A FORTNIGHT ago, Craig Liddle received an invite to watch the new incarnation of Darlington.
Liddle was greeted warmly by Martin Gray – now in charge of the Quakers after previously working as number two to ex-Darlington boss Dave Penney – and saw the ashes of his former club secure a 3-1 win over Durham City.
By rights though, the red carpet should have been unfurled for the 40-year-old at Darlington 1883’s temporary home of Shildon FC.
On paper, Liddle’s record after succeeding Mark Cooper in the Darlington dug-out last October wasn’t particularly impressive – a meagre four wins in 14 outings.
But Liddle’s tenure was about much more than results.
His remit was pure survival and he was to secure arguably the most laudable achievement of any manager in the country by ensuring Darlington’s demise was not finalised until the curtain came down on the campaign.
Weeks after Liddle was appointed, it became swiftly obvious that Darlington were in financial peril, hamstrung by their disastrous white elephant stadium.
The cream of the playing staff jumped ship after the club entered administration, eventually leaving Liddle with just six first-teamers.
There was no money for replacements, even the remaining personnel were barely receiving any of their salaries and largely reliant on hand-outs from the supporters club.
Liddle was forced to beg, steel and borrow players – Sunderland youngsters Jordan Pickford and Liam Bagnall both going on loan – and raid the youth-team to make up the numbers on a Saturday.
But Liddle refused to be beaten, even though he faced the dual burden of continuing to run the club’s youth set-up.
“I look back and at times you wonder how we got through it,” he says as he reflects back on his tenure, at the Academy of Light.
“From November onwards, I was the only member of staff. We didn’t even have a physio.
“There was myself, the secretary and the kitman.
“I was re-arranging youth team games so at times we were playing them on a Friday and then I was jumping straight into my car to drive down to London to meet up with the first-team.
“On a Saturday, I would take the youth team on a morning and leave 10 minutes before the end to go and take the first-team.
“It really was doing every single thing.
“Then I’d be up the following morning at 8am to open up the Centre of Excellence because I was in charge of the nine to 16’s as well.
“It was seven days a week, 12 to 16 hours a day.
“How we managed it I don’t know, but we got there in the end.
“I think the people at Darlo were grateful for what I did and I’ll always be grateful to the support they gave me.
“I learned an enormous amount from it and it has given me a great deal of experience that I would never have got.”
The demands of a harrowing role eventually reached a welcome conclusion in the summer.
Darlington and Liddle somehow survived the ever-present threat of liquidation until June, before the club were relegated four divisions and re-formed.
With no youth structure remaining and Liddle keen to revert to his role shaping the players of the future, he was forced to scour the job market for a new opportunity.
He didn’t have to look far.
Sunderland were eager to recruit a new under-18s coach, with Kevin Ball moving up to take charge of the Black Cats under-21s, as part of the Premier League’s restructuring of youth development under the Elite Player Performance Plan.
“I came and spoke to Ged (McNamee, Sunderland academy boss) and it snowballed from there,” said Liddle.
“I’ve always stated that I saw my future in youth football.
“Because of what was happening at Darlo, there wasn’t going to be a youth set-up.
“It was probably the right time to move on and probably the only option for me because I didn’t want to stay in first-team management.”
Working at a Premier League academy is not all plain-sailing though.
It presents vastly contrasting, yet arguably sterner challenges, most notably instilling the hunger necessary to forge a career at the highest level.
The teenagers at Sunderland’s academy, like the bulk of top flight clubs, can enjoy facilities on a par with the first-teamers.
Liddle admits he has found that a culture shock, even though Sunderland’s youngsters have made a bright start to the campaign after securing victories over Newcastle and league favourites Aston Villa.
“It’s a different world here,” said Chester-le-Street-born Liddle.
“At times, I don’t think the young players realise exactly how lucky they are.
“My boys had to fight and scrap for everything. They had to buy their own training kit.
“But these lads are in a privileged position and I’m stressing to them that they’ve got to make the most of it because they don’t know what is around the corner.
“If I’m being honest, I’ve found it difficult at times because they get everything handed to them on a plate here.
“That’s not their fault, it’s just the way the academy system is. It’s fantastic for them because they’re treated like professionals.
“It is a challenge to keep them pushing on to make that next level because there, it’s the best job in the world.
“It’s a lot to do with hunger. You can have all the ability in the world, but if you haven’t got that desire to push yourself that extra yard, then sooner or later you’ll fall by the wayside.
“Every time you come through the door you should want to work to the best of your ability because the rewards are there for everyone to see.”
Read the full preview in tonight’s Sunderland Echo.