8:00am Saturday 17th August 2013
By Craig Stoddart
Three months since they enjoyed champagne celebrations after winning the Northern League title, the season starts here for Darlington - and promotion is again the aim.
They achieved it at the first attempt last season and hope to do the same in the Evo-Stik First Division North, and that is not the only similarity between the two terms.
For most of their supporters at least, there's a touch of deja vu about going into the unknown and crossing paths with opposition for the first time.
Whereas every game was on their doorstep last time around, the bulk of Quakers' opposition this season are based across the Pennines. Trips to Padiham, Burscough and Ramsbottom await, with Harrogate Railway the nearest rivals.
Manager Martin Gray, however, feels prepared for what lies ahead having made the most of his contacts in the North-West, where he was assistant manager to Dave Penney at Oldham Athletic.
He said: "I was in Warrington last weekend to watch them play. Myself, Brian Atkinson and Harry Dunn went down to watch them first hand, which is not something you're always able to do.
"I like to think I've done my homework and that we've prepared right regarding what's to come.
"Harry Dunn's down the road every weekend now. He's chief scout so that's his job, plus Sean Gregan lives in Preston so he'll take in midweek games for us and I've got a couple of scouts who work over there for me.
"I've got a lot of contacts in the North-West from my time at Oldham Athletic who I will speak to.
"As soon as we got promotion last year there were people on the phone asking if we wanted any work doing, which was great. It comes down to building good relationships over time in the game."
The travel involved in the division has resulted in a handful of players leaving and Gray has replaced them with some notable signings.
Among the new faces who will play today are Andy Johnson, who scored a hatful during two years at Bishop Auckland, and Chris Hunter, a solid defender at Shildon, while Paul Robinson was widely-regarded as being among the best midfielders in the Northern League at Whitley Bay.
Several of the squad have played in the division before, predominantly the former Durham players, and some have said the standard is similar to the division in which Quakers accrued 122 points.
Gray, though, is not convinced that the level of competition at Step 4 will be no tougher than the Northern League.
"I'm not sure about that because the bottom line is that it's a league above," said Gray.
"If you move up a division at any level of football you expect the quality to be higher and better competition from top to bottom. We have to respect that and expect that it will be harder."
Darlington's first game at Step 4 in the non-league pyramid sees them welcome Warrington Town to Heritage Park, a team that finished tenth last year.
They are targeting promotion this year and manager Shaun Reid, brother of Peter, said: "We couldn't have had a tougher start. But it will be a good test for us and if we want to achieve our goal of promotion we need to compete with the best."
Among the Yellows' summer signings is Mike Kennedy, son of Liverpool European Cup-winner Alan Kennedy.
Gray said: "Shaun is very committed. He wants the best for his team so I have an idea what his team is about because he is very similar to myself as a person.
"I think he was at Bury when I played against him and I met him a few times through his brother at various events.
"It's a big day for both clubs."
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