and mostly enjoyable experience, though one that Darlington would rather not repeat - the novelty would wear off by the second season.
They have had to continually cope with teams raising their game for what's been their 'cup final'. Occasionally, 'David' has had his day and any humbling has been celebrated with all the gusto of an FA Cup giant-killing while there has been a hostile element too, most keenly felt in the south west Durham area.
Brown said: "We relish it because if it is their cup final it gives us a boost. Whoever you're playing, if they're going to have a go at you it gives you a boost."
Never was animosity more apparent in November at West Auckland who, in the face of huge criticism and despite the best attempts of Northern League chairman Mike Amos, doubled admission. Quakers fans responded by boycotting the game.
"A lot of what went on happened off the pitch," added Brown. "The ticket prices getting doubled and officials saying things didn't really affect the players. Plus, a lot of the lads had played against the West Auckland lads before and or even played for them.
"At Shildon they were singing terrible things about me, but it didn't bother me because I know there are some good people at the club and there's some good lads at West too."
It had not been long since Quakers had put together 13 successive wins, but suddenly they'd lost three out of five league matches. Defeat at West Auckland was soon followed by losses at Newton Aycliffe and Team Northumbria, the latter two being unfancied teams.
Brown admitted: "At Aycliffe I don't know if it was down to complacency, but we definitely learned from those two defeats. We knew we had to work harder and stop being so clumsy at the back. We also needed to be more patient, to be more mature in games.
"But who is to say that if we'd beaten Aycliffe and Northumbria we'd have gone on to do what we've done? We were slowly getting into a rut and it definitely stopped with those two games - they were the kick up the arse that we needed."
A goal that changed not just a match, but an entire season.
With half an hour gone of the much-anticipated match at a packed Brewery Field, Quakers were kicking uphill and looking inferior to a Spennymoor side that was full value for a 1-0 lead.
But Brown had a plan. "I knew they like to kick down the bank in the second half," he said. "So I had a conversation with Stephen Harrison and Belly and said 'I don't know what you think but if I win the toss I'm going to upset them and kick uphill first half'.
"So even when we went 1-0 down it wasn't a disaster because I still fancied us as we'd been going down the hill in the second half. And then Terry scored that goal and I knew it was ours for the taking."
Galbraith's goal was a beauty. Smashed home from distance, a low drive by the Jarrow-born midfielder levelled the score and changed the dynamic of the match and title race.
They went on to boss the remainder of the game, winning 3-1, and for the first time Darlington held the title race initiative.
FANS HAVE STOOD BY CLUB
Darlington is now a community club as their fans own a majority stake and it means there is a greater connection between the club and its supporters.
The players feel that connection too and, with other Northern League clubs generally attracting a couple of hundred fans, feel privileged to be playing in front a home average of close to 1,300.
"The fans have been absolutely tremendous," said Brown. "The supporters treat you like a celebrity and I don't know how to react sometimes. I just get on with it.
"When they're singing your name it's humbling. It's a great feeling, but at the same time you do feel a bit shy at first. It's a case of getting used to it now and not letting it go to your head because, well, me mam would knock me head off to be honest."
17 SUCCESSIVE WINS
The win over Spennymoor proved to be the sixth in a 17-match winning run as Quakers steamrollered opposition to cement their place at the top.
They've been pushed all the way by Spennymoor, who are on course to top the 100-point mark themselves. Like a nine-month long tennis match, the clubs have pushed each other on to new heights.
Darlington are now at match-point, however, Brown said: "I didn't even know it was 17 games.
"Me and Tony Norman [goalkeeping coach] always talk about it being 45 minutes at a time. So there was never a point when we said 'right, we need to win ten or 12 games in a row here'. It was only one half at a time.
"We were just turning up to training, doing as we were told and doing everything right."