Monday, July 24, 2023

Darwen FC and the Theory of Evolution.


Darwen FC was formed in 2009 but, in reality, the town has a football history dating back to 1870 and a proud one at that, reaching the semi-finals of the FA Cup in 1881 (lost 4-1 to eventual winners Old Carthusians) and as a Football League member between 1891 to 1899. The club features in the Netflix series The English Game, released in 2020, about the origins of the modern game.

Naturalist and biologist Charles Darwin published Origin of the Species in 1859. This seminal contribution to evolutionary biology is often wrongly characterised as "survival of the fittest" but more accurately expounds the argument that the species that survives is the one best able to adapt to its changing environment. Historians claim that Darwin had a bit of a stutter and was mildy dyslexic and so it was that when he formed his own football club, he not only spelt the name wrong but ended up with Darwen FFFFFFFFFC. Probably. 

Doncaster City FC was formed in July 2022, just twelve month ago, following the (then) town's successful bid for city status as part of the Queen's Platinum Jubilee.

Dad, fancy coming to the football with me today? are words I never thought would pass the lips of my youngest daughter. However she is now adapting to the changing environment of having a boyfriend who plays football for Darwen FC and so it was that, after a late fitness test (six pints last night, the last two being a particularly delicious Brew York draught pale ale), I found myself at Darwen's tidy little Anchor Ground ahead of a pre-season friendly match between two teams with one hundred and fifty two years of history separating them.

Darwen FC play in the First Division North (Step 6) of the North West Counties Football League where they finished mid-table last season.

Last season Doncaster City FC won Division Two (Step 13) of the Sheffield & Hallamshire County Senior League. It doesn't take much googling to determine that there is ambition and momentum behind this club, epitomised by the fact that having successfully applied to join the Central Midlands Football League Premier North Division, this next season will see them at Step 7 level. That's like six promotions in one go. 

Please, someone at Doncaster City FC, get in touch with Dejphon Chansiri, the out-of-his-depth chairman at my club Sheffield Wednesday, to tell him how it's done.

I don't know what the normal match-day admission prices will be at the Anchor Ground for this coming season but this proved to be a very economic and enjoyable pre-season friendly with adult admissions priced at £5. The bar facility was splendid and I reluctantly accept that draught ale is not a practical option although the fizzy stuff that was on offer was expensive - a minor gripe only as I wasn't forced to drink those three pints. The brand new Legends Bar is a fantastic new facility for the club. 

On a lush pitch, the opening fifteen minutes saw both teams moving the ball around nicely. Youngest daughter, more versed in musical theatre than football theatre, was nonetheless enjoying the experience. The earthy dialogue emanating from the pitch, the goalkeeper's black tights and the nice, colourful costumes of the players were just a few of her favourite things.

Doncaster struck first. On eighteen minutes, 19-year old new boy Rio Allan latched onto a through pass, beat the defender and lashed in a great shot from a narrow angle. Eleven minutes later and he'd done it again, this time picking up the ball in the middle of the final third and placing a curling shot past the goalkeeper from the edge of the penalty area. At this stage of the match, there hadn't looked to be too much between the teams and Darwen's Gary Basterfield reduced the arrears on thirty eight minutes, cutting in from the left with a smart right footed effort into the bottom right hand corner of the net. But one minute before half time, the two goal advantage was restored when Doncaster's no. 6, Stokes rose to head home a well-flighted free kick from the left hand side. 

From a spectator viewpoint, all games benefit from a bit of handbags and this third goal for the visitors prompted a bit of rolling around on the ground together between Doncaster's no.9 and Darwen's no.4, both of whom got booked for their troubles. 

Half-time with the score at 1-3 to the visitors, I had a chat with a couple of Doncaster fans, one of whom turned out to be the mum of Doncaster's no. 11, another 19-year old, Jake Drury. I was intrigued about the club's story. Momentum can be a powerful force in football (unless your club is run by Dejphon Chansiri) and I wondered if the club might have a rich benefactor or some other advantage. Willie McKay is the man behind Doncaster City FC and he was a football agent, based in Monaco (according to google), so whilst chances are that he does enjoy a healthier bank balance than me, it seems the Doncaster City story is one of football savvy and contacts. A footballing hero of mine, ex-Wednesday and all-round football maverick Terry Curran, was team manager at the outset although has since has to step aside for personal reasons. The team ran away with their Sheffield & Hallamshire division last season so whoever was in charge knew what they were doing when it came to player recruitment. And judging by Rio Allan's first half performance, they're still not doing too bad a job.

Other than the absence of a website (currently being worked on), the club's social media PR is professional and engaging with real personality. The city of Doncaster may already have a football league club in Doncaster Rovers but there is something about this new upstart football club, reflected in it's PR, that has attracted the interest and enthusiasm of a small hardcore of followers who have bought into this ambitious project. Team shirts sponsored by Sports Direct and they even reckon to count Harry Redknapp and Neil Warnock amongst their admirers - it's not what you know it's who you know.

Last year, playing in Step 13 meant that the club didn’t qualify to take part in the FA Cup. So they applied to the Scottish FA to take part in the Scottish Cup instead. Citing the 1136 Treaty of Durham between the monarchs of England and Scotland at the time, which listed the city as part of Scotland, the application was made in all seriousness. Seriously. Probably. But alas to no avail. Happily, the club's newly acquired Step 7 status should ensure that they are able to feature in the upcoming 2023/24 FA Cup competition. 

Into the second half and there was no doubting that Doncaster had the upper hand.  Football-related proof of Charles Darwin's successful species survival theory can be found in the example of the Triallist family because there are hundred's of the buggers in pre-season friendly football. Doncaster had brought on A Triallist as a late first half substitute and his cross came off the bar in the fifty sixth minute and then he hit the post with a shot two minutes later. In the seventy fifth minute he headed the ball over the bar from a corner. Fed up with not hitting the back of the net on Doncaster's behalf, he obviously adapted to his environment and instead scored Darwen's late consolation goal to leave the final score at 5-2 to the visitors. In between times, no. 6, Stokes had scored his second and Doncaster’s fourth with a thunderous (slight deflection off the wall) free kick and Jake Drury had scored their fifth with a delicious clip over the oncoming goalkeeper, no doubt to the delight of his mum.

Whilst Doncaster City FC has no history to speak of, Darwen FC (in its various guises) has bags of it, even if its glory days (?) were over by the end of the nineteenth century and long since overtaken by big boy neighbour Blackburn Rovers whose Ewood Park stadium stands less than a mile and a half from the Anchor Ground. What have they got to show for all this history you, or indeed Charles Darwin, might well ask. Well, I would suggest that they, like pretty much every other functioning lower league club in the football pyramid, play a vital role in the Darwen community.

When I used to work for a living, my business (modestly) sponsored Great Yarmouth Town FC over three or four seasons and I got to see, at first hand, the impact and importance of such clubs in their local communities. Clubs are generally deemed successful or otherwise based on the performances and history of their first team but many also run reserve teams, seniors, juniors and girls teams. That’s one helluva lot of players and families engaging with their community club, giving meaningful distraction from a modern world full of meaningless and sometime harmful activities. In many ways, clubs such as this be they football clubs, other sports, musical theatre and the rest are the backbone of community cohesion in the UK and probably elsewhere. 

Some clubs evolve more successfully than others. Not all clubs survive. Our evolutionary biologist friend recognised this. Will Doncaster City’s ambition see them match and eventually overtake Darwen’s current Step 6 status? Who knows. Could Darwen’s ambition eventually see them overtake Blackburn Rovers as top dog in the borough of Blackburn and Darwen? Unlikely but not impossible. And that’s the beauty of football. To paraphrase the findings of Origin of the Species, the club that best thrives is the one best able to adapt to its environment. From my limited observations today, both clubs would appear to have the drive and ambition to be successful, however they may choose to define that success. As a neutral, I would define their future success as continuing to thrive, especially in their community.

What is not to like about lower league football? I will leave the final word to youngest daughter.