THIRTY years ago, Darlington Football Club were sitting in a pretty good place, hot on the heels of the leaders, after a nine game unbeaten run in the Fourth Division.

Darlington had lost their Football League status in the 1988-89 season, but under manager Brian Little and player-coach Frank Gray, they had left the Conference League in 1990 as champions after only one season and returned to the Football League. As the 1990-91 season started, there was an air of optimism around Feethams, particularly when manager Brian Little and his player-coach Frank Gray signed new contracts, while the experienced Mick Tait was signed from Portsmouth.

But initially, things did not go particularly well for Darlington. After beating Bishop Auckland in the Durham Senior Cup they lost to Hartlepool in the final. Their first league game took them to Gillingham, which was a toughie because the Kent side were strongly fancied for promotion into Division Three.

The Quakers had a good following at the Priestbury Stadium, but the only goal the Quaker fans saw scored was by Gillingham from the penalty spot, after Les McJannet had handled on the line. They also witnessed Steve Mardenborough sent off for retaliation after being tackled by Gillingham defender Billy Manuel.

Darlo responded in the best possible way by going on a nine game unbeaten run, which included a League Cup win over Blackpool. Remarkably, throughout the run, they fielded the same team in every game which was Prudhoe, McJannet, Gray, Gill, Smith, Corner, Emson, Toman, Borthwick, Cork, Tait. with either Geddis, Trotter or Mardenborough as substitutes.

For the visit of Hereford on October 6, the tenth game in the run, the Quakers made a change, Mark Burke, a loan signing from Middlesbrough, replaced Paul Emson while Trotter and Mardenborough were the two subs. Bringing in Burke was a good move, because after David Cork had put Darlo ahead from a John Borthwick pass, it was Burke who scored Darlo's second goal from a rebound after Steve Mardenborough's shot was blocked. Mickey Trotter headed a third goal in a 3-1 win.

Nick Helliwell wrote in The Northern Echo: "The defeat of Hereford was as comprehensive as the score suggests. Fans come to Feethams these days expecting a win."

Neil Abbott in the Evening Gazette wrote: "Great start for new boy Mark." Former Aston Villa striker Burke did not appear in Colin Todd's first team plans at Middlesbrough and had been priced at £300,000, while the win put Darlington fifth in the table, six points behind leaders Torquay.

Darlington midfielder Andy Toman recalled: "I had been playing at Hartlepool and doing quite well, so when I was approached by Brian to join Darlington to play in the Conference, I had my doubts as I was leaving a Football League club to go non-league.

"I met Brian on numerous occasions because it was a massive gamble for me.

"Brian, however, impressed me with his man-management skills, and I signed as a midfield player who would be responsible for creating and scoring goals. Brian then signed Gary Gill as an attacking midfielder, so I did a lot of mopping up as well as creating chances. The leaders in the team were MIck Tait, Kev Smith and David Corner."

l Thanks to Dave Kidd for his help this week.