It’s no real surprise to see Darlington topping the League Two table at this early stage of this season. After all, we’ve been here before — a promising start only to see the Quakers fall at the final hurdle in such frustrating fashion.
But could it be different this time? Could this be the year Darlington validate everyone’s faith in them and achieve promotion?
Darlington seem to have become part of the furniture in League Two, with only Rochdale inhabiting the division for a longer period of time. The Quakers themselves have been in the bottom tier since 1992, after a brief stay in the depths of Non-League, when Brian Little rescued the club and delivered back-to-back promotions before moving on to pastures new. But that’s not to say it’s been dull for the North East side. Darlington have had their fair share of dramas over the years, and one man was at the forefront of them.
Enter George Reynolds.
The outspoken and controversial Reynolds came in as Chairman in 2000, and promised big ideas and even bigger names. But the talk of Faustino Asprilla and Paul Gascoigne arriving at Darlington was exactly that — just talk.
Reynolds certainly left his mark in the North East. Premiership football was the dream, but massive debts and a 25,000 stadium that Darlington clearly couldn’t fill nor afford was the harsh reality of Reynolds’ reign.
Administration followed in 2003, with the club facing a claim of £15m from their former owner. Reynolds eventually resigned, but not before an outrageous outburst from his wife, in which she accused the squad of throwing a game. This was indeed the final straw, and Reynolds left the club second from bottom in the table and staring relegation flat in the face.
Local favorite David Hodgson was given the task of reviving the Quakers fortunes, and he did so successfully, saving the club from relegation in what looked like dark times indeed for the Quakers.
And with Reynolds gone and Hodgson taking the managerial reigns for a third time, promotion was now on the agenda for Darlington, in what seemed like a new era, a fresh start even.
Many players were brought in to the North East, with the likes of Craig Hignett and Alun Armstrong drafted in to provide some much needed Premiership experience.
But as much as Hodgson tried, despite his undoubted love for the club, and despite the obvious funds at his disposal, he just couldn’t deliver, with the Quakers finishing 8th two seasons in a row — agonisingly close to the playoffs.
And after allegations of an approach from then League One side Bournemouth, and a poor start to the season to boot, Hodgson was soon on his way.
And that’s where Dave Penney comes in.
The former Doncaster manager knows exactly what it takes to gain promotion at this level after a productive spell at Doncaster, taking the club from the Conference to League One.
And Penney wasted no time in making his mark.
Almost straight away Penney sorted out the defence, knowing fine well that most successes at this level are built from the back, and getting the basics right. Defenders Stephen Foster and Neil Austin came in to shore things up defensively, and Pawel Abbott was drafted in to supply the goals at the other end.
In the lower leagues, if you can get it right in both boxes, you’re always in with a chance, and Penney realised this.
And only last season, Penney took Darlington into the playoffs, only for the Quakers to lose out to Rochdale on penalties at the semi-final stage.
It was a cruel way to lose, especially with a trip to Wembley at stake.
And now we come to this season. With the team’s budget being cut significantly, Darlington are ‘moneybags’ no more. So the astute Penney turned to the loan market to strengthen this squad, taking a leaf out of Graham Turner’s book at Hereford.
Out of favour at their parent clubs, strikers Liam Hatch and Billy Clarke were drafted in from Peterborough and Ipswich respectively, and the pairing have struck up a formidable strike partnership, with Hatch’s strength and aerial prowess complimenting Clarke’s pace and movement well. It’s a classic big man, small man partnership, and it’s paying dividends for the Quakers.
And they’re keeping it tight at the back too. Alan White and Stephen Foster in the centre of defence have plenty of experience and know how, and even in the midfield there’s balance, with Ricky Ravenhill providing the grit and Jason Kennedy providing the flair in the middle of the park.
It’s a winning formula as things stand in November, with Darlington sitting pretty at the top of League Two. But titles aren’t awarded in November, and Quakers fans know that all too well.
So, can Dave Penney’s boys last the pace, or will it be another case of so close, yet so far?