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Darlington Football Club

Ray Simpson / 16th November 2020

When Push comes to Shove -- Chapter 21

When Push comes to Shove -- Chapter 21

Serialisation of Paul Hodgson's book


Darlo fan Paul Hodgson has given us permission to reproduce his book "When Push comes to Shove".

Today, we're in chapter 21, covering April 2000 and the play off push.

On April Fool’s Day we played Rotherham at home in front of our biggest crowd of the season (7401). The poet TS Eliot opened his poem The Waste Land with the line, “April is the cruellest month.” After the lacklustre performances we had witnessed in March, Mike and I hoped this would not be a premonition.

We met in the Dalesman beforehand and on this occasion I had my nephew Adam with me as I was taking him to the match. We also saw Brian and Trevor from Sheffield in there along with Ian, Simon and Graeme.

The main thing that the seven of us talked about over our drinks was again the pitch. Apparently, the fire brigade had watered it because it was so dry and hard underfoot like concrete. We all thought that it was ironic that the pitch had been watered after it had been like a mud bath only a few weeks earlier. Ian said that if for some reason Darlo didn’t achieve promotion then the state of the pitch would be to blame. Although the club boasted an unbeaten home record, six of the previous games had been draws. Ian felt that with a better playing surface, some of those draws might have turned out to be wins, especially against such teams as Mansfield and Hull, both of whom were way below us in the table and still managed to leave Feethams with a point. I felt that Ian was spot on – if a team wants to be promoted, then they have to beat the sides below them at home.

On arrival at the ground, we discovered that there were no East Stand tickets left for Simon to purchase. Having Adam with me, technically I shouldn’t have been able to get two people into the disabled area. The plan was therefore to sit Adam on my lap and let Simon push us into the ground, since Mike, Ian and Graeme all had season tickets. The plan was successful as the steward waved us in.

During the match, a Rotherham player thought for one moment that he had scored, only to find that his effort had been disallowed. At this a Darlo fan threw a pie in his general direction. Fortunately it missed him and smashed to smithereens on the rock hard surface of the pitch!

Our efforts on goal, however, were more productive and we led 2-0 at half time with goals from Marco Gabbiadini and Glenn Naylor. Simon and I thought our fortunes might have changed at last. Not a bit of it. At the final whistle, we had to be content with a 2-2 draw, with the Millers clawing their way back in to the match.

In Strikers the consensus amongst the fans, was that once again we had thrown away two valuable points after leading 2-0. Earl Gray commented that maybe nerves were affecting the players. Perhaps he was correct.

The following Wednesday evening we had another home fixture, the rearranged match against Shrewsbury Town, which should have been played at the end of January.

I met Mike straight from work in the Dalesman where we both decided to have our tea.

Whilst we were waiting for the food to arrive, the two of us chatted about Flipper’s Side. I mentioned to Mike that I thought that it would be a good idea to set up a book committee to assist in the preparation of the typescript for the final version. I had three people in mind, all of whom were work colleagues. Mike thought that this made sense and told me to keep him informed of developments.

Following our meal, both of us headed to Strikers Bar to meet Ian and Simon. We were late and therefore Simon took me straight to my usual spot.

 We were unlucky to see a poor first half performance and Darlo went in 2-0 down at half time. Things got even worse in the second period and we conceded a second goal. Our frayed nerves were by now well and truly stretched. However, to their credit, Darlo staged a remarkable fight back and managed to salvage a 2-2 draw at the death with goals from Glenn Naylor and substitute Jesper Hjorth.

Darlo were now well and truly floundering, and the gap between the fourth-placed team and us was narrowing all the time. Two points out of a possible six had done nothing to remedy this situation.

After the game, Mike and I didn’t want to endure the moans of the fans in Strikers Bar and so headed straight to the Dalesman where we had a quick pint before going home in a cab at half past ten.

Our next opponents were York City away. Mike and I made the short trip by train, leaving at about midday.

Since the train was quite full, and we hadn’t bothered to book a place, Mike stood with me in the corridor. As a passenger walked past my wheelchair, he accidentally caught the lining of his jacket on one of the handles. The next thing that we heard was a loud rip as the fabric tore apart. I didn’t help matters when I sniggered at the man’s misfortune! His anger could be seen by his expression and by the colour of his face, which by then was bright red. However, he managed to control himself and restricted himself to giving me a dirty look as he continued on his way. I said to Mike that it was his own fault as he should have been looking where he was going.

We spoke to fellow disabled Darlo fan Jamie Dennis and a friend of his called Claire when we got off the train at York. I cheekily asked him if she was his girlfriend. He went bright red and didn’t answer.

 Shortly after leaving Jamie and Claire, Mike and I bumped into Roger Martin together with his wife Maryanne. Roger once again mentioned John Goodall. Apparently, according to Roger, “Darlo John” hates Swansea City so much that when Darlo played them he couldn’t bear the thought so went to watch Tamworth versus Kings Lynn instead! Each to his own, I thought.

Emerging from the station, we made our way for a pint in the Three Tuns in the Coppergate area of the city. The interior was narrow, almost like sitting in a corridor. However, since we had already experienced the same cramped conditions on the train, after only one drink we decided to move on. Fortunately, on this occasion no fellow drinkers had their clothing damaged by my wheelchair!

We then proceeded towards the Bootham area of the city where we had arranged to meet Ian and Simon in the Burton-stone Inn, which is a regular watering hole for away fans as it is just round the corner from the ground. Ian mentioned that he’d read George Reynolds promising that work on Darlo’s new stadium would begin the following week. We were all pleased to hear this, given the problems that we had experienced with the Feethams pitch over the last two seasons, and hoped that the move would eradicate this problem.

The four of us left the pub at ten minutes to three and made our way to the ground where Ian and Simon went in the away end while Mike pushed me into the disable area.

The two of us witnessed a bad-tempered game which was also poorly handled by the referee, Paul Robinson.

In the second half, York City midfielder Kevin Hulme was dismissed for his second bookable offence, leaving the home side to pack their defence with ten men behind the ball. Despite all Darlo’s best endeavours they simply could not break them down and the game ended disappointingly in a 0-0 draw.

 Although the result meant that we were still lying in third place in the table and only three points off the top spot, our nearest rivals, Northampton Town, were slowly but surely closing the gap, even though they were still six points behind us.

After the game, Mike and I weren’t in the mood for staying in York so we caught the first train back to Darlington.

Once we arrived, we had a few drinks in the Nags Head, where there was a disco on that night. Since we weren’t in the mood for socialising, we headed home at about half past eight.

 Our next visitors to Feethams were none other than Northampton Town. The archetypal six-pointer if ever there was one.

At approximately half past twelve I arrived on Victoria Road opposite the Dalesman and when the driver attempted to open the doors at the rear of the vehicle they just wouldn’t budge. Luckily, Mike had seen me arriving from the window of the pub and came over to investigate.

Eventually, the driver decided to take one of the seats out of the vehicle and then lift me out through the side door. To compound matters, the seat wouldn’t budge either! After several attempts, the seat did eventually move and ended up on the pavement. While this fiasco was going on, Mike returned to the pub to summon assistance. He collared Paul Jiggins, a well-built Darlo fan, who crossed over the road and then actually lifted me out of the taxi and into my wheelchair, which had been removed first. This whole episode must have lasted a good half hour.

After the exertions getting me out of the taxi-bus, I was glad to buy Paul a pint and also have one myself. During my conversation with Mike and Paul, the latter mentioned a recent article in The Northern Echo in which George Reynolds had stated that the new stadium would be completed in only ten months. My response was to say that I would believe it when I saw it with my own eyes. Not that I thought it would never be built, rather that I felt the time scale was rather ambitious.

Finishing off our drinks, Mike and I headed to meet Ian in Strikers Bar as we had already arranged earlier in the week. Ian reminded Mike and me of the fact that Marco Gabbiadini was again suspended for this match. I hoped that just like at Hull a few weeks ago we would be able to cope without him and win.

With Simon not being able to make it that day, Mike sat with me in the disabled area.

After only five minutes, former Hartlepool striker Steve Howard, headed the Cobblers in front from a corner.

Darlo huffed and puffed through the rest of the first half but when the team left the pitch we were still 1-0 down, a far cry from the comfortable victory we had registered at the Sixfields Stadium on Boxing Day. Despite our best endeavours in the second period, we could not manage a goal. The nearest that we came to equalising was when Peter Duffield scored and the linesman seemed to take an eternity to raise his flag. So, the Cobblers came away with all three points and we were now only three points clear with four games remaining, having taken only three points from a possible twelve.

After this result, the doubts that I had entertained the month previously were beginning to become a reality. It was then that I felt we were not going to achieve automatic promotion. Mike was now of the same opinion as me.

Following the game, we went to drown our sorrows in the Nags Head. With it still being early in the evening we decided to move on to the Queens Head. While Mike and I were chatting, a young girl noticed the Liverpool bag that I had strapped to the back of my chair. She told Mike, “I’ll tell you what, he supports a good team.” Little did she know my true allegiance and also what my bag contained, in other words my plastic urine bottle!

From there we went to the Boot and Shoe where we met Earl Gray who by now was quite inebriated. Like me, he thought that Darlo had blown it.

After a pint with John, Mike and I headed home in a cab; leaving him stood at the bar ordering another pint.

For the following fixture at Cheltenham Mike and I travelled on special cheap day return tickets that only cost us about £15 each. Altogether there were four of us in the party: Mike, Paul Jiggins, his brother Christian and myself.

Leaving Darlington at about seven o’clock, we changed trains at Birmingham New Street, arriving in Cheltenham for opening time. Hailing a taxi, we were dropped on the main high street.

We then went for a meal in a pub called O’Hagan’s. Since this was the Bank Holiday weekend maybe we should have been wary. Mike ordered a chicken curry but it took more than an hour to arrive and the chicken comprised only two or three pieces of meat, the rest of it being sauce. Moreover, there was Branston pickle with his meal, instead of the advertised mango chutney!

 The baked potato with salad that Paul ordered was bland and there was no coleslaw. When he asked the waiter for some, he said that it was because they had had a lot of customers in over the weekend and they had used all the coleslaw. Finally, the pie crust on my meal was unbaked and still white, it goes without saying that I sent it back. The waiter who by this time was getting really annoyed with us grabbed my plate in a heavy handed manner and said that it looked ok to him. At this we all asked for our money back as none of could eat what we had ordered. The manager came out and a practically threw the cash at us; some of it ending up on the floor.

To compound matters, when I went to order a drink, despite being at the front of the queue, the barman ignored me and served one of the regulars first. I said to him that the whole place was a shambles and that he was ignorant. He just smiled sarcastically. At that point we all left, not wanting to spend another penny in there.

The four of us left and headed further down the high street to another pub called Coopers Arms where we met Earl Gray and Richard Jones. They both thought that Darlo would chalk up their first win of the month. I said to John that we’d draw again. We agreed to disagree.

After a couple of pints, the six of us left and went to the Cat & Fiddle which is near the ground. By the time we got in there it was half past two so Mike and I only had a half before heading to the stadium. Despite it been a quarter to three, John and Richard still ordered another pint. At least they were consistent! 

Once again Darlo failed to score and the match ended in a 0-0 draw. The highlight was that Andy Collett saved a penalty from Russell Milton after he had brought down full-back Steve McAuley in the box. So, in real terms, it was one point gained rather than two lost. Unfortunately we needed the three with Northampton on our tails in the race for the third promotion spot.

The result meant that we had taken only four points from a maximum of fifteen.

At least our fate was still in our own hands I thought to myself as we boarded the train back to Birmingham.

During our trip from Birmingham, the four of us discussed over a few lagers where we thought things had gone wrong.

I thought that two things had been critical; firstly, Andy Collett had been injured which happens in football. Unfortunately, his understudy Mark Samways, in my opinion, wasn’t up to the job, his handling and kicking were poor and this put the defenders under pressure and therefore we conceded sloppy goals, dropping points in the process. I think that the club should have brought in a keeper on loan, this would have alleviated the problem.

The second point was the fact that our star forward Marco Gabbiadini had missed far too many games through suspension. This had undoubtedly cost the team points as apart from Hull away, we had struggled up front when he didn’t play. Draws could maybe have been turned into wins if he had played more games. Obviously, no-one knows that for sure.

All the lads thought that my points were valid, especially the one regarding Mark Samways.

Anyway, we arrived back in Darlington at ten o’clock. We hailed a cab from the station rank and headed straight home.

The last thing on my mind before going to sleep was where was Darlo’s next win going to come from?  

You wouldn’t want to be facing your near neighbours and deadly enemies Hartlepool United  with only three games of the season remaining, and needing to pick up points,  but that is who we played next at Feethams. Even worse, we had now dropped to fourth in the league. So the pressure was really on for the team.

For this match I met Mike, Ian and Simon in the Dalesman.

Over our drink, I told Mike that my colleagues Jill Scott, Clare Scully and Eve Bussey had agreed to join our book committee and assist with the read through of the final version of Flippers Side

We had two months to finish the job and now they were on board, I was confident that we’d make it. Mike agreed. For the first time, I was really excited about the publication. Ian said that he admired our determination to get the book published. That meant a lot coming from him, especially as we had been friends for sixteen years.

After a few drinks the four of us went to Strikers Bar, the whole mood in the place was really tense. It was almost unbearable. Fans who were normally chatty just sat at their table, or stood at the bar in silence. The whole atmosphere was really eerie.

I sat in my usual spot with Simon and we both saw a very nervous performance from Darlo.

At the break we were 1-0 down, with goal scoring midfielder Tommy Miller netting for our visitors. I said to Simon that our fans' edginess was getting to the players on the pitch, passes were going astray, forwards were taking an extra touch on the ball before losing it and even ‘Mr Cool’ Craig Liddle seemed overawed. Simon agreed and said that we should bring Jesper Hjorth on for the second half.

Darlo took Simon’s advice and brought on Hjorth for the second half. Unlike his team mates, he seemed to take the game by the scruff of the neck and it came as no surprise when he set up the equaliser. He ran with the ball from inside his own half, before unleashing a blistering shot which the Hartlepool keeper could only parry, full-back Paul Heckingbottom gleefully rammed home the rebound.

Despite the players best efforts they just couldn’t grab another goal and the game ended in a 1-1 draw, which in our position wasn’t sufficient

I chatted with John Gray in Strikers Bar after the match. Like me, he was disappointed with the result. We both agreed that Jesper Hjorth should have been on from the start. But it was too late saying what could have been.

Mike left and later told me that there were fans by the river Skerne in the churchyard spoiling for a fight. But the police managed to avoid any serious trouble breaking out.

John pushed me to the Dalesman where we had a couple of pints before heading home at eleven o’clock.

Darlo’s last game of April was away at Carlisle United. For this match I went with Ian in his car.

The two of us left Darlington at eleven o’clock. We didn’t bother stopping, and after an uneventful journey arrived in Carlisle at half past twelve.

We went to a couple of pubs in London Road; firstly The Greenbank Inn where we bumped into Roger Martin. The three of us chatted about how we thought Darlo would do; Ian thought Darlo would end the month in a winning note adding that the laws of averages said that we were due a win. Roger said that he’d thought we would lose, I went for the draw.

Whilst we were chatting a young woman caught my attention, she was sat with her friend on the next table.

She had long dark hair and must have been in her late twenties. She had obviously heard our conversation and asked if we were from Darlington.

I said that we were; she said that a couple of years previously she went out with a man from Darlington, but he abused her and she left him, returning to Carlisle. I told her that all men from Darlington weren’t like that and that the three of us were gentlemen. To prove my point, I bought both her and her friend a drink before heading to the next pub. In response, she blew me a kiss.

Next, the three of us went to the Harraby Inn, also in London Road. Earl Gray and Richard Jones were in there. After a couple of pints Ian and I left the other three and went to the ground.

We both sat in the disabled area. Again we witnessed a disjointed performance with former Hartlepool player Stephen Halliday giving Carlisle a half-time lead after scoring on thirty nine minutes. Darlo just couldn’t seem to get going and the away fans were becoming more frustrated by the minute.

Things carried on much the same during the second period until the eightieth minute when Glenn Naylor netted after receiving a pass from Craig Liddle just inside the box making the score 1-1. The match ended that way, with Darlo dropping two more precious points.

We now had to beat Lincoln and hope that Torquay could do us a favour by defeating Northampton on the last day of the season. That would be the only way that Darlo would achieve automatic promotion.

After leaving Carlisle, Ian and me stopped off at the Colburn Lodge for a couple of pints. Neither of us was in the mood for drinking, so we headed home at half past nine.

On reflection if Darlo didn’t achieve promotion, then the month of April would have cost us. Five points from a possible twenty-one was proof of that.