Darlington are looking forward to heading home next season, when they will return to the town at Blackwell Meadows and they will do so in the National League North after winning a third promotion in four seasons. Deputy Sports Editor Craig Stoddart tells the story of their fantastic season

CLUTCHING his boot bag while standing in the corridor outside Darlington’s changing room at Heritage Park following a win over Buxton, Phil Turnbull had a prediction to make.

“There’s a buzz about the place that we’re going to do something special,” said the midfielder.

This was in early February, that day’s victory moving Quakers up to fourth, closing the gap on leaders Blyth Spartans from 14 to 11 points.

He continued: “Blyth are a good side, no doubt about it, and Salford are still in it, but I look at our team and it’s a team of men with experience. Sometimes we play against younger teams, less experienced, but in our changing room is a team of men and I’ve got a lot of faith that we can do something special.”

Quakers’ Nostradamus could not have been more right.

Twelve months after going up through the play-offs, Darlington supporters are celebrating promotion again at the culmination of a season which will be remembered for the team triumphing in adversity, while the club also confirmed its long-awaited return to the town at Blackwell Meadows.

They will need to find space behind the bar for the Northern Premier League trophy, the silverware Quakers collected following Thursday’s extraordinary 7-1 win at Whitby.

Only a point was needed for promotion to the National League North, yet it was 5-0 after only 20 minutes, with over a thousand travelling fans treated to one of their team’s best performances in years.

That makes it three promotions in four seasons for manager Martin Gray, and this has been the hardest earned.

“It has been my biggest challenge as a manager,” he said.

“When we were 14 points behind Blyth it felt like it was getting more and more difficult and things were stacking up against us.

“It’s been tough, and I’m sure if you can manage at this level then it must be a lot easier the higher up you go!”

Gray’s men complete their season today at Rushall Olympic, having pipped unfortunate Blyth. The Spartans have 99 points – more than each of the previous two winners of this division.

Quakers have even more, however, having taken 42 out of the last 45 available, while successfully dealing with the pressure of playing catch-up to Blyth, who were leaders since before Christmas.

Eleven postponements, eight of them at Heritage Park, resulted in being left lagging behind the leaders. Games in hand offer comfort, but you’ve got to win them.

Today is Darlington’s ninth match in 22 days, the last four coming this week. League officials would not consider a season extension, but being forced into a glut of games compromised the integrity of the competition – it’s simply not been fair.

Heritage Park’s notorious pitch problems peaked 11 days ago, when a referee decided that evening’s match with Skelmersdale could not go ahead. Gray made a call to Brad Groves, Spennymoor Town’s owner, and so the team Darlington defeated in the play-offs a year ago generously stepped in to host two matches.

“Without their help I don’t think we would have won the championship,” said Gray. “They allowed us to play those two games at their place and that’s helped us win the championship.”

Moors’ magnanimous gesture came in contrast to fellow North-Easterners Blyth Spartans, plus Workington, Nantwich Town, Salford City, and Rushall, who were angry in December when the NPL served Quakers with a suspended 12-point deduction as punishment for selecting winger Anthony Bell without international clearance.

Crucially, the wording under Rule 6.9: Playing an Ineligible Player, allows leagues to show discretion.

But that did not stop Workington chairman Glenn Heathcote from saying: “If you look further ahead to the end of the season, there’s going to be at least one club impacted if Darlington finish in the top five and are less than 12 points clear of sixth place.

“It could be worse, because if Darlington finish top and are less than 12 points ahead of second place, the team who finishes second will be denied automatic promotion.”

Darlington may have won 13 points during Bell’s seven league appearances, but he was released to join Shildon in September when a poor run included three successive home defeats.

Having become familiar with success since 2012, after being demoted by the Football Association down to the muck and nettles football of the Northern League, losing 1-0 at home to lowly Marine and twice to Hyde – once in the FA Cup – were sobering experiences.

Enter Lee Gaskell from Ramsbottom, the experienced striker with quick footwork and a penchant for spectacular goals, including an acrobatic volley at Mickleover in a hat-trick ten days after joining.

Darlington won that game 5-1 and have not looked back, though not until Gary Brown’s return did the team take on a more resilient nature.

He left last summer to join Shildon, soon regretted the decision, returned in November and the signing of the season shored up the defence alongside Kevin Burgess. A more unwelcoming B&B you’re unlikely to find.

The postponements stilted progress, however. By late January Quakers were two places outside the play-offs and a mammoth 14 points adrift of Blyth.

But having beaten Blyth home and away and with Gray’s winning mentality driving the team on, there were plenty who believed automatic promotion was not out of sight.

Gaskell scored the winner at Blyth in December, one of his three entries on Quakers’ goal-of-the-season shortlist, and he formed a dangerous partnership with Nathan Cartman, who is leading scorer with 19 league goals.

The penalty-box predator’s finest moment came when netting the winner in an incredible game at Salford City in February.

Quakers were 2-0 down at the break and trailed 3-1 with 20 minutes to play against the Class of ’92 club, who are not popular with all Darlington fans, partly due to last season beating Darlington to first place in the First Division North, and the BBC’s fawning does not help.

So Cartman’s goal three minutes from time to snatch a 4-3 win made it a sweet victory and, as it turned out, lightning does strike twice.

Because three weeks later, in the return fixture, with the score fixed at 2-2 late on, new signing Liam Hardy chose the perfect moment to grab his first goal for the club by rifling home a match-winner to create another memorable moment at Heritage Park.

Bishop Auckland’s home has hosted many happy memories for Quakers during their four seasons out of town, winning the Northern League in 2012-13 and promotion via the play-offs a year ago the highlights, but the club needs to be back in Darlington.

In March, Quakers and Darlington Rugby Club announced a groundsharing agreement, news warmly greeted by supporters, including those unable to make regular trips to Bishop but keen on renewing acquaintances once the club has returned home.

The announcement was quickly followed by a fundraising initiative to raise £100,000 by the end of May to build facilities required to play in the National League North.

Possibly enthused by recent results, and trusting that their money is being used to build a future, fans ensured the target was met six weeks ahead of the deadline. It was a feat typical of the role supporters have played in building their club from the ground since 2012.

It’s that sense of shared enterprise which has formed a bond between supporters and a club which relies so heavily on the goodwill of volunteers, the outcome being a sense of unity sadly lacking in previous years. It’s a team effort.

Gray would say similar things about his players. His second favourite mantra after “one game at a time” is “it’s about the squad”, but while unfair to single out individuals, there are players who deserve a mention.

Burgess bagged 11 goals from centre-back, the same number as left-back Terry Galbraith, who also provided a substantial number of assists due to his expert dead-ball delivery.

Graeme Armstrong, scorer of a ten-minute hat-trick on Thursday, netted some vital goals having returned following a serious abdominal injury sustained in the final seconds of last year’s play-off final which kept him in hospital for a month.

Leon Scott has exceeded all expectations. One of the heroes remaining from the start of the Northern League season, he formed a dynamic partnership in the middle with Turnbull.

In his first year since joining from Gateshead, Turnbull has been many observers’ player of the season. He could take that accolade when the club holds its annual awards evening on May 7 at the Mercure Kings Hotel in Darlington, when players and supporters will celebrate what has been a special season, full of thrilling wins.

The 3-2 win over Salford, the perfect response to losing the previous game at Stourbridge – the only team Darlington failed to beat home or away – was the beginning of an extraordinary run – played 15, won 14, lost one – when midweek fixtures were as regular as Saturday games.

It is all in stark contrast to four years ago this week, when the club played its final match at The Northern Echo Arena before dropping out of the National League in administration and in turmoil. It was difficult to see a future.

Given the option, no fan would have chosen demotion to the Northern League, but it’s been the best thing that could have happened. The journey back has been hugely enjoyable, full of magic memories, such as Thursday’s promotion party, and there’s now a strong sense of unity between club and fans.

With three promotions since that three-division demotion, many special moments have been enjoyed, and fans will hope there are plenty more to come at Blackwell Meadows.