By Chris Dunlavy
DARLINGTON boss Martin Gray says the Quakers’ play-off agony must be used as motivation – but not by his players.
Gray’s men were fifth and flying in the National League North when the club was informed that their new ground at Blackwell Meadows wasn’t up to scratch.
Darlo, who are community-owned, claimed they were unaware of new rules requiring play-off entrants to have 500 covered seats and argued that constructing some at short-notice was too expensive.
Officials rejected those complaints, leaving Gray and his players to endure four dead rubbers and watch as sixth-placed Chorley seized their play-off berth.
Now the former Sunderland midfielder says Darlington’s owners must ensure it never happens again – even if that means abandoning the fan-owned ethos and seeking outside investment.
“It’s still very hard to accept,” said the 45-year-old, who has won three promotions since becoming the Phoenix club’s manager in May 2012.
“With four games to go, getting hit with that… it was a massive, massive blow. Easily the biggest disappointment I’ve had since taking over.
“We won nine of our last ten games going into the play-offs and you can’t help wonder what might have been.
“Halifax went and won it. We took four points off them. Chorley got through the semi-finals. We beat them and drew with them. We’d have fancied ourselves big time, but we’ll never know now.
“All we can do is make sure something positive comes of it. I’ve never been one to think everything happens for a reason but, sometimes, you have to see it that way.
“And I believe we will be better for it because it’s made the club realise that they do have to make some changes.
“Me and the lads, we don’t need motivation. What happened is motivation for the people that run the club. We’ve done our bit. We’ve got a team that challenges for promotion and we’ve had that for five years. Now they need to do their bit off the pitch.”
With the extra seating expected to eat up £150,000, the club have launched a crowd-funding scheme to cover an £80,000 shortfall in Gray’s playing budget. Over £30,000 has so far been raised.
Raj Singh – the man at the helm when the original Darlington went bust in 2012 – also offered to invest £40,000 in the club, only for a supporter backlash to prompt a hasty retreat. Darlo’s hand remains outstretched.
“We do need investment,” insists Gray. “Every club at this level does, however that is put together. The people who run the club work hard, but they definitely need some added support and that is about money.
“From Guiseley to Gateshead, you’ve got eight clubs within an hour of each other. All full-time, all with the funds to attract top players. We’re in the midst of that, so it’s not easy.
“We are a pull for players. We win more games than we lose. We’ve got a crowd of 2,500. We always hit the play-offs. From a playing point of view, that’s what you want. But it does need to be backed with cash.”
That said, Gray reckons Darlo need just “three or four” quality additions after seeing the likes of Nathan Cartman, Mark Beck and Phil Turnbull re-sign for next season.
“Fylde won the league with an unbelievable playing budget and they beat us by nine points,” he adds. “That tells us we need to improve, but that we weren’t a million miles away. Three wins over the course of a season isn’t much.
“We don’t need to make massive changes, just small improvements. Keep these lads, keep the momentum. Then you just hope that with three or four quality additions, we go one better.”