The Great Escape: Look back at Darren Williams’ last-day magic with Whitby Town

Darren Williams. The Mackem Mourinho. That was the name bestowed upon the former Sunderland man, after one weekend in Derbyshire. That weekend, he completed the task that many thought to be near impossible.

Friday, 5th March 2021, 10:11 am
Updated Friday, 5th March 2021, 10:12 am
THE MIRACLE MAN: Former Blues boss Darren Williams

When Williams and club legend David Campbell took the Whitby Town job, the Blues were near-cut adrift. 12 points separated them at the table’s basement, and the team looked down at out.

They were making sure that wasn’t the case. Darren Williams was forged in the fire by Peter Reid at Sunderland - he wasn’t having a relegation on his CV. Not in his first job. Not on his watch.

Changes were made, battle-hardened non league winners were brought in. This was mission impossible. Code name: The Great Escape.

Teams at the top were shook to the core - Chorley and Northwich being particularly rattled - and Whitby went on an incredible run which saw them, with two games left, needing at least four points to completely ensure safety.

They’d been here before. This club has been here before. It’s nothing new. But this time it was different.

There wasn’t a reprieve around the corner, this had to be done in the here and now. This had to be done in Derbyshire. Tuesday at Matlock Town; Saturday at Buxton.

But Tuesday came around. The rain fell. In fact, it rarely stopped that week. Whitby waited, the inevitable phone call was coming. Game off.

“There’s ducks sat on the pitch here, there’s no bloody chance” one Matlock fan commented.

Onto Wednesday. The rain continued. The phone call came again. Game off. The ducks had gone, but there was still no chance.

Onto Thursday. More rain. But it had to be played. It was Thursday or Friday. Derbyshire twice in 48 hours or 24 hours.

Thankfully, the rain subsided. The pitch was still a quagmire, but the ball bounced. A bit. The ball rolled. A bit. Operation Great Escape was on.

And Whitby flew into the task at hand. Early doors, Jamie Clarke was making it happen.

A headed ball over the top saw the forward running onto it, he was fouled inside the 18 yard box. Penalty. Life’s three certainties: death, taxes and Clarke scoring a spot-kick. 1-0 Whitby.

And just a minute later, he was at it again. Another lofted ball. Another Clarke attack. Another Clarke goal.

This time, he forced his way past a Matlock defender and lofted the ball over a despairing Gladitors gloveman from 20 yards.

But, this wasn’t easy street. Matlock pulled one back. The Gladiators’ bloodied noses were not deterring them. Five minutes before the break, they were level pegging.

Whitby needed something special.

Something special was always there in that Whitby Town team. Step forward Nathan Mulligan.

Whatever was in the half-time oranges gave Whitby new life, and Mulligan new life. Straight from the kick-off, he found himself played through and had the ball in the back of the net. Blink and you’d have missed it.

But his best was to come. The Seasiders needed another goal. Again, they needed something special.

Free-kick. Twenty-five yards. Right foot. Top bins. Pick that one out. Matlock Town 2-4 Whitby Town.

Operation Great Escape was almost there. Buxton was where Whitby had to seal it little under 48 hours later.

But strangely, despite Whitby still not being completely safe, Buxton was party town, from minute one.

Up to 100 Whitby fans made the journey to Derbyshire for the Blues’ final day game. They were vocal. They were passionate.

They were everything you wanted from your supporters. They were typical Whitby.

Some travelled on the club bus with the players, others in cars, playing a match against their opponents’ supporters before the main event.

Don’t ask me the score, but apparently there are rumours of some questionable officiating in Whitby’s favour that involved thumbs up every time the Whitby Town full-back didn’t fancy his chances of catching someone. The offside flag goes up. Textbook.

At The Silverlands, excitement continued to build.

The Blues supporters there early had their blue and white balloons, blowing them up ready to welcome the Seasiders onto the pitch.

And when they came out, boy was there noise.

That was the point people realised that this was going to be a special day. Thinking back now gives me goosebumps.

Watching it back gives me goosebumps. Whitby Town could not have had a better backing that afternoon.

They couldn’t have started better either, opening the scoring on 11 minutes.

David McTiernan’s 25-yard shot was blocked, and at the second attempt he nipped the ball through to Tom Portas, whose goalbound effort caused pandemonium in the stand on one side.

The technical term, these days, is ‘limbs’. That describes it as well as anything. Portas wheeled away, diving head first into a wild mix of Blues fans.

The players soon joined the party, piling on into the mass celebrations the likes of which make these sorts of days so special.

Across the afternoon, Whitby faced challenges. Buxton were a good side.

They threatened the Seasiders throughout, right up to the final seconds of the game, sending their keeper up for a corner in the dying embers.

Andy Appleby didn’t help matters through the game, seeing red for a soft challenge in the middle of the park, but nothing could dampen the Blues fans’ party.

Through everything, they kept singing, they kept chanting, they kept pushing Whitby on.

Chants of “we want Daz” were followed by a head bow into the massed support from Williams on the far side of Buxton’s Silverlands ground.

The likes of Dennis Wheeler and Kev Burgess continued to celebrate on the pitch.

Jamie Clarke can’t have been in the dressing room longer than ten minutes before enjoying a cigarette – the last of the old school!

The Whitby Gazette’s back page the following week topped the lot off. “The Great Escape” was accompanied by a mock up of Williams doing his very best Steve McQueen.

It became the image synonymous with that day and that season. It even found its way on to an official club mug.

Williams wrote himself into Whitby Town folklore that day. Operation Great Escape? Completed it.