FOOTBALL kicked off almost as soon as the guns fell silent – in Darlington, at Feethams, there was a special match between the town’s two leading teams on November 12, 1918.

Darlington Forge Albion beat Darlington Railway Athletic 9-1.

The professional Football League had been suspended at the end of the 1914-15 season, and the armistice of 1918 came too late to kick-off a full season, so six regional “Victory Leagues” were established around the country.

The Northern Echo:

On December 6, 1918, representatives of the clubs of Sunderland, Middlesbrough, Newcastle United, South Shields, Scotswood and Durham City met in the Grand Hotel and agreed to form a Northern "Victory" League. They invited Hartlepools United and Darlington to make the numbers up to eight.

Hartlepools were soon on-board, but Darlington proved more problematic.

The club which had carried the town’s name before the war had been formed in 1883. It had turned professional in 1908 and in 1911 had become the first non-league side to win away in the FA Cup at a First Division club – a feat that was not equalled for more than 60 years. But then, in 1916, it had run out of money.

At the annual meeting that September, the newly-elected chairman, George Zissler from the family of butchers, said: “I believe we are in such a position that we must consider the question whether we want to carry on the club or not. Personally, I think it would be advisable to bring the business to an end now. We cannot get ourselves into better circumstances by going on.”

The Quakers owed £300 to the bank and £188 to sundry other creditors, largely for pre-war works upgrading Feethams.

A shadowy figure called Mr Whitwell was waiting in the wings like a white knight if, said The Northern Echo enigmatically, “certain suggestions” could be put to him which would enable him to adopt a “certain course”.

As with so many white knights in the Quakers’ history, Mr Whitwell never stepped out of the shadows, and the debt-ridden club quietly faded away into wartime oblivion. Therefore, in peacetime, there was no club in the town to answer the call of the Victory League – only the two works sides who had kicked around at Feethams on the day after the armistice.

One of them, the Darlington Forge Albion, was run by JB Haw, a former turner at the Darlington Forge ironworks on Albert Hill, who had become the landlord of the Forge Tavern in Nestfield Street, where the works team met and drank. At the last moment, he decided to accept Darlington’s invitation.

The Northern Echo:

OLD PROS: The Darlington Forge Albion team from the Victory League of 1919 was largely made up of old pros. Back row (left to right) with their former clubs: Jack English (Sheffield United); Andy Greig (Aberdeen); Cook (Sheffield Utd); Robinson (Middlesbrough); Barnshaw (Watford); Burke (Sheffield Utd). Front row; Kirsopp (Barnsley); Hastings (Sunderland); Toward (Preston North End); Hafecoast (Dundee); Johnson (Clapham Orient). The trainer in the big cap on the right of the front row is Willie Mafham

So on January 3, 1919 – a week before the big kick-off – the seven members of the Victory League unanimously elected Darlington Forge Albion as their final opponents, much to the disappointment of Bishop Auckland who, sensing the crisis in the Skerneside camp, had put their name forward.

But Mr Haw had only seven days to patch together a team for the first game, which was away at South Shields. He was assisted by another Forge worker, Willie Mafham, who had boxed under the name Kid Donovan and now ran a gym in a yard off High Row.

Together they rustled up a team of pre-war Quakers favourites – Hubbard and Lawson – and some old professionals: Peel, Stage and S Smith (Middlesbrough), Hillhouse and Huston (Queen's Park), Benton (Derby County), Anderson (Kilmarnock), Spriggs (Birmingham) and Curtis (Spurs).

But they were old. Of the star forward, The Northern Echo said: "Curtis is not the player he was. He lacks speed and his control of the ball is not so masterly as of old."

South Shields won 3-1, and poor Hubbard, who had been a prolific pre-war goalscorer, was hospitalised for a week afterwards.

Next up were Durham City at Feethams.

"Forge officials have been laying out money to get the ground into condition and renovate the stands, pavilion etc," reported the Echo on the Saturday morning of the match, "and the pitch is now in a good playing state."

Monday morning’s headline was "Dogged struggle at Feethams" as it reported on the 0-0 draw.

The next game was against high-flying Hartlepools United, and more changes were made. Harrow, "formerly with Darlington St Augustine's who has just been discharged from the Army", was drafted in, but still the Albion were thrashed 7-1.

For the following Saturday's trip to Scotswood more old pros were given a run-out – Wilson, Laverty, Seed, Docherty and Burton were all new names on the teamsheet. But the Forge crashed 5-0, despite "Darlington goalkeeper's clever display" – he was Andy Greig – which kept the score down.

Next Saturday, Darlington were at Sunderland.

"The Forge Albion have once again reconstructed their team," noted the Echo on the Saturday morning before kick-off, as two "well-known Sheffield United players", Cook and Jack English, were among the new signings.

Monday’s headline read "Roker fortunate" as the Echo told of how Sunderland's 1-0 victory came from an own goal glancing in off English's boot.

But after five games, the Forge Albion had just one point and were bottom of the Victory League.

"It is a great consolation, however, to know that the Forge have after several attempts got together a team which should be a credit in the future," noted the Echo.

Indeed, the corner had been turned. Darlington won five of their remaining nine matches, including a 2-0 victory at St James' Park, and finished above Durham and Hartlepools, only two points behind Newcastle United.

That must have been considered a fair result, particularly as along the way, Feethams had been restored and the East Stand had been completed so that, for the first time, it included dressing rooms.

Plus, the club finished the season with a couple of players of real promise, most notably the goalkeeper who had been the only ever-present in the 14 games in the Victory League. He was 19-year-old Andy Greig, from Aberdeen, who remained Quakers' first choice keeper until 1924 – even though he was completely deaf.

Most vital of all, Mr Haw had brought league-level football back to life in Darlington.

For the 1919-20 season, the North-Eastern League was – which the former Darlington club had won in 1912-13 – reformed. Mr Haw put forward his club, only he dropped the “Forge Albion” title and reverted to calling them Darlington Football Club. They finished second and won the title the following year, after which another of Mr Haw’s signings, Jack English, became manager. He led the Quakers into Division Three (North) and, within four years, got them for the only time in their existence into Division Two.

Understandably, Mr Haw, who for the last 27 years if his life was landlord of the Golden Cock in Tubwell Row, was regarded as a saviour of football in the town until his death in 1960.