Travelling The U.K., A Divorce Remedy

deer surmounting shield and motto for old NFFC badgeI'm not sure what peaked my curiosity; I'd finished following football in '82 after a nasty day in Nottingham, filled with thousands of Leeds United 'fans'. After 5 years of never missing a game at Forest, the Trent End had been full and I'd gone to stand in the Spion Kop. A lousy day. The prices had also increased fourfold from 1977, when it was 50p. The half-time burgers were smaller. The match-day programme poorly printed & full of ads. The famous reindeer crest had gone to a wierd tricky tree, and the shirts that had inspired Arsenal to turn red & white in Victorian times, were now a none-descript glossy pin stripe. So 8yrs later, in 1990, after having married, travelled (& returned), turning to the Sports pages was more of a pass time than with any fanatical cause.

What caught my eye wasn't the Glam Champs with their £Millions, but rather, the number of touristy cities languishing in obscurity in the old 4th division. Why pay £10 to have a miserable day in Nott'm, when for the same money Blackpool & Scarborough beckoned? Me & my mum had always had a laugh waiting for the pools teleprinter as we watched for Darlington, a perennial 're-election' candidate at the bottom of the league. It had gone so far as me travelling to a few of their away games on my moped - Peterborough, Notts County, Derby County, Chesterfield, Mansfield Town...Now with a car and on the way to divorce, I realised I hadn't yet seen much of Britain at all. Blackpool tower on coast sketch

After 3yrs of marriage, my Italian American wife had become a mystery, and I'd become a superfluous British ornament. As my Grandma and my mother died within months of each other, my wife thought it a good idea I go 'home' to see my father through a bad time, and give the marriage a break, getting back together in some US State in the spring. No sooner had I touched down, then the message came that it was permanent as far as she was concerned. Oh cheers, wifey. Anyway, I'd missed the first few games of the season; Darlington had even lost their first match back in the league after winning the Vauxhall Conference, so there was no band wagon jumping on my part...just curiosity to see the UK finally after having driven across the States three times.

Darlington FC '90-'91 Div 4

It started with an uneventful drive up the A1. I had a Russian Jeep at the time (okay, a Lada 1500 Estate), but with twin webbers and Wolfrace wheels, it vaguely felt like an Invading Army Vehicle. I knew I had to hit the A66 and go round Darlington to get to the ground. The Angel of the North statue hadn't even been thought of, but I was touched by it, as usual, supernaturally. Light & fresh air filled the cab and soon folks were like, talkin' funny, pet. It was September and should have been cold, but I'd not long come from Northern Michigan and The High Desert, so Northern British chill felt quite balmy. Darlington had a great market, and a super vegetarian cafe with the best lookin girls I'd seen since California. We won 3-0, and although the match was relatively uneventful, it perhaps proved the turning point for both clubs, Halifax ending 3rd bottom despite having the top scorer that season. And I had been past Yorkshire, and into the North East...

Wales I had been to before with the Police Cadets, so the mental trip out West on the old A52 felt familiar. And it was only to Wrexham boyo, practically Hereford now, look you. I was first there by a few hours, and parked well away from the imposing Race Course Ground, finding a cosy spot in the hospital car park. The town was different again to my previous week's experience in Darlo. The cafe a refugee center, the Miners Union hall boarded up, an air of serious governmental neglect. Welsh flag animated This was practically a European Capital; indeed Wrexham had played in the European Cup Winners Cup mid-week as winners of the Welsh Cup 89-90. I managed to get a Welsh lad sent-off by starting a chant after he'd hacked our winger for the third time in as many minutes. The Ref was a Homer, but a largish (and suddenly vocal) away crowd gave him the courage to go for a straight red card. I felt a bit sheepish later. No, seriously. We continued in mediocrity with a draw, awakening no-one to the potential of the Team. And I had been to Wales, on my own.

The third trip of the month, the following weekend, was to Doncaster Rovers. Sworn enemy of Darlington. This is what youths did before Playstations. I came upon an unfinished ring road and went round and round a mini island trying to get my bearings on the floodlights of the racecourse, again. The old gypsy girl was watching me through the open caravan door. Her hubby was obviously on the Mac gang building the ringroad, and they'd parked up on the unifinished island. Her child played by the roadside. I stopped and wound down the window, asking for the best road for the football. She pointed into town, and I passed down a 20p to the child to pass to mum. Another season turning moment perhaps, having goodwill at my back, as we won 1-0, despite later fighting in the crowd and a 'miners strike' Police prescence. bridge over deep motorway valley sketchDoncaster were a handy club, they just missed out on promotion that season themselves, but we had only won by the odd goal. A Darlo loss in their next home game followed by exit in the League Cup (despite taking a 3-0 lead to Swindon), cemented them back in people's minds as likeable whipping boys. The Quakers.

It was mid October, and a lovely day beckoned for Blackpool away. But how do you get there? My first taste of the M62 over the Pennines, the glorious sweep down into Lancashire and then head for Preston... [There's 3 'pools in the league, but can you name their neighbours who also all end with a suffix in common? Add Everton, and Darlington, neighbours of Hartlepool.] The ground at Bloomfield Rd had seen better days. Blackpool had, to be fair. I added their sticker to my back window, and Darlo added 3pts. Ta very much. It was a fun day for the fans. If Blackpool had drawn, they would have been promoted that season. Another 'meh' one goal win still alerted no-one.

The following Saturday it was Maidstone United who had lost their ground, so the long haul stopped short at Dartford where they were sharing. Although not speaking Geordie, I still didn't speak Cockney, so didn't get served at the chippy until every Landanner had had their fill. I trust it's just an ignorant match-day thing. Despite being homeless, Maidstone seemed depressed to go 3-2 down, and more bizarre strangeness as Metropolitan Police moved into the Darlington section in male+female couples. Had they come to police, or carouse? Watch the game, it turned out, on £7+ overtime then, back in 1990! Darlington had now won 3 on the trot, a feat they'd repeat a few times, but never better. It kept folks from realising what was going on.

Two weeks later it was the Blackpool route again, stopping short at Rochdale. I was in awe of their indoor shopping arcade, beautifully kept. I parked up at Spotland and did the 'Hovis' walk down into the town. The game later was a 1-1 morass, as the pitch doubled for the Rugby club. The town had a friendly Lowry like tilt to it, the folks accents not quite Welsh or Pudlian or Mancunian. And Darlington hadn't lost for a while now.

That changed in a dark wet November filled with repetitive trips to York. By February we'd played them 5 times! I went up to see the losses in the FA & Assc Members Cups. It was getting dark early by now and there was no sightseeing with the evening cup games. Sandwiched inbetween was a trip to Lincoln. I sampled an Indian restaurant and lived to pay the extortionate bill! Our 3-0 win signalled the end for one of my old heroes, Lincoln manager, Allan Clarke, whom I had modelled myself on playing for the Junior school. I spent hours after school with my  'Spaceball' boots ricocheting a football off neighbours garden walls; brought up with Günther, Netzer, Höhness, Müller, Osgood, Stepney, Banks & Leeds heroic 1972 FA Cup winners squad and I refused to join the crowds chants of 'Clarke out'. Where was the respect?

Humber suspension bridge sketch A week later, an easier drive up my old scenic biking route, the A6. I kept on it and missed my pint at one of the highest pubs, the   Cat & Fiddle, winding instead towards Manchester, where it got darker with a reversal at a horrible Stockport County, a ground then as ugly as it's namesakes at Meadow Lane & The Baseball Ground. The Manchester police managed to chuck out an old one legged veteran for swearing when County got a dubious penalty. Outside young kids with housebricks made mock throwing gestures. My car had been pinned in by County fan's cars, and I pushed it free an inch back and forth in a few seconds, much to the locals disbelief. No one blocks in a taxi driver! At least Stockport recognised Darlo as a threat, and a lossless run into mid January started seperating the top few into contenders & also rans. One of these was the trip to Scarborough, the last Saturday game of 1990. I managed the long trip up, going via The Humber Bridge. The last suspension bridge I'd gone over was the Golden Gate in San Francisco, which is metal bedded and dinky compared to the Humber. Scarborough sea cliff was an experience with the long steps down; once again the Northern air felt so much better than the Midlands. And a 1-1 draw kept Darlo towards the front of the runners.

By mid January, four wins at home had suddenly woken the 4th division to Darlo's play. Frank Gray (who I'd watched at Forest) and Paul Emson (prev. Derby) were starting to tackle and play (not hoof) it forward, oft times catching the opponents off guard. The trip to Turf Moor, though, was always going to be a nightmare. Practically a Lancs-Yorks roses event, every one had jack boots & leather jackets on. An openly racist 9,000 white crowd saw Mr.Singh from Wolverhampton as referee... I had a heavily pregnant lady friend with me that day, and at 2-0 down I asked a Police Inspector to let us out. An eventual   3-1 loss to Burnley started to make every match crucial. No wonder our manager, Brian Little, went grey that season..

Two weeks later I did the trip over the M62 yet again for Halifax Town. Opposite the ground was a super little cafe doing breakfasts for a couple of quid. Inner Halifax was olde worlde. I'm not sure what I was expecting, but not post medieval. By this time Saddam Hussein was using his Scud missiles, and the Darlo lads took the mickey out of Halifax as The Shay was little more than crater shaped.

Minster cathedral sketchThe 3rd York City trip of the season finally saw time for a walk round the Minster and romano walls with my ladyfriend. It did seem a little expensive, but there is a lot of antiquities to look after at York. Getting it right on the pitch 3rd time lucky consigned City to a nosedive; they were still playing for draws in a time of 3pts for a win...46 draws could see a team go out the league; whilst 23 wins would give them 69 points, and chance of a play off berth...

Al Is near Sunderland

Mid February and the Christmas snows had all gone for the longest trip upto Hartlepool, Darlo's neighbours and arch-rivals. The Hartlepool main street was bizarre. Yorkshire bank, Bradford & Bingley. Leeds Building Society etc..It brought home to me the northern co-operative town nature. I thought about the beach, but I knew there's the Nuclear Power Station lurking nearby, so I made my way to the ground for the 0-0 draw.

I was now in bedsitland, having moved out of my dad's and changed work rotas, and it was a while until I got to another match. Easter Monday saw me make a quick 20mile trip upto the old Saltergate, the Chesterfield church crooked spire, and some confusing car parking. A 2-2 draw ensured at least a top-half finish for The Quakers. They had managed to travel poorly again for a loss at Torquay (after the League Cup reverse with Swindon), but there were only 3 losses in the whole second half of the 90-91 season.

The penultimate game saw me travel upto Scunthorpe by bus & train. Both teams needed the win. Frank Gray hit a 40yd screamer straight in the net, only for the ref to give offside. There was disbelief and embarrassment from the Scunny fans. With their   record of losing away from home, yet winning comfortably at home, it looked to even a casual observer that games were being bought. The fighting was the worst I'd seen. So with a 1-2 loss, Darlo needed to win their last game at home. I had to travel from Derby, changing at Sheffield & York. Last matches of the season for all the clubs. Just past York there was rail maintenance and we had to switch to buses. I was surprised to see Frank Gray get on, and we had a brief laugh about the situation. By 5pm I would be applauding him & the team lifting the Div4 trophy as a cagey 2-0 win put them a nose ahead at the final whistle.

By this time, the waiting period & correspondence had allowed the divorce to go through. I don't regret helping a young lady out whilst still 'technically' married, the marriage had died as far as my wife was concerned even before I had come home. The travel, sights and weekends accounted for at football stopped any broodiness growing; the fact    Darlington FC  were non-league prior to the campaign shows it doesn't take the Big Time or Big Money to provide a diversion for a season or two.
A further move in '93, and taking a nightclass or two, helped move me on somewhat to greener pastures, from the deserts of divorce (& bereavement).

  Imps ~ Pilgrims ~ Mariners?

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