WITH the Whitby Goth Festival beginning today, it somehow felt fitting that Darlington secured the Evo-Stik Northern Premier League title perched on a clifftop in the North Yorkshire town.

When it comes to horror stories, you’d have to go some to match the tale penned by the Quakers in the last half decade.

Four years ago this week, Darlington played their final game at the Northern Echo Arena. The move to the George Reynolds-inspired stadium on the edge of town had been disastrous enough, but what followed next brought the club to its knees.

Administration, reformation, relegation to the Northern League. Even Bram Stoker might have deemed that too grizzly a plotline to be deemed believable.

Stoker was inspired to write ‘Dracula’ when he stayed in Whitby in 1890, but unlike the eponymous Count, who meets his end via a stake to the heart, Darlington didn’t die. Instead, under the inspired leadership of former Sunderland midfielder Martin Gray, they have now secured three promotions in the space of four seasons. The latest feels like the most cherished and important of the lot.

Partly that is an acknowledgment of the increased difficulty that accompanies every step back up the football pyramid, but it is also a reflection of what is going to happen next.

The Northern Echo:

Having been forcibly relocated to Bishop Auckland, Darlington will return home next season to a shared stadium with Darlington Rugby Club at Blackwell Meadows. That they will do so as a National League North club – just two leagues below the Football League - is the best thing to emerge from a season that has seen Quakers top the 100-point mark. That they secured promotion via a 7-1 exhibition was the icing on the cake.

Next season’s opening game – potentially against Stockport County, another former Football League club, or FC United, the phoenix club to have emerged from the ashes of discontent at Old Trafford – should be a cracker. Mind you, it’ll have to go some to match last night. Whitby hadn’t seen a crowd like this since Good Friday opening time at the Magpie.

The drive from Darlington to Whitby should take just under an hour; yesterday afternoon, it was well over two, with a snake of cars and minibuses heading out along the A171. The pre-match estimate was for around 1,000 visiting supporters. Judging by the racket that accompanied Stephen Thompson’s third-minute opener, it felt like many more than that.

There was even a Norwegian film crew closeted in the main stand, recording proceedings for a ten-minute slot on NRK’s Sportsrevyen, the Saturday-night equivalent of Match of the Day. Even Salford City, with their BBC love-in, can’t boast that.

They don’t have a place in the league below the Conference either, but that is where Darlington find themselves after a night that could hardly have gone any better. If you’re going to win a trophy, you might as well do it in style.

The Northern Echo:

With the visitors needing only a point to pip Blyth Spartans to the title, this was set up to be a cagey affair. True, Whitby were languishing in the bottom half of the table, but might nerves or fatigue get the better of Darlington’s players, who were playing their eighth game since the start of April?

Not exactly. One up after three minutes, two up after seven, and five goals to the good as the clock ticked past the 20-minute mark. “I remember when we didn’t score this many in a season,” joked an elderly observer in the seated section. However many games he’d seen down the years, this one will live long in the memory.

It felt like a side destined for much higher climes taking on a team completely unable to cope with them, and of course that was exactly what it was. Gray has systematically cherry-picked the best players operating at this level and moulded them into a formidable unit. In terms of spirit, commitment and organisation, there are plenty of professional players operating at a much higher level in the North-East who could learn a thing or two from them.

Heart-warmingly, the majority of last night’s team have been on every step of the journey from the Northern League. Gary Brown, Terry Galbraith, Leon Scott and Stephen Thompson were all regular performers against the likes of Hebburn Town and Team Northumbria four seasons ago, yet they continue to look like they are playing at a level way below their capability.

Armstrong, who scored a ten-minute hat-trick, joined in 2014 and suffered a serious abdominal injury in last season’s play-off final that meant he found himself in hospital rather than joining in the post-match celebrations. Given that he used to play for Whitby, you suspect he will have known some decent hostelries in which to toast last night’s success.

Then of course, there is Gray himself. Darlington would not have been able to rebuild so successfully without an army of passionate volunteers, but they would also not have been in the position they now inherit without the astute direction of Gray, a manager who has passed up opportunities to move to a higher level in order to remain with the Quakers. He’ll look to pass on the plaudits elsewhere, but this was his triumph as much as anyone else’s.

The Northern Echo:

It will be interesting to see how Gray and players cope next season. The trips will be longer, the opposition more talented and it remains to be seen whether the eagerly-awaited return to Darlington goes smoothly.

For now, though, all of that can wait. Having looked down and out as recently as four seasons ago, Darlington’s tale of recovery has three of its chapters complete. Whitby might like its gothic horror, but Darlington are cornering the market for real-life romance.