With the future of Darlington Football Club hanging in the balance, here’s a look back through the Victorian football archives at how one of English football’s oldest clubs was established 129 years ago.
Darlington FC was formed in 1883. The town already had cricket, rugby, swimming and quoits clubs, but there was strong appetite for the Association game. On Friday 20 July 1883, at a meeting at Darlington Grammar School, it was unanimously agreed that the town should have its football club.
Local engineer Charles Samuel Craven was appointed as club secretary. Arguably the most influential individual in Darlington’s early history, Craven was also Darlington’s first goalkeeper. He would later (in 1889) be the main instigator of the Northern League.
The fledgling club played its first few games at a ground at the town’s North Lodge Park. One of Darlington’s first recorded matches was against Hurworth on Saturday 20 October 1883. Darlington won 4-3, although one of the four goals was disputed by the visitors. This was fairly typical, and Darlington’s early history would be littered with disputes.
By early 1884, Darlington had taken up residence at Feethams, the club’s home for the next 120 years. In April 1884, the club reached the final of the Durham Football Association Challenge Cup, and played Sunderland at the Monkwearmouth Cricket Ground. Darlington lost what the Northern Echo called ‘a most unpleasant match’ 3-4, but the club immediately lodged a complaint, alleging that its players and the match officials had been intimidated and threatened with violence by Sunderland players and spectators. The referee supplied evidence in Darlington’s favour, and stated that he had not, in fact, awarded Sunderland’s fourth and winning goal. The Durham Football Association ordered that the final be replayed.
The replay took place at Birtley on 3 May. Despite ‘the smart passing and unselfish play of the Darlington forwards’ and a notable display in goal from Charles Craven, Sunderland won 2-0, and this time the result stood.
However, in the following season, a ‘skilful’, ‘lithe and active’ Darlington team fared better. Charles Craven had recruited a new player – A Ghanaian missionary named Arthur Wharton. An exceptionally quick sprinter, Wharton was briefly used as a forward, before taking over from Craven as goalkeeper. In his first season, the important Northern Echo football writer ‘Off-side’ called Wharton ‘a man to whom many a well-fought victory will be due’.
With Wharton between the sticks, Darlington beat Hurworth 6-0, Bishop Auckland Institute 1-0, and Castle Eden 6-1 to reach the final – once more against Sunderland. At Feethams on 28 March 1885, Darlington took the lead through an own goal, before Kelso scored twice to give his side a 3-0 win.
Sunderland lodged a complaint relating to the impartiality, or otherwise, of the referee, but it wasn’t upheld. ‘It was felt by everyone on the field that the greatest partiality the umpire might have shown the Sunderland club could not have saved them from defeat,’ wrote Off-side. Darlington had won the Durham Football Association Challenge Cup – the club’s first trophy.
In the 1885/86 season Darlington entered the national FA Cup competition, but, after being given a bye in the first round, they went out in the second, being thrashed 8-0 by Grimsby Town. Then, at the beginning of the 1889/90 season, Darlington became one of the inaugural members of the Northern League, with Charles Craven installed as league secretary. The club lost its first league match, 1-2 to East End (the club that would become Newcastle United), but followed that up with a 7-0 win over Birtley. That first league season ended with Darlington in mid-table, and upstart local rivals St Augustine’s crowned as champions. But the improving Darlington soon found success – winning the Northern League in season 1895/96, and then again in 1899/1900.
That was the beginning for Darlington FC. But now we may be reaching the end. What would Charles Craven have thought of his club’s demise? If the club’s long history is to come to an end, then surely Craven would have demanded a new beginning. A new, fan-led, grass roots beginning. A new association football club for Darlington.