1:00pm Sunday 4th May 2014
By Andy Walker
IT was the kind of occasion the 25,000-seat stadium had seen all too infrequently during its years as a football venue.
Darlington Mowden Park’s players managed to conjure up a second successive Saturday afternoon of tension and drama.
On Saturday (May 3), though, the outcome was one of ecstasy rather than despair.
Where last week’s final match of the regular season against Macclesfield had ended in anguish, a try with the last touch of the promotion play-off delivered victory from the brink of defeat.
As well as sparking scenes of jubilation from another sizeable crowd at The Northern Echo Arena, Zylon McGaffin’s decisive contribution secured Mowden’s promotion to the third tier of English rugby.
Bedfordshire side Ampthill were fierce opponents and must have thought promotion would be their reward as they led 28-25 going into the final moments of extra time.
With the final act of their first full season at the former home of Darlington FC, Mowden succeeded where their footballing counterparts had failed, with Quakers having fallen short in their own play-off earlier in the week.
Having attracted a combined attendance of more than 6,000 over the two games – many long-standing Mowden stalwarts, some recent converts to the cause – the club can genuinely claim to have strong support in Darlington.
And beyond - one exiled supporter in Croatia kept up-to-date with developments by following The Northern Echo’s increasingly breathless Twitter updates.
There’s a real family feel about the arena on matchdays now, something Siobhan McEvoy, whose children aged nine and six play for the club’s junior sides, helps to create.
Bob Peace, whose son Chris plays centre for the first team, said there has been a "massive change" in the club’s ethos since it moved from Yiewsley Road to the arena.
He said: “It still feels like a family club, but there is a massive buzz about the place, the facilities are great and there is a lot of excitement.”
Colin Bromley, of Newton Aycliffe, attended his first game the previous week and enjoyed it so much he couldn’t stay away on Saturday.
“What amazes me is how friendly everyone is, you can mingle with supporters of the other team and there’s a great atmosphere.
“It’s not like in the football, where fans have to be kept at arms’ length from each other.”
Credit must go to Ampthill’s supporters, many clad in their club’s striking bacon-and-eggs striped blazers, for adding to the atmosphere before, during and after the game.
Coach Danny Brown paid tribute to the McGaffin, the South African, who has recently had to cope with the death of a friend from back home.
The last word must go to the scrum half, who was playing his last game for Mowden.
Asked how it felt to have made the decisive contribution with the final touch of his final game, McGaffin replied: “Unreal.”
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