Saturday’s game at Barrow might well prove to have been Darlington Football Club’s final match. Chief Sports Writer Scott Wilson joined more than 1,000 supporters on the away terrace at Holker Street.

IT started in 1883 with a meeting in Darlington Grammar School and a series of matches in the Durham Challenge Cup.

The fear is that it ended on Saturday with a Blue Square Premier game at Barrow.

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The 128-year history of Darlington Football Club has contained more than its fair share of ups and downs, but few, if any, afternoons have been quite like this.

Grown men crying on the terraces. Players hurling shirts, gloves and goodness knows what else into the crowd. A manager all but breaking down during his post-match interview.

Thankfully, few people know what it is like to watch a professional football club die. Perhaps there will be a miracle and this will not be the end. But if Saturday was to be the death knell for the Quakers, at least it was one hell of a wake. The last rites might not have been administered quite yet, but the funeral will never be forgotten by the mourners who were in no mood to mourn.

THE day started, perhaps fittingly, by driving down the biggest dead end in Britain. A dead end and Darlington. Given the gloomy noises emanating from joint administrator Harvey Madden this week, the phrase could hardly have been more apt.

The A590 links Barrow, on the Furness peninsula, in Cumbria, to the M6, and is a road without means of escape.

If you’re driving down it, you’re either going to Ulverston, birthplace of Stan Laurel, or Barrow, birthplace of Britain’s nuclear submarines.

With their football club disappearing below the waterline, there was little doubt about where the procession of cars festooned in black-andwhite were heading.

Safely parked up next to the home of Barrow AFC, the most sensible option seemed to be to follow the throng of Darlington fans to the nearest pub. The Tally Ho fitted the bill – less a call to arms, more an early chance to drown sorrows.

“On Wednesday, I wasn’t coming, I thought to hell with it,” said Arthur Morton, a lapsed supporter in his mid- 50s who seemed representative of so many fans who made Saturday’s five-hour round trip.

“On Thursday, I still wasn’t coming. But then I had a drink with a few of the old boys on Friday night and we thought, ‘You know what, this is something we should really be doing’. So here we are. If nowt else, at least the beer’s cheap.”

Pints consumed, it was time to brave the quarter-of-anhour queue to get through the turnstiles. Quarter-of-an-hour queue? For a Darlington away game? As the old joke goes, normally you’re queueing at half-time to get out.

It quickly became apparent, however, that this wasn’t just any old away game.

“There must be 500 here,” said one of the two turnstile operators. “I reckon nearer 800,” said the steward trying to prevent supporters spilling over into the road.

In fact, it was more than 1,000, a following that meant the kick-off had to be delayed by 15 minutes to enable everyone to get into the ground.

Who says Darlington, as a town, doesn’t care enough to deserve a football team?

ONCE inside, it was immediately obvious the mood was more celebration than sob story. Most fans had opted to wear replica shirts from down the ages.

A couple, from the early Eighties, were older than many of the players who might well have played the club’s final game.

The songs were also from a bygone era, extolling the Tin Shed, the famous old stand at Feethams, the Wembley trips to the play-off final and former players, some of whom went on to bigger and better things, some who are remembered more for what they could not do than what they could.

A personal favourite? D-AR-L-O, owing much to eurodisco duo Ottawan. “You are D, Darren Roberts, you are A, Andy Crosby, you are R, Richard Hope, you are L, Lee Brydon, you are oh-oh-oh.”

You had to be there in the mid-Nineties to be able to join in, but then that’s what being a football fan is all about. A sense of community, identity and belonging that stretches back through the ages.

“It’s not me I feel sorry for,” said John Harrison, in his mid- 30s. “It’s my little two-year-old boy. I’m gutted I might never be able to take him to see Darlington.”

The lack of a next generation is perhaps the biggest tragedy of all.

The game, perhaps inevitably, was a let down. Darlington lost 3-0, barely had a shot on goal, and made a number of defensive errors. It didn’t matter a jot. With a farmore important result expected this week, Saturday was not a day for keeping an eye on the scoreboard.

INSTEAD, it felt like an opportunity to say goodbye.

So, when referee Amy Fearn blew her final whistle, it was the signal for one last outpouring of devotion.

The fans applauded the players, the players applauded the fans. Skipper Jamie Chandler flung his shirt into the crowd to reveal a T-shirt with the message, “Thanks for the memories.”

Goalkeeper Sam Russell battled valiantly to hold back the tears. The entire squad trudged downtrodden towards the tunnel.

They were gone for maybe a minute, then, like an acting troupe receiving their encore, they returned to thank a still-packed away end.

Cue a good-natured pitch invasion, plenty of back-slapping and an impromptu guard of honour as the fans allowed their heroes to leave for what could be the final occasion.

“See you in a fortnight,” said one supporter. If only it was that simple.

Unless there is an immediate injection of money, there will be no game in a fortnight, or, for that matter, any week after that. There will only be the memories of a club that meant so much to so many.

One-hundred-and-twentyeight years of history, halted on a drizzly Cumbrian afternoon.

At least the shirts and the songs will live on.