Alun Armstrong thought he knew all about pressure. After converting a penalty against Internazionale at San Siro and playing Premier League football for Middlesbrough and Ipswich, the former striker had proved he could hold his nerve when it mattered. Then Armstrong became manager of Darlington and was introduced to an entirely new level of stress. The 45-year-old may no longer be accountable to demanding multimillionaire coaches and teammates but he feels the weight of his current responsibilities acutely.
“We’re a fully fan-owned and fan-funded club so there’s a lot of extra pressure,” says Armstrong as he prepares his part-time National League North squad for Sunday’s FA Cup second-round tie at Bristol Rovers. There is the rare luxury of a hotel stay before the game against the League One side. “Our fans have paid for us to stay overnight, just as they did when we won at Swindon in the last round. We definitely don’t want to let them down.
“The supporters are incredible; when our forward Jamie Holmes recently ruptured his ACL, they raised £10,000 within four or five days to have the operation done privately.” Given that Holmes faced waiting several months for NHS surgery, it means he will now be sidelined for one rather than two seasons.
Eight years have passed since financial calamity led to Darlington being demoted four divisions, from the Conference to the Northern League, and a fans consortium stepped in to buy the club. The long process of repairing the ruinous legacy of the vanity project otherwise known as the Arena – a 25,000-capacity white elephant on the edge of town, overseen by the former owner George Reynolds – had begun.
Since then the not-for-profit Darlington FC Supporters Group has raised more than £1.5m to keep the club afloat, including the £133,000 needed to underwrite the pandemic-disrupted campaign. “We set a target of £100,000 in May but they’ve way exceeded it,” says Armstrong who, since taking charge last year, has attracted the former Newcastle forward Adam Campbell and the ex-Middlesbrough right-back Tony McMahon.
After a nomadic stint ground-sharing with Bishop Auckland, the club relegated from the Football League a decade ago now cohabit with Darlington’s rugby players at Blackwell Meadows, where the efforts of volunteer engineers and camera operators ensure games are streamed to around 1,300 fans for £8 a fixture.
Armstrong’s side sit mid-table in the sixth tier but are looking upwards. “We’re definitely capable of getting back into the Conference and then the Football League,” says Armstrong. “The FA Cup’s a slight distraction but we’re in touching distance of the third-round draw and these moments don’t come along too often. My players all want to test themselves against a tough side three divisions up the ladder – and I want Newcastle away in the third round.”
I sat in the car park in total shock. I phoned my wife, she asked what I was going to do and I said I didn’t know
A product of the St James’ Park academy, Armstrong left when Kevin Keegan disbanded Newcastle’s reserves but went on to appear alongside Alen Boksic, Paul Merson, Paul Gascoigne and Juninho at Middlesbrough. The header he scored for Ipswich in a 1-0 Uefa Cup third-round win against Internazionale at Portman Road, and the penalty converted as George Burley’s side lost the return leg 4-1 in Milan, remain enduring highlights of a playing career that also included a stint at Darlington.
Armstrong now inhabits a very different world, where his players are plumbers, physiotherapists and personal trainers. “They’re incredibly disciplined and, luckily, we haven’t had a single Covid case.” Darlington’s optimism soared when two goals from Campbell saw off Swindon, reminding Armstrong why he has changed his mind about management.
As the father of eight sons and one daughter who jokes about fellow shoppers suspecting he was stockpiling during routine weekly shops‚ he had intended to combine family life with more easily compartmentalised youth coaching. It was only reluctantly that Armstrong accepted an invitation to become Tom Wade’s assistant at Blyth Spartans in 2016.
“I’m an accidental manager,” he acknowledges. “Management was never an ambition but, 15 minutes before I arrived at Blyth Spartans for the first time, Tom called saying he’d packed the job in and they wanted me to take over. I sat in the car park in total shock. I phoned my wife, she asked what I was going to do and I said I didn’t know.”
Within minutes he had accepted an invitation to be pushed into the deep end and, having finished that season by securing the Northern Premier League title, he could not refuse Darlington’s subsequent overtures. “Management takes over your life,” he says “It’s impossible to switch off and you have to be careful not to take the stress out on the kids but this job here is something special.”
So, too, is the prospect of victory on Sunday. “We want to be one of those non-league clubs who reach the third round,” he says. “It would be massive for the whole town and the fans who fund us. It’s such an opportunity – and when these chances come along you have to take them.”