Some people can sit for hours reminiscing about their best, worst, whatever away trips from days gone by. Themes like hooliganism, the living standards of northerners and sub-zero temperatures often crop up, but I have been thinking about a trip to Darlington some 13 years ago recently, largely because it was my first away trip without my Dad.
He must have been working that day as I'm sure he would have enjoyed the trip to County Durham, but as a 14 year old, and Albion being in the midst of a historic away win run which span 5 games, me and inside-back cover fanzine contributing stalwart Carter decided that yes, we will get the train to the North-east, we will explore Darlington, we have come of age and will do our duty for the club.
My first recollection is that of money and the horrendous costs of Intercity train travel in the days before you could book in advance. Being the son of a train driver, at that young age I had a 'Priv' card, allowing me free train travel up and down the country. For poor Carter though he had to pay full whack for the 500+ mile round trip. I recall it being around £35 for his ticket, bought at the Brighton station ticket office with cash at about 6am as we began our epic adventure.
My Dad had scribbled some train times on a scrap of paper for us.
B'ton - Kings X
Kings X - Darlo
I was impressed at the abbreviations; a train drivers short-hand that I have tried in vain to master over the years. The colloquial and friendly name for Darlington really got me. Why do we not have lazy, pseudo-cartoon names for towns in the South? Only the word Pompey can compete with Darlo down here and I've loved saying the word ever since.
Being eager, we started our journey early and arrived in Darlington around 1230. At 14 we didn't have the rabid thirst for locally brewed alcohol that handily takes care of those pre-match hours at away games for adults. Instead, we just walked around the town. First to the ground where the old Feethams was resplendent amidst giant autumnal trees and the soothing sounds of a narrow brook that ran the length of their new main stand. Feethams was small, but we had been playing home games at Priestfield for well over a year at that point and any ground in the football league was pretty cool at that age. As previously mentioned, Darlo had invested in a shiny new main stand and it really stood proud against against the modest terraces and sheds that hugged the other 3 sides. It sounds stupid now but back then we were really impressed.
We took the short walk into the town centre and got a McDonalds or something, we probably pretended we couldn't understand their accents at the check-out. On the walk back we saw Kevin McGarrigle, again, at that age pretty cool.
The game itself was a classic. It seemed like the away end was bursting at the seems and back then our vociferous away support had an arsenal of more than 3 songs, and pretty much all of them went on for more than 1 solitary chorus. The away stand was opposite the main stand and much to my surprise was made of wood and featured a semi-circular roof like that of the Rainham End at Gillingham.
Albion, who were in good form, went 1-nil down in the first half. A header from their striker, won in an aeriel duel with Mark Ormerod, put The Quakers ahead. There are few worse sounds for a football supporter than to be in an away ground and listening to the home team score, it rips through you and even though there would probably have been less than 5,000 in the venue, they still made a lot of noise.
Second half and Albion started to fight back. back in '98 we had Minton who would pull the strings in Midfield and a new striker called Gary Hart who was knocking in a few goals us too. Hart, at the time, was the first striker that Albion fans could really bond with since bloody Kurt Nogan probably, his effort, incessant running, power and eye for goal made the becurtained poacher a firm favourite with fans from day 1.
I think we got to about 70 minutes before Hart had equalised, and I can't remember how. The away stand - as is de riguer at away games - went absolutely potty, rocking the old stands foundations as Brightonians spilled out over the wooden benches dancing like loonies. 3 minutes later were in front, Minton I think putting away a penalty. This is what away games are all about we thought.
In classic style Albion hang on. Not that me and Carter knew. As naive kids a long way from home on our debut solo away trip we weren't going to risk getting that London bound train and hot-stepped it to Darlington station with 5 minutes left of normal time. Without mobile phones I'm not sure how we knew that Albion had hung on, perhaps a night-final paper picked up at Kings Cross confirmed the good news, who knows.
It was 9 o'clock or so as we pulled into Kings Cross. The main challenge for us was crossing a pre-gentrified Kings Cross to the Thameslink platforms that would take us home to Brighton. It was only a 2 minute journey on foot over Pentonville Road but the areas intimidating characters got us a little worried. Just as we were about to go underground into the station we saw a mad-man having an altercation with a phone box.
Back in Brighton and thoroughly worn-out I could only look back on a fantastic day. An Albion away win after going a goal down, a great trip to a part of the country I'd never seen before, and a bug well and truly caught that would take Carter and I on many a sojourn to various far flung provinces and their spit-and-sawdust Fourth Division football clubs.
Those experiences where we saw light at the end of a really long and dark tunnel were so important in the late-90s. I believe it's those sort of days that mould you as the fan you eventually become.
Footnote: The new stand I describe at Feethams was a factor in the club's misfortune over the last decade or so. The costs of that new East Stand contributed to money troubles that opened the doors to the infamous George Reynolds to take over. He moved the club into the unfeasibly large Darlington Arena at the same time as the club went into administration. Darlington are doing not-a-lot in the Conference these days and Feethams has been demolished.