No. 2 in an occasional series.
The 1957-58 season would result in the last major shake-up of the Football League constitution before the advent of the Premier League, 70 years after it began as a 12 team league in 1888. The Football League had expanded from that original dozen teams to the more familiar 92 clubs, and Darlington had been amongst them since Division Three North was established in 1921. Darlington’s FA Cup history, though, goes back to three years before the Football League was formed, having first entered the competition just two seasons after their own formation.
Darlington’s early foray into the FA Cup was less than spectacular having been progressed along with their opponents Walsall Swifts from the First Round in 1885/86 season only to be soundly thumped 8-0 by Grimsby Town in Round Two (still a record FA Cup defeat for the club). These pre-Football League days of the FA Cup didn’t have Qualifying Rounds and after being beaten 3-1 by Horncastle in their second season, Darlington finally won their first FA Cup match 3-0 at Gateshead Association in the First Round the season after that. The Quakers also beat Elswick Rangers 4-3 after extra time in the Second Round before going down 2-0 at home to Shankhouse in the Third.
When the Football League started the following season Darlington would have to play in the Qualifying Rounds, becoming a Northern League founder member the following year but not making the ‘Proper’ rounds again until 1910-11 season by which time they had transferred to the North Eastern League. Victories over two League sides, Division One Sheffield United 1-0 in the First Round and Division Two Bradford (Park Avenue) 2-1 in Round Two, took Darlington to their record equalling Third Round where they lost 3-0 at home to Swindon Town.
Even after they helped form the original Division Three North, Darlington still had to compete in Qualifying Rounds until the FA Cup was restructured in 1925 to resemble something close to, but not quite the same as, how it operates today with League clubs exempted until the First Round ‘Proper’. Darlington were promoted to Division Two after winning the Division Three North title in 1925 (only one team got promoted in those days), and two seasons later were exempted until the Third Round of the FA Cup where they defeated Rhyl Athletic from the Welsh National League 2-1 to make the Fourth Round for the first time ever. In that Fourth Round the club would face another Welsh side, this time in the shape of historic eventual winners Cardiff City from Division One, who ran out 2-0 winners.
Darlington were relegated back to Division Three North at the end of that 1926/27 season where they would remain until the aforementioned re-structure at the end of the season, the season that would be remembered by the club for their historic FA Cup run in 1957/58. The club twice made the Fourth Round again in the intervening years losing 2-0 at home to Division Two side Chesterfield in 1933 and 3-2 away to Division One side West Bromwich Albion in 1937. It was announced by the Football League at the beginning of the 1957/58 season that the bottom two divisions would be split into Division Three and Division Four with the clubs in the bottom half of the current North and South Divisions forming the Fourth Division. But it was the FA Cup that was to focus the hearts and minds of The Quakers’ faithful that season.
A Ron Harbertson double would see Darlington safely through the First Round away at fellow Division Three North side Rochdale, a club with the unenviable record of being knocked out of the FA Cup in the First Round a record 51 times. Harbertson scored twice in the Second Round alongside a hat-trick from Dave Carr thus avoiding a banana skin at home to Midland League outfit Boston United, although the 5-3 scoreline suggests the club were made to work for their win. There would be no glamour tie in the Third Round as Darlington were sent to Norwich City currently playing in Division Three South. Darlington had only played the Canaries once before in the FA Cup, a resounding 5-0 win in the Sixth Qualifying Round when both sides were still non-league clubs the first season after World War One. This time it was much tighter with Darlington eventually prevailing 2-1 with Harbertson once again on the scoresheet alongside Tommy Moran. And then The Quakers were drawn against Division One opposition in the Fourth Round away at Stamford Bridge against Chelsea.
Chelsea of the late 1950s may not be regarded on a par with 21st Century Chelsea sides, but just three years previously they had been crowned Champions of Division One and had a respectful FA Cup record with one Final appearance and five other Semi Finals appearances under their belt. Darlington were not to be overawed by their more illustrious opponents and stormed into a three goal lead with Harbertson (again), Carr and Keith Morton scoring the goals. Chelsea, containing a young Jimmy Greaves in their side, fought back and eventually managed to secure a 3-3 draw, and would have expected to go on to win the tie having dealt such a blow to their lower league opponents. The replay was held four days later and another 90 minutes couldn’t separate the two sides as Tommy Moran’s opener was cancelled out by The Blues. Three quick goals in extra time from Moran, Keith Morton and Ron Harbertson and there was no coming back from three goals down this time for the higher league side, so Darlington won the tie 4-1 to progress to the Fifth Round for the first time ever.
In the Fifth Round the Quakers were drawn away to Wolverhampton Wanderers who would go on to win their first of two consecutive League Championships at the end of the season. Unfortunately Harbertson was unable to add to his impressive seven goal FA Cup haul and Darlington were unable to replicate their heroics of the previous round going down 6-1 with Harold Bell netting their consolation goal. Darlington would never make the Fifth Round again, coming close on just two further occasions in successive seasons in the 1980s when first Plymouth Argyle and then non-league Telford United ended their dreams in the Fourth Round. That 1957-58 season, though, will be long remembered by the Darlington faithful, although the season did end on a bit of a low with the club finishing the campaign in 20th position and being ‘relegated’ to Division Four in the shake-up.
However, the club can still boast to this day that they hold an unbeaten FA Cup record against the Blues of Chelsea.
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