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Darlington's story offers hope to other troubled clubs

Darlington Arena still stands as a warning

icon moneyman8 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

On the subject...

Comment on 08-01-2013 15:52:16 by grahamjohn678 #748919
"If you drive west out of Darlington". I think you need to look at the map again. The train is to the east of the town and the ground/white elephant is to the south.
Comment on 08-01-2013 19:41:50 by laticsbrian #749019
Well, I guess I was describing my drive west out of Yarm on the A66 towards the A1M...as you know the A66 loops down the east side of Darlington and passes the train at the Morrissons store and then runs along the south side, passing the white elephant stadium. But I pass the stadium, heading west
Comment on 09-01-2013 10:26:13 by Coral #749190
Glad Darlington are slowly coming back. However, and this sounds like a with hindsight point, it is a shame the money that was pumped into the old club at the end was not held back. There was talk at the time that the money they managed to get at the 11th hour should have been kept ready to put into the new club as there was little chance of saving Darlington. I know emotions are involved and no one wants the club to die, but I think it is a lesson to other clubs. When the end looms large it might be best to start again like Chester.
Hope Darlington are back up soon, fondly remember watching Horsfield playing for Halifax at the Feethams with my dad making the comment he would never make it, of playing Posh in a dreadful water logged 2000 playoff final in one last chance for me to see the old Wembley, and a game against Lincoln for a chance for Lincoln to get promoted. They have always been the other team, but that just illustrates to me the importance of all clubs and not just your own.

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