Darlington Mowden Park head into the festive period just one place off the top of the National One table. Ahead of today’s home game with Hull Ionians, Chief Sports Writer Scott Wilson looks at a club determined to keep making strides – on and off the pitch

DARLINGTON MOWDEN PARK are a club with big ambitions. Earlier this month, their managing director, Lee Rust, unveiled plans for the development of more than 60 acres of land surrounding the club’s Northern Echo Arena home.

With the support of Darlington Borough Council, Mowden hope to transform their Neasham Road site into Darlington Sports Village, a multi-sports facility featuring a leisure complex, sporting centre of excellence, retail area, parkland and housing. The scheme is still at a formative stage, but it has the potential to completely transform Darlington’s sporting landscape. There is even talk of the town’s football club eventually returning to its former home.

Off the pitch, Mowden are clearly determined to silence the naysayers who predicted that a move to the Arena would signal the death of the club. On it, they are also confounding expectations at every turn.

When they left their former home at Yiewsley Drive in 2013, Mowden’s first ambition was to win promotion to National One. They achieved it the following season. That took them to the loftiest level they had graced during their 72 years of existence. Surely it would be folly to think they could go any higher?

As he looks out of one of the corporate hospitality boxes overlooking the Northern Echo Arena pitch, director of rugby Danny Brown freely admits winning promotion to the Championship this season was not really part of the plan. But with this afternoon’s home game with a struggling Hull side offering an opportunity to close the gap on league leaders Coventry, it could well be on the cards.

Mowden currently sit second in the National One table, 13 points adrift of Coventry. The top two were meant to meet at the Arena last weekend, only for a frozen pitch to scupper Mowden’s plans for what would have been their biggest game of the season so far.

The wise money would be on Coventry clinching promotion. But with Mowden still to meet the current leaders twice before the end of the campaign, there could be a few twists and turns before the battle for a place in the Championship is settled.

“I’ll be honest with you, if we were to win promotion this season, we probably wouldn’t be in the ideal position to make that step,” said Brown. “My aim was always to try to get ourselves into a position where we could achieve promotion with a large squad we’d already built up that we knew would be capable of competing in the Championship.

“I think the team we’ve got at the moment could, but it’s the numbers around that that would be the issue. We’d have to make sure we were able to bulk up in terms of numbers, but I wouldn’t really want to get to the end of the season and be in a position where we had to recruit a huge amount.

“We recruited exactly what we wanted this year. But having said that, if we were in a position at the end of the season where there was a chance of us going up, we would absolutely grab that with both hands. It would just show what the boys are capable of.

“There is a long way to go. When we first moved in here, we had a six or seven-year plan that was about getting to National One, sticking in National One, then trying to get to the top of National One for a couple of seasons and seeing if we could make the next step from there.

“Again though, having spoken to the chairman and MD, if it came about and we were up there, then we’d absolutely relish that. We certainly wouldn’t be sitting there thinking, ‘How do we cope with this’. We’d embrace it head on and have a good crack at things.”

Having established a strong base in their first two seasons in National One, Mowden have kicked on again this season, with their open, expansive style winning plenty of admirers as well as points.

In previous years, Brown has turned his squad upside down in the close season, but this summer, he made a conscious decision to prioritise continuity. The result has been a unified dressing room and a club ethos that clearly still means a lot to those who oversaw the move from Mowden’s homely former ground to the vast expanses of the Arena.

“We’re three leagues off the top, but we’re in a 25,000 seater stadium,” said Brown. “So we wanted to strip things back, and look at players who had been around the club a long time like Ollie Hodgson, Ralph Appleby and Joe Craggs - players we’ve brought in who want to buy into what the club is, and want to live in Darlington and be around the area.

“It isn’t just about playing on a Saturday, it’s everything else – the community work, the academy, mixing with the members and so on. That’s a massive part of what we’ve done. We’ve brought players in who have other things in their lives. We’ve only brought in a small number of players, and yes they work hard and play hard on the pitch, but off the pitch they also want to have a beer and enjoy being around each other. It’s important to hold on to that club ethos and family atmosphere.”

Hodgson, Mowden’s captain, is a Teessider who combines his playing career with a coaching role at the club’s academy. He agrees that a strong team spirit is a key part of Mowden’s success this season, and also highlights Brown’s commitment to attacking rugby as a major asset.

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CAPTAIN'S ROLE: Darlington Mowden Park skipper Ollie Hodgson

“It’s great to have the freedom to play exciting rugby,” he said. “As a club, we don’t want to be playing ten-man rugby where you’re relying on your forwards to do everything. We have quality players in the backs and we’ve got forwards who play like backs when they’re in possession.

“We have a high skill level in the squad, so we have to make the most of that. The stuff the coaches have done this year has brought us on massively, and that’s why we are second in the division at the minute.”