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