Today, a very sad story was narrowly averted, when it looked as though Blue Square Premier club Darlington FC, a club which has existed for nearly 130 years, was about to go out of existence.
Darlington are in deep financial trouble and are currently in administration for the third time in nine seasons, but it looked as though the end was nigh. On Monday, the administrators made the interim manager, Craig Liddle, and all of the playing staff redundant. Indeed, the administrators had declared that the club was folding earlier today, before a last-gasp offer from the Darlington FC Rescue Fund to invest £50,000 has allowed the club to keep going for two weeks, buying Darlington more time to look for a long-term solution.
Darlington are a club from North-East England (if you are familiar with the geography of the UK, it’s close to Middlesbrough), that has lurched from one financial disaster for years, mostly due to horrendous mismanagement from owners and a local council that doesn’t seem to want them there at all.
Darlington have bounced around the lower divisions and non-league for years, they’ve never been higher than the third tier of English football, and were in severe financial trouble when they were bought in 1999 by George Reynolds, a reformed safe-cracker who had become a very successful businessman, who had to settle debts of £5.2m immediately. Reynolds had some big ideas for Darlington; he saw them in the upper tiers of English football and tried to make some big-name signings for a club in the bottom division in an effort to attract fans, and as a result, increase the income of the club.
Reynolds tried to sign Faustino Asprilla which, though his best years as a player were long behind him, would still have been a huge transfer coup for a club like Darlington. Reynolds managed to secure Asprilla a work permit, offered him a contract, that would have been less than he was used to, was huge for a club in the bottom division, plus bonuses and a percentage of match-day takings, and a car and a place to live. Asprilla was paraded in front of fans, spoke to the local press and was expected to sign a contract in the next few days. However, Asprilla missed his medical, and amid a dispute about money and instead boarded a plane to the Middle East for talks with another club, leaving Reynolds embarrassed and the Darlington fans bemused.
Reynolds’ main legacy is to have left Darlington a ridiculously big stadium, the Darlington Arena, an unsustainable white elephant, which has proven to be a millstone around the club’s neck. For a club that averaged attendances of about 4,000, building a 25,000 all-seater stadium at an estimated cost of £20m was just crazy, though the poor transport network around the stadium means it is limited to a top capacity of 10,000. The problem now is that Darlington’s crowds are usually under 2,000, so the stadium feels empty and soulless, and the running costs of the stadium were so high, they now have to lease their own ground. The costs of the stadium sent Darlington into administration and, after confrontations with players and fans, Reynolds was forced out of the club after its main creditors threatened to have him declared bankrupt if he didn’t surrender control.
So Reynolds has a lot to answer for in relation to Darlington’s current problems, but he is not alone. Reynolds’ idea for the stadium was that it could be used as a multi-purpose arena, indeed, Reynolds’ long-term plan envisaged Darlington making more money from non-football activities than from football, but was stopped by the council, who had put restrictions on the use of the stadium and refused to lift them.
Darlington were then taken over by George Houghton, who is seen by many Darlington fans as even more responsible than Reynolds for their current predicament. Initially under Houghton things went well and Darlington were pushing for promotion. Then, without warning, Houghton placed the club in administration, and with the points deduction that followed, Darlington’s promotion hopes disappeared. Houghton had hoped to develop the land around the stadium, and when those plans came to nothing, he pulled the plug. Hougton’s legacy was to have loaded the club with more debt, and had taken out a 1.7m loan with a 10% interest rate from local businessmen Philip Scott and Graham Sizer, that would eventually lead to Scott and Sizer becoming owners of the Darlington Arena and the land around it, after Darlington couldn’t repay the loan.
Another local businessman, Raj Singh, took over Darlington in 2009 and has put £3m into the club. However, the club were relegated from the football league in 2010, which meant decreased revenues, which in turn meant that the debt level rose again. Singh put the club back into administration at the end of 2011, which is the position the club finds itself in now, with no clear way out.
The crying shame is that this season started with real optimism for Darlington, with expectations of being promoted back to the football league. Currently Darlington manager Craig Liddle has only nine first-team players and a youth-team squad to choose from for Saturday’s game, but at least they have a game, a scenario that seemed unlikely earlier today.
Darlington are not a big club by any means, they’re not particularly well supported, as most fans in the area will watch nearby Middlesbrough, or make the relatively short journey to Newcastle or Sunderland. They haven’t really had much success in their history, haven’t produced too many notable players, and have never graced the top division in English football. So some people may wonder what the big deal is.
Well, Darlington won’t be missed by people who took no notice of them in the first place. They’ll be missed by those who do care about the club. Those fans who do attend every match. Those who’ve donated time and money to try and save the club. It is because of those fans that clubs like Darlington deserve to exist, and it will be terrible if because of the ego and mismanagement of others, they don’t in two weeks time.