If you’re a southern-based non-league club, it’s seldom you entertain a northern team, unless you have a long run in one of the FA competitions. It’s even more rare to come up against a team from the north-east of England. What’s more, playing host to a club with some form of Football League heritage is something of a red letter day. So St. Neots Town v Darlington 1883 (no, it’s not a new fangled lager from the top right hand corner of England), was a very attractive tie that offered something a little special.
And it didn’t disappoint. A bit of drama, four goals, a big crowd and in the second half, the heavens opened to give the game a real old fashioned cup-tie feel.
St. Neots Town are riding high this season, although they have played a few more games than some of the clubs around them. Given they have two of the best strikers in the Southern League Premier in Drew Roberts and Chris Dillon, it’s not that surprising. Roberts, a fleet-footed, impish player who scores goals for fun, is the current Southern League top scorer.
The Saints are managed by Gary King and where King goes, players like Roberts and Dillon, centre half Ryan Frater, and the notorious David Deeney usually follow. There’s a strong Arlesey Town feel to the St. Neots team, King’s previous club, and around five have also played for Hitchin Town. In the locality, St. Neots is now the outfit with the magnets, drawing the best talent from the half dozen or so clubs that form the more sensible geography within the Southern Premier.
King normally operates with the Abbey brothers, Zema and Tanny, but they departed earlier this season and King became manager with two new assistants, Liam George and Matt Spring. With the resources at St. Neots, and their fine stadium, King may now have the platform for the sustained success he has craved. And unlike at his previous club, he has good crowd potential at St.Neots.
Darlington have incredible crowd potential, given the town has a population of 106,000 and the club is the 2012 reincarnation of the old Darlington FC. The club had to drop into the Northern League and in its first season and suddenly became huge fish in a small pond. They won 40 of their 46 league games, scored 145 goals and notched up 122 points. Amazingly, they were only 13 points clear of Spennymoor Town, but 34 ahead of third place! They averaged 1,300 at the gate.
In 2013-14, they entered the Northern Premier Division One North and finished runners-up but surprisingly lost the play-offs to Ramsbottom United. This season, they are top of the division, three points clear of Droylsden, who are one of two teams to have beaten Darlo this season. Goals have been plentiful, with 40 being scored in 17 games. Twice this season – against Kendal and Harrogate Railway – they have netted seven in a game.
Darlington’s form and their history told you that although St. Neots are one step above them in the non-league pyramid, it could be anyone’s tie.
But after 90 seconds, Darlington suffered a major setback. There was an early skirmish in their penalty area and players crowded around the referee. Nobody was really quite sure what was going on, but Darlington’s Liam Hatch was red-carded. At the same time, the visitors were awarded a free-kick. Confusion reigned for a few moments, but Hatch walked off and it looked as though he may have said something to the referee. Ah yes, the man in black. He had a very indifferent 90 minutes, making some very strange decisions and letting some harsh challenges go unnoticed.
Darlo were not phased by the loss of Hatch. Indeed, they almost scored when the impressive Stephen Thompson, or “Thomo” as the Darlo fans called him, sent a shot heading for the top corner before veteran (and I do mean veteran) goalkeeper Paul Bastock tipped the ball over the bar.
Bastock had an excellent game and pulled off a double save a few minutes later. “He’s not bad for an old git,” said one Darlo fan. “Aye, but have you seen how many games at top level he’s played? He knows the game,” said Darlo fan 2.
Thompson, meanwhile, was everywhere. Chasing opponents, firing in shots, winning the ball and finding his man. “Look at Thomo…he’s blowing out of his arse,” said Darlo fan 2. “He’s having a brilliant game…come on Thomo (clenches fist).”
A goalless first half had kept everyone on the edge of their seat, or terrace, and Darlington had more than held their own. “I fancy we’ll take them back north next week,” said Darlo fan. “We just need to hold on in the second half.”
For a while, that looked realistic. Darlingon had an early effort from Graeme Armstrong, but that man Bastock came to the rescue. In the 69th minute, however, Lewis Hilliard scored a superb curling opener from the edge of the area for St. Neots to break the deadlock. “That’s us done,” commented Darlo fan 2. “We’re starting to look tired.”
Seven minutes later, Darlington equalised, and didn’t they just deserve it! Amar Purewal scored the goal, receiving the ball from a good passing move and shooting low into the net from inside the area after rounding a defender. The Darlington bench went berserk, but within a minute, St. Neots had regained the lead, a high cross to the far side by Ben Ford being met by the head of Roberts.
It was Roberts that created the third St. Neots goal, racing onto a loose ball and passing inside for Hilliard to pick his spot. A third goal was perhaps a little harsh on Darlington, but they had run out of steam. They refused to roll over and in the closing stages, Thompson continued to run and tested Bastock once more. As the rain can pouring down, Darlington’s Trophy hopes were just washed away. Final score: St. Neots Town 3 Darlington 1 (attendance 715).
An excellent afternoon’s entertainment and some good football played by both sides. The outcome might have been different if it remained 11 v 11.