Darlington's white elephant has turned into a cautionary tale. Owen Amos explains plans to return to something more modest
When lower-league clubs discuss moving grounds, there’s one thing they know: whenever they go and wherever they go, they don’t want to “do a Darlington”. This means moving to a new ground, then barely filling one tenth of it. A quick Google search shows fans of Gillingham, Hartlepool and Rotherham, among others, have used it. But soon, the phrase might – just might – lose its meaning.
The ground (currently the Northern Echo Darlington Arena) was built by the club’s former chairman, George Reynolds, and opened in 2003. With the town’s southern edge on one side and the ring road on the other, the 25,000 seats remain the manifestation of Reynolds’s megalomania (he took Darlington into administration and was sentenced to three years in jail in 2005 for tax evasion). The club’s former ground, Feethams, was old-football: terraces at both ends, floodlights in each corner and smack-bang in the town centre. The Arena is new-football: big, bland and faceless. The average gate this season is 2,051 in all competitions.
But Feethams hasn’t gone. Walk down Polam Lane past the terraced houses and backyard gates and there it is, just about. Both stands have disappeared, as has the away end, but the home fans’ covered terrace, known as the Tin Shed, remains. Once home to songs and supporters, it now survives as a sightscreen for Darlington CC, which is next door. The pitch is covered in weeds, beer cans and brown Christmas trees, but if you think about it, you can still see the goalposts, the nets, the fans. The “Wizard of Dogs” hot dog stand, alone in the corner, fires the imagination further.
The ground is owned by the cricket club. For the past three years, they have been in negotiations with a firm who want to build 146 homes on the pitch (the idea was given planning permission in 2009). The contract is expected to be signed soon but, in the past six weeks, a group has emerged that wants to save the football ground. The Northern Echo called the campaign “last-minute”. It’s more like the 30 seconds at the end of injury time.
Instead of more homes – Darlington has had a rash of privately built flats in the past ten years – the group want a new ground at Feethams, with a capacity of 7,000 to 10,000. The town’s Labour MP, Jenny Chapman, is a key member. “I think Darlington can do better than putting flats on that important and historic piece of land,” she said, and it’s hard to argue.
The football club chairman, Raj Singh, said a move back to Feethams was possible. “We would certainly be interested,” he told the Echo. “We do believe it would be a very popular option with our supporters.” Even the cricket club chairman, while less enthusiastic, didn’t rule out saving Feethams. “Everyone knows we are far into negotiations with developers for the sale of the land,” he said. “But if anybody wants to talk further, I am perfectly willing to do that.”
Most fans, it seems, would welcome a move home. A Facebook group called Please Help Save Feethams has more than 700 members and comments such as “Moving to Feethams would put 2,000 on the gate” are typical. Really, though, it’s hard to gauge how the Arena has affected attendances. In the last season at Feethams, the average gate was 3,312 – 1,000 more than this year. But that was when the club were in the League (finishing 15th in the bottom division). In the first five seasons at the Arena, when the highest finish was sixth, the average gate was 4,226, higher than in all but one of the last ten seasons at Feethams. But for all the fans’ efforts – and there are certainly quieter grounds – any ground that’s a tenth full feels wrong, like a party you’ve reached an hour early. The atmosphere is stolen by endless rows of empty seats. Feethams with 2,500 in, on the other hand, felt right.
The plan to return is, at best, optimistic. Firstly, the cricket club would have to turn down the house-builders’ money. Secondly, the Arena would have to be knocked down, with the land sold for housing or a supermarket, which is sure to be opposed by some residents and possibly the council. Thirdly, the club would have to find millions of pounds to rebuild Feethams. And the water gets muddier still: the club’s holding company, which owns the current ground, entered receivership in February over a £1.7 million debt. The Arena could pass to the club’s creditors.
The future of the club, then, is difficult – and not for the first time (they’ve been in administration twice since 2003). But you feel they’d have a better chance if they went home, to a football ground. The Arena is a fading monument to one man’s excess. It can’t become Darlington’s mausoleum.
From WSC 291 May 2011