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Alun Armstrong the perfect appointment for Darlington

Wednesday 29th May 2019
Armstrong was unveiled as Darlington manager last week
Armstrong was unveiled as Darlington manager last week

Eight days ago, ex-Ipswich Town and Middlesbrough striker Alun Armstrong took over as manager of another of his former clubs, Darlington. Why is he the perfect fit for the Quakers? Also, what does it mean for the club he leaves behind, Blyth Spartans?

Both Darlington and Blyth currently sit in the sixth tier of English football, the National North.

Armstrong had been at Blyth for close to three years. He lead the side to the the Evo-Stik Premier title during his first season. Having guided them into the National North, the Gateshead-born coach continued to take Spartans from strength to strength. In the 2017/18 campaign, they finished in mid table; this time out, they reached the playoffs. Their run eventually ended in heartache after conceding a stoppage time goal in the quarter final tie at Altrincham and losing the subsequent penalty shootout. 

Things weren't as they seemed, though. Even before the season ended, it appears Armstrong had fallen out with Blyth's owners, who'd already stated the need to cut back on the squad financially.

Darlington have had a tough season. After a poor start, players were sold to balance the books. Then, toward the end of the campaign there was a relegation fear. That was fortunately avoided, but manager Tommy Wright still paid the price with his job.

Armstrong joins the Quakers with a big backing from the fans. In theory, it should prove the perfect match. 

Right man for the job

Armstrong is located in the North East, which was one of Darlington's criteria in the managerial advertisement having had problems with long distance travel previously. Their new manager's experience both at this level and in this area of the country means he has the knowledge and contacts to succeed.   

In his only managerial job to date, Armstrong excelled at Blyth Spartans while working on a restricted budget. In an interview this week, he showed awareness of the constraints he'll face at Darlington. The biggest being the finances available for the playing squad. The Quakers are owned by the fans and despite increasing their revenue streams away from the pitch, cash flow remains a constant battle. Ground sharing with a local rugby club is one problem. Their limited income proved that last season. Attendances and cup runs are both hugely important financially. Failure in those areas can lead to players getting sold, as happened in the just-concluded campaign.  

For the third year running, Darlington has run a Boost the Budget campaign, where supporters donate either one-off, weekly or monthly payments to help the manager's pot for the following season. The response this time has been remarkable, with fans surpassing the £80,000 target. It will certainly be a huge help to Armstrong, one that he's already acknowledged.

For Armstrong's former club, a sour taste has been left, as is often the case when a manager moves on. Before he left Blyth, several key players had jumped ship, too, with many others currently out of contract

Spartans have had a fantastic few years, which has seen them beat a Football League team on their way to the FA Cup third round, win promotion and finish in the highest position in the club's history.

However, Blyth now look to be paying the price for the purse strings being tightened. The board's comments toward the end of the season regarding cutting the budget and players having to potentially take a drop in wages have had huge consequences. Regardless of the financial situation, Spartans need to get their next managerial appointment right. There are plenty around this level who can work on smaller budgets. Still, the Northumberland side could be set for a difficult campaign in 2019/20.

Meanwhile, for Darlington it's the time to rebuild. They are currently lacking players, so Armstrong has his work cut out. However, there remains the basis of a former Football League club that is still passionately backed. 

The mood around Darlington has changed in recent weeks. A wave of optimism has spread among fans. They will certainly enjoy Armstrong’s brand of attacking football next season. He has all the qualities needed to turn the club around. 

Simon Hahn

Lifelong sufferer following Darlington FC from League Two to the Northern League. Freelance Sports and data journalist. Living for 3pm on Saturday.

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