After a false start, it looks like Darlo will get the season started on Saturday at home to Alfreton Town two weeks after the National League North season actually kicked off. Having been behind on games played throughout the last season’s aborted league campaign, we get to once again consider the potential of games in hand over the other sides in the league. Are the two games we missed six points in the bank?
For me, this is going to be a slightly odd season. With the previous two seasons having been cut short because of Covid, there’s a part of me which wonders whether this season can be fulfilled. The pandemic has thrown curve balls from all directions at football and it would be a brave person who didn’t expect another one between now and the end of this season. As such, as exciting as the prospect of getting back in to the ground and supporting the lads is, subconsciously, something is holding me back from getting too excited.
Off the pitch the club seems to be going from strength to strength. Thanks to the ridiculously hardworking dedicated volunteers, we appear to have come through the pandemic to date in a relatively healthy state. The fans have once again stepped up to the plate and pumped a record amount of their own money to support Alun Armstrong and his playing budget. Everything is looking rosy.
On the pitch is a slightly different story. Alun’s first two seasons have been challenging to say the least. There have been plenty of hurdles placed in the way to achieving the sort of consistent league performances we’ve been demanding. Injuries, schedules and logistics have proved challenging and will no doubt continue to make life difficult for a part-time outfit like ourselves. This season, more so than ever, the rise of full-time clubs (and to a certain extent, less part-time than us) is going to present a further challenge whether it be trying to sign players or having to compete with fitter, better drilled sides.
It’s been noticeable that the tone ahead of this season has been dialled back a fair bit compared to Alun’s first two seasons. There’s less talk about gunning for promotion and more talk about the realities of what we can achieve with the resources available to us. For me, this is a sensible step. Perpetual over-optimism can wear a little thin after a while. There is always a chance we could defy expectation and be in the thick of a promotion battle, but the likelihood is we’re going to be mid-table, maybe frustratingly almost in touch of the playoffs.
A big reason for talking down the prospects this season has to be the significant overhaul of players. For a variety of reasons such as guaranteed starts or being home for tea, the Blyth lot have returned to Blyth. To be fair, most of them underwhelmed in Darlo shirts so their loss is debatable (yeah, there’s some ‘I didn’t really fancy her anyway’ vibes in there). Others have left the club to return to the full-time game much to the disappointment of the fans.
Despite all the outgoings, Alun seems to have done pretty well finding replacements. Most have been pretty left-field with fans having to work Google hard to find out about our new players. Some, such as Adam Campbell and Erico Sousa, will always be difficult to replace but in Kevin Dos Santos we appear to have unearthed another gem from Tadcaster. Meanwhile, the signing of Jake Cassidy won’t send too many pulses rushing but his physical presence up front is exactly what we’ve desperately needed for some time. His goals record may not be amazing but the work he will put in will hopefully allow others to flourish.
I’m reasonably satisfied we will be a little bit stronger than we were last season. When everyone is fit, our starting line-up should be absolutely fine, taking out the weaker sides and competing with the better ones. If we could just find a unicorn or the equally prevalent experienced centre half we so desperately need, we might even have half a chance of gatecrashing the playoffs. However, I suspect we may need to rely on cup competitions once again to find some gratification. That certainly wouldn’t be a bad thing. After all, with two incomplete seasons behind us, getting through this season unscathed might just turn out to be the biggest accomplishment for our club at this time.