Gary Coatsworth has a place in Darlington folklore for scoring the crucial goal which sealed the club’s promotion back to the Football League in May 1990. Twenty-one years before Chris Senior’s magic moment at Wembley, Coatsworth’s header in the closing stages at Welling gave Quakers a 1-0 win and the GM Vauxhall Conference title. Approaching a quarter of a century since that sun-soaked day in London, Ray Simpson caught up with him to look back on his Darlington days.

Gary Coatsworth produced one of Darlington’s most iconic moments when he magnificently headed the club back into the Football League against Welling in the last game of the Conference season in 1989-90. Scored in front of 1,500 delirious fans, it was a special moment that remains fondly remembered.

Those who were squashed into Park Road will always remember the nervous anticipation beforehand, the mounting tension when word filtered through that nearest rivals Barnet had taken an early lead at Chorley, and the feelings of unbridled joy and relief when Coatsworth’s looping header late in the game beat the Welling keeper for a promotion-clinching victory.

The central defender was an unlikely hero because he had hardly played that season. The game was only his third league start of the season, having found it hard to break into the team such was the good form of Brian Little’s three first-choice centre-back Kevan Smith, David Corner and Jimmy Willis.

“I’d signed for Darlo within a day of being released by Barnsley,” he said.

“I was released on a Friday by Barnsley at their ground, and I started driving up home to Sunderland. By the time I got home, Brian Little had been on the phone and invited me down to Darlo to meet him.

“I saw the last game of Darlo’s season in the Fourth Division, they’d already been relegated by then. You might wonder why I wanted to sign for a club that had just been relegated from the Football League to the Conference – there was nothing at stake in that last Darlo game – but Brian had big plans. You could tell that the club wanted to bounce straight back the following season. He made me feel wanted at the club.

“He attracted a lot of new players –Kevan Smith, Frank Gray, Andy Toman, John Borthwick – and he had a big clear-out of the old players.

“Brian was a great manager to work for. He was very calm, and had everything planned, which would turn up trumps for us later in the season.”

“I had a good pre season, but I couldn’t get in the team because everybody was playing so well,” he said.

“And then I got my chance in a home game against Chorley in November, because Les McJannet was injured. I didn’t last long though, because I broke my collarbone! I went for a header, landed awkwardly, and I had to go off. I didn’t realise how bad it was for a few days after I’d been x-rayed. I was out for six weeks.”

Coatsworth wasn’t really involved again and was hardly on the bench either, because only two subs were allowed back then, until after the ‘Battle of Northwich’ in March, the day several players picked up injuries, the most serious being to keeper Mark Prudhoe.

It looked as if he would have to be content with a spectator role for the rest of the season until Willis broke his leg, and then in the penultimate game at Kidderminster, with the Conference trophy waiting to be presented, Quakers agonisingly lost 3-2 to a last-minute goal which meant that they had to avoid defeat at Welling on the last day to win promotion.

As usual, Little kept his cards close to his chest as the tension built among the fans. There was so much at stake – if Quakers lost, what would happen to the club?

Coatsworth said: “Brian didn’t let on about his team in the days before the game, but that was typical of him, he would make sure that everything was right and to his satisfaction.

“He didn’t tell me that I was starting until the morning of the game, when we were in the hotel. I was a little bit nervous, but not too bad.

“I remember walking on to the pitch, and the atmosphere was great, so many Darlo fans had travelled down from the North-East. They were everywhere.

“As for the game itself, I think everyone was scared of making mistakes. Plus, it was a bone-hard pitch with hardly any grass on it and a red hot day as well. It was obvious that there weren’t going to be many goals.

“I didn’t know, and I’m sure most of the lads didn’t know, that Barnet scored early on against Chorley. All we were bothered about was our own game and getting the result we wanted.”

Then, with about ten minutes left and the score 0-0, Quakers were awarded a free kick on the touchline.

“We’d practiced free-kicks in training all season long, and each player knew where he was meant to stand and where to run,” he added. “I was meant to stand at the back, and then make a forward run.

“So that’s what I did. I met the ball from Andy Toman perfectly. I watched it loop over the keeper and into the bottom of the corner of the net.

“There was an explosion of noise, and I ran into the crowd to celebrate. I remember being mobbed by loads of Darlo fans! The fans came on the field to celebrate as well. What a moment!

“I’d never dreamed of scoring, because as a defender all I was interested in was keeping a clean sheet. A goalless draw would have been enough for us to win.

“We celebrated in the changing rooms and on the bus on the way home. I don’t think we minded when the bus broke down, because we kept on celebrating in a nearby pub!”

Coatsworth made a greater impact the following season, making 12 league appearances, in the Fourth Division and again he played a part, though less conspicuous, in the last game of the season. Quakers needed win over Rochdale at Feethams to take the title.

“Brian didn’t change much at all the following season,” he added. “Brian brought in Mick Tait, who added experience to the squad, and really we carried on where we left off.

“We scored early on in that game through David Cork, and then Frank Gray scored a penalty in the second half.

“Everyone ran on the pitch at the end, and we all went up and lifted the championship trophy. It was another good day.”

All good things come to an end though, and Little soon quit Feethams and left for Leicester City, however, that wouldn’t be the last that Coatsworth would see of the manager as he followed him to Filbert Street.

“The pity was that we had just moved house. Brian showed me around the ground, and I made up my mind there and then because of the respect I had for him.”

But Coatsworth was dogged by injuries. “I made my debut against Derby County, turned, and snapped my cruciate. I came back after a few months and it went again. It meant I missed two play-off finals, but I was fit for the third in 1994-95 against Derby.

“The experience and the atmosphere were frightening, and it was fantastic to come out on top against one of our fiercest rivals.”

The injuries wouldn’t go away though. “After Wembley, I had a cyst, and my ankle kept swelling up. I had it taken out, but it still didn’t seem right. I spoke to a surgeon, who diagnosed arthritis, and he told me that if I kept on playing at a professional level, eventually I would have trouble walking. So at the age of 27, I had to call it a day, it was commonsense.”

Coatsworth went on to play for Spennymoor and Sunderland Nissan, eventually packing in altogether because he couldn’t combine his full time job at Nissan with playing football, but he left the game having given every Darlington fan the memory of his looping header.