Jon Lymer looks at the deal that, to all but Darlington's publicity staff, looked doomed from the start

In the run up to the closing of the new transfer window, Darlington came within a whisker of clinching one of the most unexpected moves of recent years. In the event, however, the club and its erratic chairman, George Rey­nolds, sim­ply continued along their romp to the heart of insanity.

News of Faustino Asprilla’s return to the north-east first surfaced a week before the deal’s collapse, when the story was broken by the player himself. Claiming to be “a close per­sonal friend” of Reynolds, Asprilla announced that he was eager to sign for the club and duly arrived to begin negotiations. Darlington fans remained healthily scep­tical. Earlier in the summer, the club had made a half-hearted at­tempt to lure Paul Gascoigne to Feethams and the feeling was that Reynolds was staging un­realistic publicity stunts to answer critics who ar­gue that he has failed to invest in the quality of players needed to enable the club to climb out of the Third Division.

Supporters believed Reynolds, who reg­ularly voices concerns over the high wages in the lower divisions, would make Tino an offer that frank­ly he could refuse. There was also the not in­significant problem of As­prilla fail­ing to meet the criteria for a work permit.

Suspicions increased when Asprilla was paraded in front of the Darlington crowd be­fore their game with Carlisle, an unusual move to make with no contract signed or work permit granted. The attendance was swelled by over 1,000 from the previous home game, good news for the club who move into their new 25,000 seat stadium in the new year. But some fans felt that Darlington may simply have been getting their pound of flesh while they could from the publicity that the Asprilla story had generated.

However, to just about everybody’s amazement, the club then announced that a deal had indeed been agreed and, after an appeal, a work permit was issued for the Colombian. But any­one who suggested Asprilla may have lost his capacity for unpredictability was silenced the following day as Tino show­ed he still pos­sessed his prize asset in spades. A shocked club were forced to admit that their superstar had disappeared and that a contract had not been signed after all. Barely able to conceal their fury, officials confirmed Asprilla had missed several meetings the previous day and had boarded a plane to the middle east in the early hours of the morning.

For once, sympathy was with George Rey­nolds. The limelight had at last shone on Dar­lington for the right reasons, only for them to be let down by Asprilla, who offered financial reasons for his failure to sign. Fans who had previously criticised Reynolds’ mis­erly stance on wages could have no room for com­plaint this time, as it was revealed that As­prilla had deemed £17,000 a week and a rent-free bungalow not enough to live on.

Supporters may be less sympathetic ab­out how Darlington con­duct their business. After ill-judged incidents, including pub­lishing players’ wages in the press, accusing the team of throw­ing games and becoming embroiled in a petty dispute with a local radio presenter (culminating in a poster campaign quest­ioning the DJ’s sex­uality), the Quakers have hardly cast off their reputation for ama­teurism with the Asprilla affair.

When the deal collapsed, club officials re­luctantly admitted they had neg­otiated the transfer not with a recognised agent but with Asprilla’s Newcastle-based girlfriend. Yet again, Reynolds has been seen to flout foot­ball conventions, albeit with the best of in­tentions, and finish up with egg on his face.

A poor start to the season, including a thrash­ing by local rivals Hartlepool, has seen disquiet among the fans simmering again. With the stadium move im­minent, Rey­nolds may yet have to take dras­tic action when the transfer window reopens if the club is to mount a serious promotion cam­paign. Reynolds says he dreams of a pack-ed stadium in which Darlington are play­ing Premiership football. As things stand, the noise he may hear instead will be the angry cries of a few thousand, echo­ing sadly round an empty ground.

From WSC 189 November 2002. What was happening this month

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