Sacked as manager after only 98 days, Josh Gowling leaves Darlington following a 16-game tenure. He was lucky to last that long.

A surprise appointment in September, he started badly with a six-match winless run and it barely got much better.

He lost nine matches, won three and amid a whirlwind of change signed 13 players – the same number of points that he won - with the final straw being Boxing Day’s 2-0 defeat at Scarborough Athletic.

An 8-0 humiliation last month at Chorley should have been his last match, instead he was allowed more time in which he only succeeded in enhancing Darlington’s chances of relegation.

But to understand why Darlington are where they are now requires further examination than merely Gowling’s ruinous tenure.

He leaves with the team eight points from safety and second-bottom in the table, a far cry from 12 months ago.

The Quakers began 2023 with a 5-2 win at Scarborough and top of the table, when only a cataclysmic collapse would see them fall out of play-off contention. But that’s precisely what happened.

After scoring 18 goals in 28 games, Mark Beck’s sale to Solihull Moors in January was the first domino to fall, soon followed by injury to Jack Lambert. With marauding right-back Dan Dodds, on loan from Middlesbrough, switching to Hartlepool United, Quakers quickly lost three key players and their slide began.

They won two of their final 17 matches with Armstrong unable to halt the tailspin, though he would point out he was not sufficiently backed by the board to replace Beck.

After the end of the season, supporters raised a record £160,000 as part of their annual boost the budget initiative, but Armstrong’s summer signings have proven to be substandard. He, however, would argue Quakers’ hierarchy gave him less to spend than he had 12 months previously.

And with Darlington bottom after one win in eight at the beginning of this season, chief executive David Johnston showed Armstrong the door.

Intelligent and articulate and with a degree in psychology, Gowling talks a good game and impressed at interview stage to such an extent that Quakers presumably turned a blind eye to his mediocre record with Hereford.

Experience of managing at National League North level was in his favour. He had three Covid-interrupted years at Edgar Street, his single full season ending in 12th place while he also reached the FA Trophy final.

Gowling has a data-driven approach and among his first moves was to recruit Alex Jenkins as a performance analyst, something of a first for Darlington, while he switched to playing three at the back.

But first impressions count and among Gowling’s early matches were a 4-0 loss at Tamworth, a 2-1 defeat to King’s Lynn when Quakers conceded after 19 seconds, a dull 0-0 draw against Blyth and a powderpuff 2-1 defeat to Spennymoor Town.

His switch to 3-5-2 was soon ditched.

The manner of the loss to Spennymoor was deeply concerning. The visitors won at a canter, yet these fixtures are usually competitive and heated affairs. Darlington were meek, they didn’t lay a glove on their opponents, there was no fire in the belly. Imagine that happening in Martin Gray’s time.

It was in this fixture that Charlie Winfield made his sole appearance. Given an hour on the pitch, the loan signing was one a glut of youthful Gowling signings plunged into action despite being out of their depth.

The manager was naïve to believe a collection of inexperienced youngsters could haul the team up the table.

Gowling sold Kaine Felix and Jacob Hazel, two of Armstrong’s mainstays, creating finances to help sign 13 players, some of which haven’t even been on the bench.

His highest profile and costliest signing was former team-mate Akwasi Asante, a striker who has scored plenty for Chester and Gloucester so his recruitment was regarded as a coup, but he looks well off being fully fit.

Asante’s signing on November 14 provided a boost, one that evaporated that evening with Darlington’s abysmal showing at Chorley.

Beleaguered supporters saw their team spanked 8-0 (eight nil). A staggering scoreline and one wonders how likely it is Gowling would have been fired had he not overseen Asante’s arrival just hours earlier.

Not even under the infamous Steve Staunton did Darlington stoop so low as conceding eight goals.

An insipid performance came on Saturday, at home to bottom-of-the-table Bishop’s Stortford, who had not won away all season. But one trip to Blackwell Meadows sorted that out for them, winning 2-0 against Gowling’s rabble.

The parallels with 2009-10 are clear, a season that saw Quakers suffer relegation from the Football League and Staunton made a flurry of substandard signings: 24 players during his 24-game tenure.

He was not sacked until March 2010 when relegation was inevitable. Thankfully, Quakers have acted faster with Gowling and have time to haul themselves to safety – as long as they get the next appointment right.

But whenever post-match pub conversation turns to Darlington’s worst ever managers, Gowling’s name will forever rank alongside Paul Futcher, Colin Todd and Staunton.

He will be remembered for a blur of change and poor decisions, ineffective signings, risky formations, odd team selections and, particularly infuriating after defeats, a nervous laugh during post-match interviews.

Nobody is laughing now.