Darlington's chairman is going to unfounded lengths in a bid to break free from football. Jon Lymer reports
It used to be said that the north east was a hotbed of football talent. These days it’s equally true to say that it is a hotbed of eccentric football chairmen. In recent times the region has enjoyed a series of revelations about its chairmen, including brothel visits, cocaine abuse, High Court action and even (if you stretch the geographical parameters a bit) an alien abduction or two. But the prime mover throughout all this fuss has been Darlington’s convicted safecracker-cum-business magnate, George Reynolds.
Reynolds first came to the nation’s attention last season when he enjoyed a very public and protracted disagreement with former manager David Hodgson, which he coupled with the morale boosting stunt of publishing players’ wages in a local newspaper in an attempt to shame them into improved performances. Since then, things have been relatively quiet but, as anyone who follows the fortunes of Darlington knows, it was only a matter of time before the lure of the limelight proved too strong for George to resist. On the last day of February, at a supporters’ meeting called to clear the air over unrest at the current league standing, the storm duly erupted.
In front of around 350 fans and the club’s playing staff, who had ominously been instructed to attend by the chairman, Reynolds’s wife and fellow director, Susan – in a prepared speech – launched an incredible attack on the players. “It isn’t unknown for games to be thrown deliberately at this time of the year by way of favours,” she stated, at which the players understandably walked out and angry supporters shouted her down, the speech coming to an abrupt and premature end.
In the furore following these events, the chairman sent out a series of conflicting signals, casting doubt over the future of the club. Initially he vowed he would never walk away. However, this was followed by statements which appeared to shift the focus of his disquiet away from the players and towards the supporters, in which he cited past incidents, including himself and his wife allegedly being spat at and his car being vandalised.
This apparent shift in the target of his wrath sparked rumours that the whole affair had been engineered to enable Reynolds to sever his connections with the club, an idea that has since been backed up by his assertion that he will not spend any more money on players until crowds average 6,000, an unrealistic target given attendances this season. The suggestion is that Reynolds is looking to use the idea that the supporters are not backing him as an excuse to walk away.
If the situation were as simple as that, many Darlington fans would probably accept his departure, but the picture is made infinitely more complex by the fact that work is nearing completion on a new 25,000 all-seater stadium. The recent game against Macclesfield would have offered supporters exactly 22,271 empty seats to choose from should they not have liked the view from their own. That does not seem to worry Reynolds, as he has stated that if the fans don’t want to come and watch football in it, he’ll “turn it into a bullring”.
Quite why he thinks the fans should be flocking to watch Darlington when he himself said he wouldn’t be travelling to the fixture at Exeter to watch “that pile of shite” is unclear. But the facts of the matter are that the football club will simply not be able to survive with the new stadium as a millstone around its neck, without Reynolds’s financial muscle. Supporters are therefore faced with a Catch-22. While they are growing increasingly tired of the chair-man’s erratic behaviour (he welcomed the ITV Digital crisis as a potential means of accelerating Darlington’s rise up the league), they are all too aware of his indispensability.
For his part, Reynolds will rightly say that he has saved the club by clearing debts and single-handedly financing the new stadium. He and his wife also claim that her comments were “taken out of context”. She says she does not suspect any player of losing games for financial gain, but that still leaves the implication of throwing games “by way of favours”, which leaves a bitter taste in the mouths of players and fans alike.
Fortunately for everybody, the club plan to hold yet more “clear the air” talks. Expect to hear more soon from the man with the ten grand, jewel-encrusted hairgrip.
From WSC 183 May 2002. What was happening this month