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Gray’s plea to Quakers fans for more support
Darlington's dwindling attendances threaten the future of the club and undermine attempts to bring it back to the town.
That's the stark warning from concerned manager Martin Gray, who is appealing to the missing fans to show their support or suffer the consequences.
The club hold an ambition to return to the Football League, from where they were relegated in 2010. They won promotion last season from Step 5 in the non-league pyramid - the ninth level of football - but Gray warns that Quakers' progress could stagnate unless numbers through the gate increase.
He suggests supporters bring a friend to tomorrow's game with Harrogate RA, when victory would give Darlington their 25th win at Heritage Park in 27 games since moving last year.
The club left The Northern Echo Arena in Darlington as it proved financially prohibitive, and this is their second campaign at Bishop Auckland.
But rather than gaining more support as a result of winning the Northern League title, gates have been marginally lower and Gray is bemused about the apparent decreasing interest.
The gate at last Saturday's game with Mossley was 1,133, while the previous two matches at Heritage Park were 1,176 and 1,356 (an average of (1,221).
Those figures compare unfavourably with the average last season of 1,318, ending the campaign against Guisborough with over 2,000.
Gray contacted The Northern Echo to express his concern, saying: "I'm disappointed with the lack of support compared to last season. Where have the fans gone?
"The fans were brilliant last year, absolutely brilliant. They were the 12th man at times, the atmosphere was superb and the players loved it.
"We had 2,000 people watch us pick the trophy up only four months ago. We've since gone into a better league with a stronger squad and won five out of six games, but there have been less fans, so what more can I do?
"We have won something like 90 per cent of the games since I took over. We play attractive football, we score goals and we've gained a promotion, so why are people not supporting their team?
"Surely as a fan you hope for a winning team, so why are people not coming to support us along with the other 1,100 who come regularly?
"As a manager you try to win games, that's all you're in control of. We won 40 out of 46 games to win the title, so I don't think we could have done much more, and we've carried on that form this year.
"I don't know what more I can do, but I'm asking the supporters to bring a friend on Saturday."
The warning signs were apparent in the summer, when season tickets (varying in price from £50 to £225) totalled 682, around 100 down on last year, while the club increased admission to £9, despite playing fewer league fixtures in the Evo-Stik First Division.
Although they convincingly won the Northern League title, the squad has undergone a makeover with several players strengthening the ranks and, after five matches, Darlington sit second in the table.
But Gray admits he would need to strengthen further if Quakers win promotion again.
"It's quite simple for the players," added Gray, "they love playing in front of larger crowds and just want to play games, but to rebuild this club, to take it back to Darlington and go through the leagues, we need more support.
"If we continue to climb the leagues I'll be asking for a bigger playing budget every year to enable us to challenge again. Without more support, we can only achieve so much and we won't be able to reach the next level and the one after that and so on.
"You can only go so far with a limited budget. We had a budget which allowed us to challenge for the Northern League title, but now we're finding that some Northern League teams have more money to spend than Darlington and that is a fact.
"I've gone for certain players this year and have missed out on them because they've opted for the extra money around the corner."
Darlington are easily the best supported club in a division in which many clubs often fail to attract more than 200 for games, but Quakers' crowds are lower in comparison with their own recent crowd figures.
Some fans who watched the club at the Arena in the Conference in 2011-12, when the average was 2,246 (topped up by two games of around 6,000), have not maintained their support since the temporary switch to Heritage Park.
Speculation continues regarding potential sites for the club to build a new home on in Darlington and Gray admits the uncertainty is not ideal.
He added: "We can only give the fans some good news about moving back to Darlington if there's something in place. It would be great to say we will definitely be back in the town in 18 months time, but we're not at the stage yet where we've identified the ground and have a lease in place.
"People are working hard within the football club to try to get us home, there's no question about that. But that comes at a cost. Any extra income we get from higher crowds would support the move back into the town.
"It's as simple as this: The fans wanted a fans-owned club and they've been given a fans-owned club. So if, as a fan, you want the club to grow you've got to come and support it, otherwise we might stagnate.
"The alternative is a private investor and a bunch of directors who would take the club off the fans, but we don't want to go down that route again.
"I'd say to the fans: You've got your club, now come and support it."