Ahead of this weekend’s FA Trophy quarter-final with Hornchurch, Lee Hall reflects on the day Darlington suffered a shock loss to the East London club 18 years ago. Lee, now in Cornwall, covered Darlington for The Northern Echo and was witness to the occasion when David Hodgson’s return to Quakers was marred by the FA Cup first round defeat.
“David Hodgson’s Darlington return is not going according to plan” was scribbled down on my notepad as I waited for the call from a local radio station to report on Hodgson’s first game back in charge after he’d agreed to take over for a third spell after a poor run of results under Mick Tait.
At the time, some 18 years ago, George Reynolds was dominating the front and back pages of The Northern Echo as he outlined ambitious plans to take the club to the Premier League from the comfort of a brand new stadium (escalators et al). Exciting times, surely?
But with Darlo struggling near the foot of the Third Division table under Tait it was time for a change, and who better to match Reynolds’ lofty (some might say unrealistic) ambitions than the man who guided the club to Wembley and a play-off final just three-and-a-half years earlier: David Hodgson.
I was already aware of Hodgson’s cult status among Darlington fans, but it was only when interviewing him for the first time that I fully understood his special relationship with supporters.
As a sports writer still learning the ropes, I’d already been thrown in at the deep end in dealing with Reynolds on a daily basis. And much like Reynolds, I was never short of a quote from Hodgson. There were even occasions where I wouldn’t even need to begin an interview by asking a question, he already knew what he wanted to say and the points he wanted to make.
There was talk in the days leading up to his appointment that Hodgson was being lined up for a ‘sensational return’ to the club.
Tait had just suffered another defeat, and with Reynolds’ relationship with supporters deteriorating by the day, he needed something to get them back on side. Hodgson was the answer.
After Martin Gray had taken caretaker charge of a league game down at Oxford United, Hodgson was unveiled the following week.
His first game would be an FA Cup first round tie at Ryman League minnows Hornchurch. What could go wrong?
The game was on a Sunday, so after printing off my AA route planner (in the days before phones were clever enough to tell you where to go, and The Northern Echo pool cars weren’t high-tech enough for SatNav) I set off on the long drive down to East London.
This was a big deal for ambitious Hornchurch, who had spent big on strengthening their side, and it was the first time they’d reached the first round of the FA Cup. They were on a good run of form, while Darlo had lost their last seven. With torrential rain thrown in too, you just knew this was going to be anything but straightforward.
And so it proved, Hornchurch were relentless, tearing into Darlington’s out of form players at every opportunity. Almost two decades on, it’s a game I remember quite vividly. The conditions, the atmosphere, and the sight of beleaguered Darlington unable to handle this hungry Hornchurch side, baying for blood and a first round scalp at every opportunity.
I’d agreed to speak to local radio at regular intervals to provide updates for fans back home. My opening line would be easy: “David Hodgson’s Darlington return is not going according to plan.”
That was a little bit of an understatement. Hornchurch, 2-0 winners, and it could so easily have been more.
“I know it’s going to be difficult but I needed a game to be able to assess everything,” Hodgson told me after the game, from the warmth of the press room (or Portakabin).
“I’m not going to say on one game exactly what we need to do in terms of which players we need to bring in.
“But by having a game under my belt now I’m aware that at certain times I will know what a player is capable of doing. There is a lot of work to do.”
He was not wrong. Fighting against relegation, Hodgson won only one of his first 12 games as Darlington fought against relegation on the pitch and administration off it. Not until February did the tide start to turn, with Quakers scrambling to safety by winning nine of their last 18 league games.
After beating Darlington, Hornchurch lost 1-0 to Tranmere Rovers in the next round, and ended the season by winning promotion to the Conference South. But the following year, when they again reached the first round of the FA Cup, ran into severe financial issues and subsequently folded. They quickly reformed under the name AFC Hornchurch.