Friday marks the tenth anniversary of Darlington’s FA Trophy final win over Mansfield Town at Wembley. In the second of a four-part series, Craig Stoddart talks to Marc Bridge-Wilkinson, who was one of the Quakers players that played in the game.
FOR Darlington’s 2010-11 season in the Conference, League Two had been as good as it had got for the bulk of Mark Cooper’s squad. Some had kicked around in non-league or come through the club’s youth ranks, whereas others had dropped from a height at a young age and were looking to make a career in the game.
Seasoned professionals Marc Bridge-Wilkinson and Aaron Brown were the exceptions, both having consistently plied their trade in League One.
Brown had spent a lot of time with hometown team Bristol City, while Bridge-Wilkinson had come through the ranks at Derby County and spent most of his career with Port Vale, Stockport, Bradford and Carlisle, so dropping into the Conference – or the Blue Square Premier as it was then known – was not a career goal.
But seven months after moving on loan and making his Quakers bow in non-league, Bridge-Wilkinson had become a Wembley winner and achieved a boyhood dream.
“When I was a kid I dreamed of playing at Wembley in a final, I think everyone does, so when you get there you want the experience of winning a match that matters and go down in history, and we did that.”
Ten years on from being part of the Darlington team that beat Mansfield Town 1-0 in the FA Trophy, Bridge-Wilkinson is reflecting on how he came to swap bench duty at Brunton Park to being in Quakers’ midfield on the road to Wembley.
He quickly became an integral member of Cooper’s team, the 31-year-old scoring three times in his first six appearances and his class showed with a velvet touch and precision passing.
“It hadn’t been something in my mind to do as I’d been playing in League One for ten or 11 years, but I just wanted to play,” explained Bridge-Wilkinson, now an under-18s coach at Liverpool.
“I hadn’t known what to expect when I signed. I hadn’t been playing at Carlisle, I thought I’d come on loan until January and then see what happens. But everyone in the squad got on, the banter was brilliant and it was a really good atmosphere to be part of.
“The players and the staff were brilliant, good fun, hardworking and in it together and if they hadn’t been like that then I probably wouldn’t have signed permanently. The first season was a wonderful experience, the fans were great, people like little Thommo the kitman was brilliant and it was a wonderful environment to be in.”
Momentum gradually built in the Trophy, focus gradually shifting towards a competition which can appear little more than a hindrance in the early stages.
The attendance for Quakers’ first game in the competition that season, a home win over Tamworth, attracted a gathering of 432 at the 25,000-capacity Arena.
Bridge-Wilkinson missed the next round, a win over Bath City, but was back in the team for victory at AFC Telford, and he recalls: “That was a strange place to go, I remember their fans being quite fiery.”
In midfield alongside youngster Aman Verma – who’d arrived in November on loan from Leicester – and Jamie Chandler, Bridge-Wilkinson was one of the first names on Cooper’s team sheet.
He was involved in the build-up to Liam Hatch’s winner against Salisbury in the quarters, and then scored an almost forgotten but crucial goal in the first leg of the semi-final with Gateshead.
Hatch was the two-goal hero, helping turnaround a 2-0 deficit to win 3-2, but it had been Bridge-Wilkinson who pulled the first one back, and a week later the second leg finished 0-0.
“I took a touch and took it around the keeper and hit it with my left foot,” he says. “The second leg was boring, at least in the terms that I like to play. But it needed to be done and we were under the cosh at times, they were lumping stuff forward and we did what we needed to do to get to the final.”
While there was no goal in the final for Bridge-Wilkinson, he could not have gone much closer. A curling free-kick had the 10,000 Darlington fans behind the goal on their feet, and he almost began celebrating himself, but it whacked off the outside of the post, a dream dashed.
“That free-kick is my ever-lasting memory – when you’re a kid you dream of scoring the winner at Wembley, and that was the moment, but I hit the woodwork. That’s as close as I got to the childhood dream of getting a Wembley winner.”
It was left to Chris Senior to become the hero with his 119th-minute header.
“A last-minute winner makes for a nervy game, and obviously Mansfield had chances too, but it’s a great way to win.
“I’d come off with cramp in both calves. I was reluctant to come off, but it was the right thing to do, and then when Chrissy scored I pegged it down the line! I dived onto the pile and made my calves worse! I remember thinking ‘this is killing’. Because the goal was so late we knew we had won.
“I was at Wembley with Carlisle the year before in the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy against Southampton. There were 70,000 people there, but we lost 4-1. It was terrible. Southampton had a great team and got into the Premier League with back-to-back promotions, but when you go to Wembley and win it makes all the difference.
“Football is a sport is to be enjoyed, and you always want to play, but you go into it to win too. When you get to a final it’s an occasion, but you have to win.”