People who were closely involved
Continuing our Ten Years On feature, here are three accounts of that emotional day at Barrow from Ted Blair, Craig Liddle and Scott Thornberry, all taken from the "In the Dying Seconds" book.
Ted Blair – “A different sense of expectancy”
The sense of expectancy as I woke on the morning of the away game at Barrow was similar to that before our trip to Wembley for the FA Trophy final just a few months previous - an overwhelming sense of nervousness and unease - but for totally different reasons this time. Not a good feeling either.
I live in London and I walked up to Euston with my train being called just as I walked onto the concourse. I was originally travelling on my own and had plumped for first class as it wasn't much dearer than standard. But with the advent of administration and the prospect of this being our last ever game, I was joined by Iain Swalwell and Paul Brown, who had also left home at a ridiculously early hour and they paid the £15 upgrade so they could join me. I'm worth it! A nice quiet journey and we arrived at Lancaster to find another travelling fan, John Bell, on the platform - by rights he should have been at Barrow already but his connections had let him down.
Our connection to Barrow was on time and it was a very pleasant journey with some beautiful scenery as well as opportunities for me to do a bit of birdwatching as we travelled between Arnside and Grange-over-Sands. A shame the weather wasn't a bit brighter. But there was a shadow hanging over the scene as well – would this be the last ever Darlo game?
It took about ten minutes to walk to the ground and there was a huge queue at the away turnstiles when we arrived. I left the others to join the queue while I circumnavigated the ground in order to collect my press pass. Once inside there was already a healthy number of Darlo fans on the uncovered away terrace plus quite a few TV cameras ready to catch all the emotion that the occasion promised.
I set about taking a few fans' pictures - a lot of friendly faces, especially given the sad circumstances and it was especially good to see that Steve Harland, who was part of that band of people who put the Mission Impossible magazine together, had managed to swap his shift and get there. As I was snapping, the news came over the tannoy that the game was going to be delayed by fifteen minutes due to the queues at the away end – incredible.
As the teams took to the pitch there was a great roar from the away end but also a lot of applause from the home fans who were generous with their support for Darlo and their fans throughout. The masses of Darlo fans were obviously hoping for a fairytale ending for this last game. Sadly it was not to be but it wasn't the result that mattered.
At the break I had a wander round and had a chat with a few old faces - former neighbour Geoff Thompson was wearing a replica shirt that was a bit tighter than it used to be. I also saw the various members of the Darlington FC Rescue Group and had a chat with Doug Embleton who was busy taking his own shots of the occasion.
For the second half I positioned myself close to the Darlo dugout - Craig Liddle was constantly animated as he tried to get us back into the game but looked an increasingly frustrated figure as we failed to make a significant impact.
Unfortunately Martin and I had booked our rail tickets before the significance of this game was known and we had to depart Barrow station at 5:21pm. This meant missing the three minutes of added time and the subsequent emotional scenes as the players and fans applauded each other. Perhaps this was just as well as it probably would have been too emotional for us.
Craig Liddle – “But would the club survive?”
Mark Cooper invited me to travel down to Wembley for the FA Trophy final with the squad. I took everything in and I felt a real part of the build up and of the day itself.
When Chris Senior scored in the last minute, it was a big relief, because I was dreading the game going to penalties – we didn’t exactly have the best record in penalty shootouts and with our luck at Wembley I wasn’t too confident. It was also a consolation, albeit a small one, for our play off final defeat against Peterborough in 2000. Every Darlo fan knows how awfully disappointing (and how wet!) that night was.
I travelled back home to Darlo on the bus with the players, although there weren’t that many of them because they’d gone their separate ways after the game. But I was looking forward to a bright future for the club. I’d had a successful campaign with the youth team and I was excited about the quality of some of the players coming through the system. I’d never seen as much potential before at the club and I knew that some of those players were good enough to make an impact when they were old and experienced enough, maybe two or three years into the future.
Then one Monday evening in October, I had a phone call from Graeme Fordy saying that Mark Cooper and Richard Dryden had left the club. I immediately phoned the pair of them to thank them as I had enjoyed working with them both. Later the same evening the chairman, Raj Singh, asked if I would take temporary charge until someone was appointed.
I didn’t mind, because I knew there would be plenty of people interested in taking the job. Indeed, when we played Hinckley at home in the FA Cup, Colin Cooper, Chris Turner and Ronnie Moore were amongst the crowd, clearly doing some background research.
Three days later, we went down to Hinckley for the replay and lost 4-1, although we could have won 5-4 on the chances we created. But then something happened on the bus that was more influential more than anything else that subsequently went on. Certain things were said at the back of the bus by a certain person. I didn’t hear any of it because I was sat at the front of the bus, but I was told the following evening by Raj at our youth cup game against Shrewbury that Exodus Geohaghan had said something out of turn.
The chairman was offended and to be honest, why shouldn’t he be when he was pumping loads of money into the club? Ironically, he was only travelling on the bus because he’d just had a knee operation and was unable to drive. Maybe if that incident hadn’t happened, then who knows where we would have been? Would the final outcome have been much different?
I could sense the mood in the club change suddenly. It never crossed my mind that I would be doing the manager’s job permanently, but when the chairman went on holiday in December, by then I’d long realised that I would have to be in two places on the same day – on Saturdays I would be running the youth team in the morning, then the senior team in the afternoon.
I’d long suspected it and all the signs were there and I was informed just a day before Christmas that the club was going into administration, but I was sworn to secrecy. I remember going home on Christmas Eve and telling my wife, who said “Not again.” I guess every Darlo fan said the same thing.
The Boxing Day game at Gateshead was one of the most emotional I’d ever dealt with. We played ever so well and scored a late equaliser for a 1-1 draw. My son and his friend were in the Darlo end and when I went across to collect them I was given a great ovation by the fans. But I couldn’t say anything about administration until it was formally confirmed and because I knew what effect going into administration would have on the fans, I felt the weight of the world on my shoulders.
Word started to get around about administration, as I knew it would from other people, ahead of the return game against Gateshead on New Year’s Day. We were set for a point from a goalless draw until Gateshead scored in the last minute, which summed up the whole situation for me. It crossed my mind that if we’d taken six points from the two Gateshead games, then Raj might not have carried his threat out. Andy Wilson, the financial director of the club, said that he would tell Raj that the level of performance against Gateshead in the two games was very encouraging, so ever the optimist, I thought there was a glimmer of hope. I even told Andy that I would do the job free of charge if that would help the situation.
But within two days, the club was indeed officially in administration. Nothing I’d said or done had been any help. Harvey Madden, the administrator, called me in and told me to carry on in my dual role, because I was saving a wage – my youth team wages were paid for by the Football League. I couldn’t blame Harvey for suggesting that, because, after all, he had to think about the financial side of things. He even said that he couldn’t see the club surviving unless someone came forward.
Some players had already left, like Greg Taylor and Ian Miller before the announcement, but it was obvious that more were going to leave. I prayed that a miracle was going to happen and they would stay, but I knew that was very unlikely. The club looked as if it was going to fold.
We prepared as best we could for the away game at Barrow against the dreadful background of it possibly being the last ever game. The fans learned that because of the dire financial situation, we couldn’t afford to have a pre match meal before the away game at Barrow. So the Uncovered fans decided to hold a collection and to be honest, I expected just two or three hundred pounds, which everybody would have been happy with.
Instead, the fans showed how deeply they cared for the club by raising £8,000. It was unbelievable. They handed the money over at the Arena before we set off on the bus for Barrow. An old gentleman also came up to me, handed me £20 and said; “It’s my last £20, but I want you to have it.” I tried not to take it, but he insisted that it went towards the players. It was another unbelievable gesture.
We stopped at the services on the M6 on the way over and there were loads of our supporters in there, and they gave donations left, right and centre. It gave the lads an insight into how much the club meant to the fans and to a lot of people who went to Darlo games week in and week out, it was a job to them.
It was probably one of my most emotional days in football. A part of me kept an eye on the game, another part was trying to hold everything together emotionally. The game flew by, but it wasn’t about the result. People actually came down from their seats in the stand to the dugout and said to me; “Keep going, we’re with you.”
I could hardly speak after the game, I was in tears during the post match interview on BBC Tees – and so was Ray Simpson who interviewed me. I seriously thought that the club was finished and I hoped and prayed something to materialise. Everyone prepared themselves for the worst and I started looking for a job just in case. My phone was red hot, with players, agents, supporters, the Darlington Trust, the Darlington Supporters Club and the press all ringing me. Calls began at 8 in the morning and continued until 11 at night. There were that many different things going on and so many possible avenues, it was all very confusing. But to be fair to him, Harvey kept me informed about what was going on. But would the club survive much longer?
Scott Thornberry – “I didn’t expect to receive that much”
At the start of the season I became the matchday public address system announcer and as such I was constantly in touch with people at the club. During October I was getting a feeling that all was not well, there was a dark cloud hanging over the club and I was kind of shutting my mind out of what could be about to happen. But then the players didn’t get paid in November and by the time the announcement about administration came I had become immune. I remember working at the match during the Christmas period and talking to the staff at the club, it was awful and I felt that this was it, the end of the club. If we went into administration again then we would not survive, three strikes and we would be out.
The Barrow game looked as if it was going to be our last. It was a crying shame that our club had turned into this. We had a team of players, some of whom had not been paid for months, heading to Cumbria in order to play for our club out of loyalty and pride. A local bus company provided a coach for the team to travel over in, up to then it had looked like they were going over in their own cars. It was then that the idea came about for a "whip round" to pay for the players to have a pre match meal. Stuart Armstrong started a thread on the Uncovered forum but it needed somebody to pick this idea up and organise it. This was on the Tuesday, just four days before the match at Barrow. So I started an appeal for donations. I thought the quickest and easiest solution would be to use my paypal account because it would open the appeal up to everybody, I would receive the money direct without going round collecting from people. I thought we would get around £200 or £300—not a bad amount considering that we only had four days before the game - PayPal would take a couple of days to clear but I had that amount of cash free to sub the collection.
Just hours after the appeal started I realised I had misjudged the situation. I have the paypal app on my phone and every time a donation was made it pinged and showed me the amount. Seriously, it was non stop, even when we went to bed it was bloody pinging. 2am, 3am 4 bloody am. By the time I had woken up my paypal account was around £1,500 better off. It was great news but I also then realised I had to get my hands on the cash somehow. The donations kept flowing in, I spoke to Craig Liddle when the amount was just under £4,000 and he was overwhelmed. With the amount so high Lidds and I had to consider how to dish out the money. It looked as if it was going to be the club’s last ever game, so we decided that I would meet Lidds at the Arena on the Saturday morning before the coach left for Barrow. I would hand over the cash and he would split it between the players on the way to the game. It was a gift from the fans to the players so they could buy a few pints! By the close of play on Friday there was £8,000 in the Paypal account. After a conversation with the wife I got the ok to "borrow" this money from our mortgage, don't ask! At 9am on Saturday morning I parked in a car park behind the bank on High Row. First in the bank I received £8,000 in a brown paper envelope. It was straight in my bag and I kid you not I ran back to the car, I had a vision of me getting mugged, I was bricking it.
Arriving at the Arena the TV cameras were all outside, they love a bad luck story those guys. I sneaked in to the Arena reception and met Lidds and the secretary, Colin Galloway. They were so grateful and I don't think I can put into words the feelings that we experienced at that moment. Lidds just looked at me speechless and said; "I don't know what to say". The Darlo fans can be so proud of what we did for that day. To rub salt into the wound, whilst carrying out all of this I received a legal warning from the club’s solicitor about posting on the Darlo Uncovered website, I was seriously gobsmacked considering what I had done for the club but I had been in exactly the same situation with previous owners so it was nothing new, but still a worry.
We saw the coach off and myself, brother and the two kids headed over the A66 for what we thought was our last ever trip to see Darlo play. We had a pre match drink and meal in Barrow town centre, meeting up with people whom we had got to know over the years following our club. Fans were still giving me cash for the appeal. We ended up right behind the goal, again an unknown fan walked up to me and handed me a tenner for the players. A truly emotional afternoon which was encapsulated by the now famous Barrow banner. “Our football clubs are for life, not just for business.”
The game itself was very disappointing, but it was bound to happen with all that had gone on. Liam Hatch went off with an injury and came past the terrace full of Darlo fans in tears. At the full time whistle it was all over, the players said their goodbyes but I did feel that it wasn't the end. Whatever happened there would be a Darlo of some type, but I was not to imagine what was to come.
Vanarama National League North
Sat, 22nd January, 3pm