Match Report: Darlington 3 Team Northumberland 1

A YEAR ago, Darlington supporters were living a nightmare.

Their club wasn’t just in the doldrums, it was six feet under, but now they’re savouring glorious moments that will last a lifetime.

Amar Purewal keeping a cool head to make it 3-1 in injury time; the players spraying champagne at the final whistle; Martin Gray crowd surfing – these are the images that will be recalled fondly in years to come as fans look back on the triumphant day that the club, their club, began its ascent up the leagues.

Saturday’s win over Team Northumbria means secondplaced Spennymoor Town, who have six games in hand, can no longer catch Quakers.

That Darlington have needed to win 39 of their 45 games is a testament to the admirable fight Moors have put up.

It is Darlington, though, who will next season be in the Evo-Stik First North, so there’ll be meetings with clubs such as Harrogate RA, Lancaster City and a rejuvenated Scarborough, who are also at the dawn of a new era.

Goals from Chris Emms and Purewal’s brace sealed a nervy win at a tense Heritage Park.

“I’m suffering now, but it was just emotion,” explained Gray, who celebrated by standing on a perimeter fence before falling on to jubilant fans gathered below.

“We started this journey on the May 5 last year, when we didn’t have a club. It was gone.

But now we’ve won a really high-standard league. To put a team together from nothing to where we are today is outstanding.”

There are those who, following the financial catastrophe that engulfed the club a year ago, would have been satisfied simply to have a club at all at this point. Others hoped to be at least competitive.

But nobody could have expected Darlington to go from having no squad to reaching 119 points, beating the club that had won the league for three years in a row.

Win on Wednesday and Quakers will have recorded 40 victories and beaten every team in the division at least once, so there’s no doubting they deserve to be champions.

Gray said: “To get that many points is a great achievement and to finish ahead of Spennymoor, who have dominated this league for three years and are an outstanding team and a very well-run club, is outstanding.

“It’s been a massive effort from everybody. I’ve got an unbelievable management team: Brian Atkinson, Sean Gregan, Tony Norman, Harry Dunn and Scott Selby the kitman have all played a massive part. The fans too.

“The other month we were out here shovelling snow off the pitch to try to get games on, that wouldn’t have happened three or four years ago.

You wouldn’t have had players doing that then.

“Even the game today was going to be off, but 15 fans turned up and made sure it was on. It just shows you how much the club means to the community of Darlington.”

Following overnight rain, Saturday’s fixture was under threat until it passed a 12pm inspection, after a merry band of pitchfork-wielding fans answered an SOS to remove the surface water.

Their efforts were not immediately rewarded, however.

The Northern Echo: Amar Purewal
Amar Purewal's powerful header puts Darlington into a 2-1 lead - the first of his two goals on Saturday

A win guaranteed the title, but Quakers struggled to test keeper Andrew Jennison, despite having much more of the ball, and the visitors were in party-pooping mood.

They snatched the lead on 42 minutes after a free-kick, Tom Davies heading home having evaded Gary Brown.

But from the kick-off Stephen Thompson conjured an equaliser. Finally evading Team Northumbria’s manmarking, he crossed from the left for Emms to stab home.

Following Gray’s words of assurance at the break, Purewal put Darlington ahead after the restart with a powerful header, Stephen Harrison providing the pinpoint cross.

But it was not the cue for the floodgates to open as the stubborn visitors put up an admirable fight.

They may not have given Mark Bell much to worry about, but a single-goal lead is never comfortable.

“It was about the result, not the performance,” added Gray.

“There’s been many a time when we’ve been on top of teams and punished them, but today was about getting over the finishing line.

“The team performance was excellent. Amar Purewal stepped up with two great goals.

“He’s been frustrated recently because he hasn’t been scoring, so you’re looking for him to step up in a big game and he certainly did.”

Purewal’s late second goal, after running on to a Jonny Davis through-ball, was met with an explosion of relief and joy.

All the worries and nerves evaporated and soon there was a pitch invasion as fans celebrated the club’s first promotion since 1991.

A whole generation is too young to remember Brian Little leading Quakers to the Division Four title. Wembley two years ago being a glorious exception, over the past decade fans have endured relegation from the Football League, three administrations, a four-division demotion and becoming homeless.

The turmoil and the stress of last season remains fresh in the memory, which is why this success, while it may be at the ninth level of football, means so much.

Supporters’ passion for the club has been reinvigorated and those who kept the faith are now being rewarded.

At Wednesday’s game with Guisborough Town the players will receive medals, but the fans deserve this success just as much.