WHATEVER Julian Darby gets for a birthday present today, it will be difficult to emulate the best gift of all almost three decades ago – the opportunity to play for his beloved Wanderers and live the dream.
The boy from Farnworth turns 45 today and has lost nothing of his love for the Whites, still attending matches with his pals and taking his children to the Reebok most weekends.
Those youngsters may never be as excitable as Darby was as a ball boy behind the goal in the famous clip of Frank Worthington’s goal against Ipswich in 1979.
But even that enjoyment will struggle to reach the dizzy heights of wearing the white shirt for seven years and scoring at Wembley as Wanderers won the Sherpa Van Trophy in 1989 against Torquay.
Darby is a real home-grown hero, bred from a family bleeding Whites blood who went on to make almost 300 league appearances and score many memorable goals.
They are days he still recalls fondly now.
He said: “I was a local lad who lived the dream.
“All my family were Wanderers through and through and I went to my first game just a few months old, though I apparently slept right through it.
“We all went all the time, and when I got my first contract my dad was as proud as punch.
“Naturally, I loved playing for the club I supported.
“When I joined as an apprentice, the club had just been relegated to division four for the first time and were going through hard times financially.
“But we bounced back and I will never forget that game against Wrexham when Robbie Savage scored and we won promotion.
“Then, there was the Sherpa Van final in 1989 and to score at Wembley for your home-town club is something else.
“Bruce Rioch came in and we had a fantastic season and got promoted again.
“That was a year to remember. I played as a striker quite a bit and I remember the last game at Preston when John McGinlay scored a penalty.
“The game before that against Stoke saw me score and then the game at Hull’s Boothferry Park when there was a huge invasion of Bolton fans when we came from 1-0 down to win.
“That is a game I remember well because they went ahead from a penalty when Alan Stubbs handled on the line and was sent off; I had to play as emergency centre-back.
“We had lots of great times, that’s for sure.”
After leaving Wanderers in 1993, Darby played for Coventry, West Brom, Preston and Carlisle before hanging up his boots to become youth coach at Deepdale.
It was with Preston where he took his first coaching steps and teamed up with a young manager in the shape of Billy Davies.
Darby became the Scot’s number two and has followed him to Derby and Nottingham Forest since. In fact, while he does a bit of part-time coaching at the Wanderers academy, he insists it is a waiting game until Davies gets another managerial post.
Darby went on: “I am just waiting for Billy to get another job and hopefully one will come up soon.
“I enjoy working with him; he gave me a chance to be his assistant at Preston all those years ago and I’ve not looked back since.
“Since then we have won promotion with Derby and saved Forest from relegation; we reached five play-offs in five seasons.
“It’s horrible because you are really waiting for fellow managers and coaches to get the sack to get back into the game.
“But that’s what any out-of-work coach wants and I’m no different because I enjoy still being involved in football.”
Of course, having a bit more time at his disposal has allowed Darby to get to more Wanderers matches this season.
As a man who has worked in the Championship, how does he rate their chances of success?
“It’s a hard league as Wanderers are finding out,” he added.
“I went to the Burnley game with my mates and for the first 15 minutes we were comfortable and I was thinking it would be a stroll and then we conceded.
“But the lads got a good result at Sheffield Wednesday recently and my son went to Birmingham and said they played well that night despite getting beat.
“At the minute, the players are sussing the league out a bit because it is so different to the Premier League.
“But hopefully, they can start to string a few results together and climb up that table.”
That’s definitely something that will keep the Wanderers-mad Darby family happy.