Darlington Arena still stands as a warning
8 January ~ If you drive west out of Darlington, you will pass two monuments. The first, a nod to the town's railway past, is an improbable attempt to capture – with the help of 185,000 house bricks – the excitement of a steam locomotive rattling out of a tunnel. The other is the Darlington Arena. The brain-child of George Reynolds, a former owner of Darlington FC, the Arena (which has had several names over the years) was central to that club's financial woes during the last ten years.
Reynolds buckled under the weight of debt from building the stadium and was forced to put the club into administration just before Christmas 2003, leaving the club in January 2004. There was to be a dizzying array of owners and moneylenders over the next few years, including a care home developer whose attempts to make money from the land around the stadium ended in a second administration.
Local businessman Raj Singh became involved in 2008, initially lending money, and later as owner. He has given an eye-watering account of how an initial loan of £1.125 million was consumed in three months; around half went to pay off debts to two former owners, with the remainder going to meet payroll costs (reportedly £270,000 per month) and that stadium consuming a further £10,000 per month. On the pitch, the team's fortunes were at best mixed. Flirtations with the League Two play-offs sat alongside relegation to the Conference and a victory in the 2011 FA Trophy final.
The club slipped into administration again and reached the end of 2011-12 only with the help of money raised by the fan-led Darlington FC Rescue Group. Relegation was the reward. The group morphed into Darlington 1883 Limited and, with liquidation imminent, secured ownership of the club in May 2012. Crucially, they were unable to raise the funds needed to strike a deal with Singh that would allow the club to leave administration via a Creditors Voluntary Arrangement, which is a requirement of the football authorities. That had two consequences. Firstly, the owners had to form a new club with a new name: Darlington 1883 was born. Secondly, the FA required the club to start life in the ninth tier of the football pyramid, the Northern League Division One (a nice symmetry as Darlington FC were founder members of that league in 1889).
Some parts of the Darlington story are familiar from other clubs, as costs escalate until administration is inevitable. What makes it different is Darlington was burdened by its owner with a 27,000-seat stadium, when average gates were a little over 2,000 and there was no realistic plan to attract additional income. But perhaps there is now cause for optimism. They have left the Darlington Arena and ground share with Bishop Auckland. The Quakers sit top of the table, although Spennymoor Town in second have games in hand, and have established a Community Interest Company (CIC) to enable individuals, sponsors and other groups to take a share in the future. The CIC replaced the original plan to attract funds and hasn't been without criticism but time will tell.
A local rugby club now owns Reynolds's folly but it will always be associated with the part it played in driving the Quakers into three administrations inside ten years. Yet it might just as much be a monument to what can happen when a community rallies around its football team. Brian Simpson