March 29, 2016, and all eyes were on the Aviva Stadium, Dublin, as Newcastle held its breath. Only months before Tim Krul had been ruled out for the remainder of the season, and now surely their season was going up in smoke as Rob Elliot was ruled out for the remainder of the season. The Toon would have to rely on their third-choice goalkeeper.
Step up the heroics of Karl Darlow. Standing in 19th place, it seemed that a return to Championship football for the first time since 2010 seemed inevitable? However, never rule an underdog out – especially in this incredible top flight campaign.
Shoot takes a look at the former Nottingham Forest man who could help guide the Toon to safety.
Where did it all start for Darlow?
Born in Northampton, Darlow was born into a football family with his late grandfather coincidentally a former Newcastle player in former Wales international, Ken Leek. While his grandad was known for his goalscoring (he scored a hat-trick on his Newcastle debut and scored in every round up to the final for Leicester in there run to the1961 FA Cup Final), Darlow was best suited in goal.
It looked as if his football career was going to begin at Aston Villa, a side who had been in the top division of English football before even Darlow was born. His goalkeeping coach there was a Geordie himself: Eric Steele, a man who only years later would become the goalkeeping coach at Manchester United.
It was all going to plan in the west Midlands until the age of 16 when, in 2006, Darlow was released from the famous academy. The dream of professional football could have just come to an end.
However, Steele thought it was a wrong decision made by the then academy director Bryan Jones. He believed that Darlow could make the grade and recommended the stopper to Nottingham Forest, at the time a League One side.
And after a successful trial at the City Ground, Darlow signed a scholarship with Forest. He was one step closer.
What happened next?
After Darlow impressed in the academy, it was clear – from early on – that, sometime in the future, he was going to be a future number one. Even Darlow must have believed that it was going to be the case when, in the winter of 2009, he was named amongst the substitutes for the red half of Nottingham in one of the fiercest rivalries in English football as Billy Davies’ men took on Derby County in the FA Cup. Despite not making an appearance either in the first game or the replay, it sent out a message that Darlow was going to be something special.
He continued to play in a highly successful reserve side who, by May 2009, had only lost three times in two seasons – partly down to Darlow in goal. After an impressive season in 2009-10, the keeper was amongst the substitutes for a large remainder of the 2010-11 season; this was also the campaign when he made his professional debut as, on the final day of the season, Darlow replaced Lee Camp in goal in a 3-0 victory over Crystal Palace that guaranteed Forest a place in the play-offs for the second consecutive season. Once again, they lost out to the eventual winners, however Darlow didn’t even appear on the bench for the two semi-finals over Swansea, instead a club legend in Paul Smith took his place.
With Lee Camp still number one in the east Midlands, and Darlow gradually getting older, it was clear that the Northampton-born keeper needed to make first team appearances. The chance came at Conference level, when he was loaned out to Newport, making eight appearances and guiding them to a 19th-placed finish.
After signing a new three-year contract for Forest – now under the guidance of Sean O’Driscoll – Darlow made the move to Walsall in September 2012 to gain first team football in the Football League, making nine league appearances for the Saddlers, before making the trip back to Forest for the start of 2013.
How did the rest of his career progress at Forest?
After the departure of Lee Camp, Darlow had big boots to fill as he became the number one for the Reds. Just two days after the departure of the current Rotherham keeper, Darlow made his full debut and eventually ended with 20 league appearances in the 2012-13 season, as Forest narrowly missed out on a play-off place.
By the summer of 2013 there was a new keeper – Dorus de Vries who made the move from Wolverhampton. No worries for Darlow however, as Billy Davies made it clear that Darlow was still Forest’s number one.
And it was the year of Darlow’s life as he made 43 Championship appearances for Forest as they finished 11th.
How has he got to this point?
So after being a shining member in the Championship the season before, there was no big shock when, in August 2014, Darlow made the move to better and bigger things when he signed for Newcastle. However, Forest were unwilling to lose their star goalkeeper, and as part of the deal, he was loaned back to the east Midlands.
A year later and he was officially a Newcastle player. He made his debut in late August in a Capital One Cup tie against Northampton. Four months later and he made his Premier League debut in a fixture over West Brom after Rob Elliot pulled out for illness and Tim Krul couldn’t feature due to injury. So, after being the Toon’s number three goalkeeper; Darlow has played an inspirational part in their relegation hopes as they chase top division football next season.
How key will be Darlow be for the Toon?
Newcastle is a city that breathes football and therefore Championship football will be hard to comprehend for the 52,000 inside St James Park. With Tottenham still on the horizon (despite their chances of the Premier League title looking all but over), Darlow may be key for the Toon and their chances of remaining within England’s elite. His calmness and composure as he came face-to-face with former Newcastle star player Yohan Cabaye from the spot was immense.