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Jan 18, 2012

Time running out for Darlington

The death of a non-league football club seldom earns too many column inches. Though the demise of Scarborough and Halifax Town merited mention, the collapse of Chester City was perhaps more high profile.

While they are all former league clubs, Chester attracted greater attention due to a catalogue of mismanagement which had seen them enter administration more than once, relegated from of the Football League twice, almost drop to the second tier of non-league football and go through 16 permanent managers in just 11 years.

It's a similar story at Darlington, the latest club to go to the wall and likely bring to an end a near 129-year-old football club. Though Darlo has long struggled financially, it was the delusions of grandeur of former owner George Reynolds which eventually led to this slow and mostly painful death.

That Reynolds, a convicted safe-cracker, was allowed to buy the club in 1999 and effectively run it as his plaything for four years is another discussion altogether. Disastrous decision after disastrous decision by a man who picked up his ego and ran with it would leave the club on a route to implosion which was, no matter what the timescale, unavoidable.

In 2003, Darlington moved into a brand new stadium built to unbelievably high specifications for what was a club in the fourth-tier of English football. It was fitted out with marble toilets and gold taps, needlessly excessive spending barely seen in the lower echelons of the game.

The narcissistic Reynolds Arena is 25,000-capacity, built as part of the owner's long-term vision of bringing Premier League football to the County Durham club. It was completed just a year after he had tried, and failed, amid a blaze of publicity to sign former North-East favourites Paul Gascoigne and Faustino Asprilla.

Darlington were a local club, not a team to draw supporters from a large catchment area, unless fans of Middlesbrough wanted to watch a game when their team was playing away. During the mid-90s when Darlo enjoyed success, nurturing talent such as current Bolton winger Robbie Blake, and reached Wembley in the Third Division play-off final average gates were only around 4,000. A ground with such a vast capacity was folly on a grand scale.

Reynolds' ambition was, for some, admirable, but the logic was so desperately flawed it is somewhat bemusing that the council allowed him to press ahead with what was always destined to be a white elephant, a sorry landmark on the A66 bypass which was more likely to end up as a rusting monument to crazed football business than ever see top-flight football played in it.

The £18 million stadium, which is not owned by the club, is the largest ground ever to house a Conference football club. It was beset by problems before you consider the luxurious nature of the design. The club failed to put down a crucial access road which resulted in the local council invoking planning restrictions. Though 11,600 watched the first game, against Kidderminster Harriers, the capacity is now limited to just 10,000.

Darlington moved to the Reynolds Arena in 2003. Within six months they were in administration. Reynolds resigned as a director in January 2004 and was forced to relinquish control of the club. Eighteen months later he was jailed for three years for tax evasion after being stopped in his car carrying £500,000 in cash.

But Reynolds was not ready to accept his share of the blame for Darlington's demise. "People chuck red herrings and say it's too big, but it wasn't too big," he incredibly claimed. "I put £37 million into the club and all I get is criticised."

The truth was somewhat different and the Quakers had to be rescued from administration for a second time three years ago. Last May's FA Trophy success at Wembley was a rare highlight of troubled years, but silverware could not halt the slide.

Only four times this season has the attendance figure topped 2,000 and the only time that has been achieved since the beginning of September was for the North-East derby against Gateshead on New Year's Day. The ground's current name of the Northern Echo Arena is fitting for its cavernous and hollow existence.

This was unsustainable and resulted in the current administration order - the third in nine years. The administrator sacked manager Craig Liddle and all the remaining players on Monday.

Ex-chairman George Houghton has pulled out of talks amid the suggestion there is an unexpected debt of £1.2 million, and saviours for clubs without the status symbol of a place in the Football League are few and far between. The outlook is not positive.

Dragging Darlington out of the local community was catastrophic. Their traditional home of Feethams - a quaint, classic English football ground with a realistic capacity of 8,000 - is a ground I spent three years watching the game as a student, standing in the Tin Shed behind the goal. The last remnants of the ground, bar the Tin Shed which acts as a sidescreen for the cricket club which owns the land, were demolished in 2006.

What is worse is that five years before Reynolds threw the albatross around the club's neck they had modernised Feethams, building a brand new 3,000-capacity main stand. It brought a club which had barely done any stadium improvements into the new era of stadia, but five years later Reynolds left it to rot. The stand was dismantled in 2006 and still remains in storage after a deal to sell it to Farnborough Town, a club some 260 miles away, fell through.

Feethams is right in the town centre, close to the train station and of little difficulty for the fans to stroll to. If you have to get on a bus to travel to a soulless stadium on the bypass, it's easy to see why many supporters have found it simple to desert their team. Now that ground, with 120 years of football history - it was the first to ever hold a Football League match on a Sunday - is mere wasteground.

The Darlington Supporters Trust and the Darlington Football Club Rescue Group have not seen eye to eye over a rescue packing, with the Trust refusing to commit £50,000 it has raised over the years to save the club unless there is a viable and realistic long-term business plan. There is little point throwing away cash which could start a phoenix club if Darlington are going to find themselves back to square one in a few months.

Hard as it may be to take, it feels as though waving goodbye may be the only true way to secure a future. The Northern Echo Arena is never going to be home to these fans. Strolling down Victoria Road, through the twin towers of the cricket club entrance and around the edge of the outfield to Feethams is what this club is all about. Starting again and rebuilding Feethams is a romantic vision, but may also be the only way.

Being bailed out by the rest of the professional game is not the answer. Football clubs must stand on their own two feet, live by their decisions and die by their actions. Any collective fighting fund removes responsibility from owners and board members for their spending. Rather than rescue a couple of clubs it is far more likely to lead to greater financial problems as a fighting fund provides a safety net.

As a follower of Darlington, and someone who has many fond memories of Feethams, is it wrong to imagine them back at their spiritual home and eventually in the Football League? AFC Wimbledon is the case study. And that stand is still in storage.

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