Our quest to uncover the romance of the FA Cup in humdrum towns of the north series continues today with Darlington’s fourth qualifying round tie with Hinckley United. I’d already been to Halifax and found little evidence to suggest that the World’s Greatest Cup Competition™ was in rude health, but decided to give it another chance in the north-east. Also, it turns out Darlo filled the three criterion I set when Boston are at home - nearest, easiest, cheapest.
Unfortunately, the only “romance” I experienced during the entire day was two Chavs necking on the station platform. After a storming first 15 minutes, in which both goals were scored, what little sense of occasion quickly drained away as Darlo squandered chance after chance to avert a tricky-looking replay in Leicestershire, to the infuriation of the 1,100 home fans who had spread themselves thinly around their massive stadium.
It’s deliciously appropriate their home is named the Northern Echo Arena. It’s like the doting mother who’s bought their toddler a coat to grow into - but the poor tyke is barely out of nappies and the coat is XXXXXXL. Three sides of the 25,000 all-seater were not even in use, with the crowd spaced out along one side and a small pocket of 83 Hinckley fans in one corner. No wonder the girl in the ticket booth laughed when I said I didn’t mind which stand I sat in - I didn’t have much choice.
It’s a beautifully-designed arena and in a great location, but quite what Mr Reynolds was thinking when this place was opened must be a festering sore for all those who turn up week-in week-out. They were in League Two at the time and had they reached the Premier League it might all have been ok. They didn’t and fell through the trap door into the Conference in 2010, leaving the place looking unmistakably like a white, cantilevered elephant with a decent selection of pies. Somehow I don’t think the Lady Gaga and Madonna tribute singer (yes, both) performing there next week will be a sell-out either.
I didn’t know that Darlo had parted company with manager Mark Cooper earlier in the week and made a mental note to read up on the teams I was about to watch in future. The mustachioed bloke next to me had clearly been waiting all week to sound off about how the board was too hasty to part company with the man who had delivered the FA Trophy last season and wasn’t anticipating the silent, politely nodding ignorance of a man who had never even set foot in the town of Darlington, let alone his beloved football club. Thankfully, his real friends arrived and I scooted off to another empty row of seats. Incidentally, the FA Trophy seems to be a real attraction round here, with a group of young fans pestering the security guard to pop in and see it in the reception as though it were the Elgin Marbles or Tutankhamen.
Anyway, down to the business of the cup, and having settled into my seat, the match started with a purpose and decent level of entertainment. Five minutes in, Darlo’s John Campbell picked out Ryan Bowman from the left and, still with a lot of work to do, Bowman immaculately brought the ball under his spell and whipped it into the bottom left corner to set the Quakers on course for round one.
But five minutes later, the Conference North visitors struck back. There had already been a number of mis-placed passes to irritate the locals and when Hinckley broke through the middle, Sam Belcher worked a yard of space on the edge of the box and steered the ball into the bottom corner to equalise. I reclined and even started to feel pleased with myself with the choice of game after such a bright start. The travelling supporters were also great value - sure, you couldn’t understand much of the mush of inebriated syllables they were bellowing out - but they outsung the home fans and made great use of the echoing acoustics of the stadium.
Sadly for me, the remainder of the afternoon was a let-down. The game faded badly and fizzled out like a firework in Balotelli’s bathroom. Darlo, overseen by caretaker manager Craig Liddle, stuck gamely to their passing style but the direction was more often than not backwards, to the chagrin of the home support who would have happily seen more route one to avoid having to do it all over again in the replay.
Darlo had the chances, notably in the second-half, but couldn’t break down a stubborn Hinckley rearguard. Campbell, James Hatch and sub James Gray all went close but there was a resignation that this affair would end in a draw long before the final whistle allowed everyone to return somewhere warm.
So, that was Darlington. If nothing else, another place seen, another experience had...
Next Match: Boston United travel to Solihull Moors on Saturday