The Football Association yesterday ruled that Darlington will play in the Northern League next season. Deputy Sports Editor Craig Stoddart, a lifelong supporter of the Quakers, gives his verdict on the FA's decision to demote the club four divisions
FROM Wembley to West Auckland - how the hell has it come to this? Sixteen years to the day that Darlington visited the national stadium for the first time, at the same venue yesterday the ruthless Football Association kicked Quakers into the depths of the non-league game.
The decision to place the club into the Northern League hurt more than that 1996 defeat to Plymouth in a play-off final or, in fact, any defeat in the club's 129-year history.
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Seeing Darlington play under Twin Towers that sunny day fulfilled an ambition for me and thousands of others. As a lifelong fan, watching Darlington walk out at Wembley represented the fulfilment of a childhood dream, a day that most supporters thought would never see. The win at Wembley last year in the FA Trophy final was, similarly, truly what dreams are made of.
Likewise, yesterday was also a day most of us thought we would never see: Darlington in the Northern League.
Fear the worst and hope for the best, so they say, but seeing the FA put Darlington in the Evo-Stik Premier or First Division appeared a more likely scenario.
Instead, the worst case scenario was realised as the FA, treating Quakers like a new club, effectively relegated Darlington four divisions in one afternoon. Not even Steve Staunton managed that.
He was the out-of-depth boss when the club were relegated from the Football League in 2010, a novice in club management and it showed. Finishing bottom of the pile that year was a major blow. Today, the emotion is stunned amazement and anger.
It's only four years since Darlington were vying to be in League One. Promotion in 2008 would have seen them rub shoulders with Leicester, Leeds and Huddersfield, but next season's opposition will include Marske United, Hebburn Town and Team Northumbria.
Reality will hit once games are underway in August, when fans are making their first visit to grounds such as Penrith's Frenchfield Park. It's not been beyond me to have a snobbish moan down the years about press facilities at Accrington Stanley and York City, but I can't see there being a decent wifi access at Hebburn Sports & Social Ground.
Myself and a couple of Northern Echo colleagues played in a charity game last Sunday at Hebburn Town, newly-promoted to the Northern League first division.
To think that Darlington will be playing there next season, not in a friendly or a cup competition, but in a bona fide senior game on a level playing field brings home the harsh reality.
Supporters will be made welcome, certainly, and they will find the football better value for money than £18 per game in the Conference. But any Darlington supporters who have not previously visited many Northern League grounds will take some getting used to the new surrounds.
Because, for all that the FA have punished the club, in reality it is the supporters that have come off worst. They raised thousands to keep the club alive and reach the end of the season, but for very little reward.
They have been punished for the sins of those in charge of the club in the past. It all appears very unnecessary and draconian.
There shall be some who will say Darlington may as well have gone bust mid season, restarted as a phoenix without any debt and ended up same position. Hindsight's wonderful, isn't it. Because had that happened, we would forever have looked back in anger and wondered 'what if'. What if we'd tried to save the club, what if we'd at least given it a go.
Mind, fans are angry about what has happened to their club and they can be forgiven for looking back and looking for answers.
Emotions are high, just as they were during the match at Barrow in January, when then chairman Raj Singh had just placed Quakers into administration and it appeared it would be the club's last stand.
Singh remains public enemy number one and understandably so.
Months ago he said, live on BBC Tees, that he would walk away without claiming a penny if it meant the club staying alive, yet he went back on his word and as a result the all-important CVA was not agreed.
But there remains confusion and hope - typical of the last six months at Darlington. Singh last night said he had signed over the share to the club's new owners, thus sparking frantic hopes of a reprieve.
No matter, Teesside businessman Singh will not be welcomed back to Darlington and the same goes for fellow former chairman George Reynolds.
His ludicrous decision to build a 25,000-seater stadium for a club that has never averaged anything close to that number still rankles. That Darlington Borough Council allowed Reynolds to build the monument to himself is equally baffling.
Darlington have endured three administrations since the White Elephant opened in 2003 and the concern now is that the club will go the same way as Scarborough, Maidstone and Rushden - all former Football League clubs that sank without trace.
But there are success stories which can offer inspiration. Aldershot, AFC Wimbledon and Newport County all worked though the leagues back to the Conference and beyond. Chester, FC United of Manchester are also on the rise having begun towards the bottom and so Quakers must hope to do the same.
It promises to be a challenging time. They are starting out of town, at Shildon's Dean Street, in a new division with a new manager and a new set of players.
But perhaps the fresh start will give the club the impetus it needs, acting as a springboard.
Begin well and momentum will build, Quakers fans will fill grounds they had not previously visited (or expected to) and they will be welcomed with open arms by Northern League clubs relishing a bumper pay day. With a few victories to enjoy, this could be the beginning of an enjoyable adventure - but it should not have come to this.