STOCKTON Town are gearing up for the FA Vase final at Wembley on Sunday, when Nathan Mulligan will be in midfield and aiming for a winners’ medal.

The former Darlington midfielder spoke to Deputy Sports Editor Craig Stoddart about his memories of playing for Quakers in one of the worst seasons in the club’s history. missing out on Wembley in 2011and his hopes for Sunday

The Northern Echo: Stockton vs Marske, FA Vase semi-final second leg. 24/03/18

Nathan Mulligan celebrates scoring a penalty in the semi-final second leg of the FA Vase against Marske United

AFTER achieving a lifelong ambition by playing at Wembley in the FA Vase final, Nathan Mulligan will have his Stockton Town shirt framed and it will be hung alongside the one already on display in his dining room. Displaying squad number 24, it’s a yellow Darlington shirt and a treasured possession from the time he spent as a professional footballer.

It’s from season 2009-10, fondly remembered by Mulligan as it represents his personal high point in the game, whereas Quakers supporters look back on the period as one of the worst in the club’s history.

They finished rock-bottom of League Two, winning only eight times with a goal difference of -54, and were relegated into the Conference with six games still to go.

To put it into perspective, as awful as Sunderland were this season, they still won seven more points than Darlington managed in ’09-10.

Yet Mulligan, one of 54 players Quakers used during their annus horribilis, says: “It was a great time in my life.

“It was what I’d aspired to do as a kid, playing professional football, and I was fortunate that I got to do that with Darlington

“I enjoyed the experience. Darlington was a good club and I enjoyed playing at that lovely stadium.

“The full-time training made me a lot sharper, a lot fitter, but I hadn’t had a pre-season and if you go into a full-time football club without one it’s a killer, you’re playing catch-up. But looking back on my time, I thoroughly enjoyed it.”

Mulligan had been in Middlesbrough’s youth set-up as a youngster and was plucked from non-league Norton & Stockton Ancients midway through the 09-10 season by manager Steve Staunton, a boss remembered with little affection by those of a Quakers persuasion.

But Mulligan adds: “People have different opinions on him, but I got on with him fine, and with Kevin Richardson, his assistant. They gave me an opportunity in the Football League that I can only thank them for.”

That he was handed another stint at a professional football club, as Darlington then were, was about more than just giving a non-league lad a chance.

He had been part of a vintage crop at Boro, peers including David Wheater, Adam Johnson, James Morrison and Matthew Bates, but his progress was halted in the summer of 2003, just after they were runners-up in the FA Youth Cup final.

Mulligan was diagnosed with leukaemia. He was 16 years old.

Chemotherapy began immediately and he spent six months at the James Cook University Hospital in Middlesbrough. He was out of football for two years, returning in 2005-06, playing in reserve and youth games during the third year of his scholarship. However, there was to be no fairytale ending.

He was released, aged 19, in 2006 without making a senior appearance, so he joined the club where his dad, Mick, was chairman, Norton & Stockton Ancients and enjoyed being part of a close-knit environment where his brother, Dale, was also part of a team which won promotion.

Then Quakers came calling in 2009. Staunton had been impressed with the winger when on scouting visits to Station Road, taking him from the Northern League, a leap of five divisions, and handing him a first start in a 1-0 win over Burton Albion.

His high point was scoring his only Quakers goal away to Rochdale, which is where the framed No. 24 shirt was worn.

His header from a right-wing cross gave Darlington a 1-0 win, delaying the hosts’ promotion party, and he reeled away in celebration with captain Ian Miller, but results elsewhere that night confirmed relegation.

“That shirt is my pride and joy,” he said. “It’s in my dining room framed with an image of me scoring, so hopefully I’ll have a Wembley one to put next to it.

“These are going to be my main footballing memories, my life goals.”

By that stage Staunton had gone. Appointed by Raj Singh, he won only four of his 24 games, during which time 24 players were given their debuts, the Irishman having explored almost every avenue in his hope of unearthing a diamond.

Staunton lumbered Darlington with some dross. Ashlee Jones’ performance in a 4-0 loss at Notts County suggested he had never played in goal in his life, overweight ex-Leeds striker Noel Whelan was out for three months after tearing a hamstring half an hour into his debut, while Quakers would’ve been better off with Torvill and Dean up front than Paddy Deane.

Mulligan added: “He thought he could fix it with the players he had, so he kept trying different players, but I don’t think that helped. He should’ve stuck by a settled squad.

“There was always a new player or a guy from Ireland – there were a lot of Irish lads there – and he was trying his hardest to get as many loan players as possible.”

Fewer incomings would perhaps have enabled Mulligan to make more than 16 appearances, ten of them starts, and perhaps the lowest point of Staunton’s tenure came after substituting Mulligan 79 minutes into a game with Chesterfield at the Arena.

Darlington were 2-0 up when Mulligan was replaced by a defender – by full-time Chesterfield had won 3-2.

Staunton was sacked a month later and replaced by Simon Davey, regarded as something of a coup as he’d led Barnsley to the FA Cup semi-finals a year earlier.

However, this transpired to be bad news for Mulligan. Davey hung around only a couple of months before resigning, but not before making himself unpopular.

“I’d have loved to have had more time and how it ended was a bit sour,” recalls Mulligan.

“The manager released 19 players and then left himself two weeks later.

“He called us all into his office one by one, and every time someone came back out they were saying ‘I’m going lads’, so you knew what was coming.

“There were only two lads who stayed because they had a contract for the next year: Gareth Waite and Gary Smith.

“He had his own ideas, he wanted to bring his own team in.

“He ruined 19 people’s career. He came in for the last bit of the season but then went to Hereford United.

“He’s not the favourite manager I’ve had!”

More farce followed. Davey’s assistant, Ryan Kidd, was announced as the next boss, only to also resign 11 days later, Mark Cooper eventually being appointed, and one year on he helped Darlington win the FA Trophy at Wembley.

Mulligan revealed that Quakers offered him the chance to return and train in pre-season, but he turned it down.

He needed to move, to get a “proper job”, and nine years later is now a house-building site manager based in Bishop Monkton, just outside Harrogate.

“Looking back, I do think I could have carried on and played at Conference level,” he adds. “I was 24 at the time, and Davey took that chance way. A year later they went to Wembley, so that was another missed opportunity, but these things happen.

“Football is about opinions, one manager can like you but another can think ‘he’s not for me’.”

Mulligan moved on, back into non-league with Whitby Town, Guisborough, Billingham Synthonia and Marske United, before joining Stockton this season.

Now 31, he may have missed out on Darlington’s road to Wembley in 2011 but he will be in the heart of midfield tomorrow against Thatcham Town, having played a significant role in Stockton’s Vase run.

He started seven of their nine Vase ties, appeared as a sub in the other two, and scored a penalty in the semi-final win over his former club Marske, who won the Northern League title.

He also ‘scored’ from halfway when giving possession back to the goalkeeper following an injury stoppage, though it was ruled out during a manic second leg in front of 1,800 at Bishopton Road West.

Stockton will be backed by considerably more tomorrow when they aim to continue the Northern League’s knack for being victorious in the Vase.

Whitley Bay started the run at Wembley in 2009, the first of eight North-East wins, with South Shields successful last year, a game Mulligan watched again just recently.

He explained: “On YouTube you can see the full BT broadcast of the final.

“So last Friday I watched the full thing sitting on my own, everything from the changing room beforehand, the 90 minutes of the match and all the celebrations afterwards.

“We’re lucky the game is going to be live on BT; I’ve subscribed for a month so that I can get it on Sky Box.”