By Chris Dunlavy
Darlington boss Tommy Wright says the Quakers can challenge for promotion after “erasing” all traces of the Martin Gray regime.
Gray, 46, took charge in 2012 and won three promotions in five years before leaving to join National League North rivals York last October.
Wright was then lured from Nuneaton – only to be told that Gray’s expensively assembled squad was blowing the budget.
That left the 33-year-old in the invidious position of dismantling a tight-knit group whilst fighting for a berth in the top seven and the play-offs.
“Martin did a brilliant job for this club,” says Wright, below, whose side eventually finished 12th.
“Nobody can take away what he achieved. But it did come at a cost. He left us over budget and it then became my job to balance the books.
“It’s the kind of thing that happens all the time in football, especially at this level. Managers sign players, managers move on. Then, all of a sudden, things change.
“But Darlington was unique in that Martin and his lads were together for such a long period of time. It became a tougher situation than it really should have been.
“I tried to be fair and just with everyone. But the reality was, those players had to go – and they knew it.
“I always felt they were looking over their shoulders thinking ‘Right, am I the next one out of the door?’
“When you get a situation like that, it isn’t nice for either party. You’re looking at players and you’re trying to win their trust. But they’re looking straight back thinking ‘Why should I trust you when you’ve just released three of my mates?’
“It wasn’t easy but the business is done now. We sold Mark Beck to Harrogate, Josh Heaton to St Mirren. We’ve put ourselves in a good financial position.
“Now, this is very much my squad – a Tommy Wright dressing room rather than a Martin Gray dressing room.
“There’ve been a lot of changes off the pitch to almost erase the old regime. There’s a much better feeling and there’s no reason at all why we shouldn’t think about promotion.”
Helping to turn those thoughts into reality are a sextet of summer signings. Striker Simon Ainge has arrived from National League North play-off winners Harrogate, where he scored 36 goals in 57 games.
Playmakers Jordan Nicholson and Liam Hughes are joined in midfield by winger Alex Henshall, who played under Wright at Nuneaton.
Heaton’s departure, meanwhile, has been mitigated by the arrival of defender Jonny Burn from League One Bristol Rovers.
And representing the conclusion of Darlo’s transfer business for the year is keeper Jonny Maddison, who turned his back on a contract with Yeovil to become the Quakers’ No.1.
“Jonny is a north-east lad,” said Wright. “He lives in Chester-le-Street and he wanted to come back home. Even so, he’s shown some guts.
“He’s 23 now and he’s recognised it’s about his own development now – that being a number two doesn’t do him any good. Not a lot of players would be willing to do that.
“Sometimes you have to take a little bit of a gamble, drop a couple of leagues and establish yourself. I think we’ll be a great platform for him.
“We’ve brought in lads who can compete at a higher level and I’m very excited to see them perform.”
*This article originally featured in The @NonLeaguePaper which is available every Sunday and Monday
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