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BLIND, STUPID AND DESPERATE
 
FA Cup Trail:
FA Cup Second Round, 07/12/02
Darlington 4(2)
Team: 22. Chris Potter 3. Simon Betts 4. Criag Liddle 24. Matthew Clarke 2. Ryan Valentine 16. Neil Wainwright 18. Clark Keltie 25. Ashley Nicholls 15. Richard Hodgson 13. Barry Conlon 27. Richard Offiong
Scorers: Hodgson 2, Offiong 38, 63, Conlon 46
Stevenage Borough 1(1)
Team: 1. Mark Westfield 6. Robin Trott 16. Jamie Campbell 28. Gary MacDonald 7. Simon Wormull 12. Richard Howell 27. Richard Scott 15. Louis Riddle 2. Simon Travis 25. Charlie McDonald, 10. Jean-Michel Sigere
Scorer: Howell 4

Referee: M. Pike
Crowd: 3,351 (official)
Conditions: Cold, grey, a little damp at times

Entry: 10 adults, 6 concessions
Programme: 2.00 for 40 pages full colour throughout, with two staples
Refreshments: Tea/coffee 1.00
Distance travelled: 491 miles

"Marlow to Darlo"
By Baz Barry
 
The FA Cup has been getting a fair amount of alternative press coverage of late. Still smarting from Adam Crozier being manoevered into the cold, and to counteract the threats from the big clubs who have dropped heavy hints that they'll treat the competition as a sideshow unless the Football Association fall in line, the FA have come up with the novel idea to make a feature film of the competition. As fun as it would be to see Peter Postlethwaite playing Howard Wilkinson, Robson Rhodes naturally as Alan Shearer and Timothy Spall making a fine stab at a downtrodden Terry Venables, it's safe to say the film will be some kind of Soccermentary following a similar trail to ours.

To my mind, assuming excellent production, photography and editing, the two other crucial ingredients for any good film are strong characters and a gripping story. The second qualifying round tie between Chester-le-Sreet and Harrogate Railway would be a story to tell, worth a film on its own. The home team were one-nil up when play was restarted with a drop ball after an injury to a Harrogate player. Unfortunately instead of punting the ball beyond the goal line, a Chester player inadvertently thwacked it into the Railway goal from forty-five yards. Much embarrassment all round, but enough time before the restart for the Chester players to quickly agree they would let Harrogate score an unopposed goal. Railway kicked off and their player was allowed through on goal only to be tackled by the last defender who hadn't got the message. The ball bounces to the goalkeeper, who's also in the dark and about to clear upfield. His teammates scream for him to stop, which he did, and he's persuaded to score in his own net. There's more. The game ends 5-5 and Harrogate win the replay 7-2. And they say the romance of the Cup is dying.

If the FA are looking for one of the game's more colourful characters they can do little better than making sure they feature George Reynolds, the Darlington chairman. This is the man who's done time for theft. Not your run of the mill armed robbery but safe blowing, no less. He's now made over 200million from chipboard and kitchens, cleared Darlington's 5m of debts and has big ambitions for the club. Having failed to sign Gazza at the beginning of the season, the sixty-three-year-old moved on to line up Tino Asprilla, only for the deal to collapse when the Colombian scuttled off to a better offer in the Middle East. Chairman George has got a forty-year-old wife who almost caused a players' strike by accusing them of being greedy and parasitical and George himself countered by threatening to shut the club and replace it with bullfighting. He's been questioned by the police for allegedly stalking a local journalist, whose reporting he took exception to, and how about this for his description of the pay structure he inherited? "They got a bonus if they didn't get a bonus, but if you didn't get a bonus, you still got a bonus and if they missed out on all the bonuses, you got a bonus."

His most significant contribution to the club since taking over has been the building of a brand new twenty-five thousand all-seater stadium. Modelled on Pride Park, it is being heralded by its owner as "not necessarily the biggest but certainly the best" new stadium in the country. It'll be interesting to see how the current three thousand average gates make themselves at home when it opens next season. Unusually there doesn't seem to be a property deal in sight of the old stadium, at least not to the benefit of Chairman George. For the current Darlington ground, Feethams, is owned by the cricket club next door. In fact home fans get to the ground by walking around the cricket pitch, which was just like our first FA Cup Trail outing at Long Buckby. Only this was a proper northern cricket club, very similar to the one next door to Burnley, and the entrance is marked by a very passable imitation of the twin towers. Except there's four of them.

Otherwise Feethams has a strong appealing charm to it, mixing the old with the new and on the backbone of a strong claim to being the only club who have played at the same ground since their formation in 1883. The "new" is a four-year-old, single tier main stand along one side of the pitch with executive boxes stretching along half the length. Opposite is the West Stand which apparently dates back to the Sixties and looks like a half-sized Shrodells. The Stevenage fans had the two small end blocks of seating with the BBC television gantry obscuring the unoccupied middle two sections. In front of the stand was room for two groups of terracing and to either side seemed to be voids. To the south is an open terrace looking an exact, but smaller, replica of the Fulham away end and the majority of home fans occupy a smaller but covered terrace opposite, known as the Tin Shed.

Darlington, locally called "Darlo'", are nicknamed The Quakers. The Quaker religion seems to be based on individual spiritual fulfillment with no need for structured ceremonies, a strong belief that all men and women are equal with everyone having a part of God in them and as a result most Quakers tend to be pacifist. So for Darlington that should mean no racism, no territorialism, and no crowd violence. As it happens tucked in one corner of the ground, attached to one of the floodlights, is a large and promising sign that proudly proclaims "Local, helpful and friendly. (Three points you can always rely on)." All very laudable I'm sure until we were apprehended by a far from friendly steward who told us in blunt terms that we couldn't take a photo of the sign or of the ground. And the club shop sells a natty range of tee shirts with a cartoon of a Darlo' fan widdling on a Hartlepool fan. Charming. Later, I discovered an alterative reason for their nickname. The ground used to shake when trains went past. Oh well.

Darlington came into the game with a good phase of form being crafted together by caretaker boss, Mick Tait, once of Hartlepool. Previous boss, Tommy Taylor, had been sent packing in October with Chairman George muttering about southern softies not understanding northern football. Stevenage, on the other hand, were still struggling and this time had five or six first team players absent through injury and suspensions. Darlo scored on sixty-three seconds when painter/decorator Rob Trott hashed a clearance and the influential Richard Hodgson shot home from twenty-five yards. Within two minutes Stevenage were level when an unmarked Richard Howell headed home from a corner. The conference side moved the ball about tidily in midfield, where a rotund Simon Wormull caught the eye, but apart from hitting the top of the bar with a looping header they rarely threatened Chris Potter, the hesitant Darlo third choice goalkeeper. Up front for Darlington old stalwart Barry Conlon used his experience to combine well with teenage starlet Richard Offiong, on loan from Newcastle. Offiong caused havoc with his pace and trickery down both wings before scoring after being neatly played through by Hodgson.

Any chance of a second half Stevenage revival was ended within twenty-three seconds of the restart as Conlon poked home from a Neil Wainwright cross, another teenager who caught the eye playing as a good old-fashioned right-winger. Offiong's second came from being put through with another sublime pass from Hodgson.

And so that's the end of Stevenage, 40,000 better off for their part in being one of the featured games on Match of The Day. As with Marlow and Hayes we've watched Stevenage three times but unlike the other two, Boro' have never offered us anything to connect to. We won't miss them.

The television money is 10,000 more than the prize money Darlington gain for being second round winners. For the third round, the eight clubs featured in the live TV games, all bar one being Premiership teams, get 265,000 each whereas the third round winnings are just 50,000 per club. You can see where the money is in football. Mind you, the prize money gets better later on. Assuming the teams have entered at the third round, losing semi-finalists will have won 675,000, the runners-up will have pocketed 1.675m and the winner gets 2.675m. You can see why it would be handy all round if the Hornets could put together a decent Cup run this year.

Darlington are at home for the Third Round against Farnborough Town of the Conference. Not the most glamorous of ties but at least we avoid the likes of Wolves and Arsenal. Can you imagine having to follow them for three or more rounds?

We'll be there. Come and join us. It can only get better. The Trail is becoming less of a trial. The Big Boys are coming. There's no stopping us now. We are looking forward to it. Marlow to Darlo' and back, again.