What Today At Darlington Tells Us About Lower Division Football
At the exact time of writing (almost one thirty in the afternoon), we do not know whether Darlington FC has been rescued or not. What we can say for certain is that a situation that may have seen the club die at one minute to midday has been extended and that further negotiations are now taking place and that a decision is due imminently over whether the club can be saved in its current form or not. There has been talk of last minute telephone calls from abroad, pleas for money from the supporters trust which may this time have been agreed to and the possibility that perhaps – just perhaps – after everything, Darlington FC will live to fight another day.
We will return to this subject later this afternoon once the dust has settled, but it is worth bearing in mind that any deal agreed to today will not “rescue” Darlington Football Club. What the parties concerned are attempting to do is effectively keep the life support machine that the club is currently on going for a few more weeks, in order that further negotiations can be held to try and secure a firmer footing for the club’s future. At the last minute, it seems that all concerned parties are in the process of reaching some sort of agreement that the club can be rescued in its current form, and this – to the extent that such news can be – is about as good as things are going to get for the supporters of Darlington FC for now.
It is, however, worth pausing a moment to consider what this story – and in particular the chaotic events of today – tell us about the state of the English lower divisions at the start of this year. The Football Conference has done its damnedest to ensure financial responsibility from its member clubs, and this has manifested itself through strict financial guidelines that were drafted precisely to prevent situations such as that which has come to pass today from being repeated. The Football Association has also taken a keen interest in the financial well-being of its clubs, although its idea of regulation has been lighter of touch, with the perpetual threat of angry complaints from many vested interests should they go any further down the road of further financial regulation for regulation for clubs.
For many of us looking in from the outside, though, the damage of the Darlington story has already been done. This year has already begun with a steady stream of highly damaging stories about the well-being – or otherwise – of non-league football clubs, from the financial chaos at Darlington and Kettering Town, through to the eviction notice issued to Northwich Victoria regarding their seemingly hexed stadium and the resignation of Croydon Athletic from the Isthmian League last week. The sight of the panicky meetings at Darlington, the last minute telephone calls, the collection buckets at other clubs’ grounds and the Twitter hash-tags offering support for yet another stricken football club can only lead us towards one, not easily answerable question: how did we come to this?
It is worth recalling that, for every crisis that non-league football clubs find themselves facing in the media, there are hundreds of clubs that carry on, perhaps living a hand to mouth existence, perhaps occasionally having to rob Peter to pay Paul, but ultimately getting by, somehow or other. The notion of lower division football, five, six, seven or more divisions below the Premier League being unsustainable merely because “it just is” is a simplistic and facile argument. The culture of the game at this level, however, remains fundamentally broken. The problems at Darlington and Kettering can both trace their roots back, to some extent or other, to similar issues: unsuitable home grounds, too much money being spent on players, too little (or the wrong sort of) commercial activity and, ultimately, being in thrall to the whims of an owner whose motives behind being involved at that club are seldom entirely clear.
The subject of what regulation the FA should consider for non-league football in order to prevent this dismally depressing state of affairs from continuing in perpetuity is something that we will return to in the next few days and weeks. All that we would add at this stage in time is that, if non-league football is not to slide towards becoming what its detractors constantly describe it as being, it needs greater financial regulation, no matter what the side-effects of that might be for those involved in the game. Ultimately – although arguably to differing degrees – the supporters of Darlington, Kettering Town, Northwich Victoria and Croydon Athletic have all been let down by a fundamentally flawed system of club ownership, which places too much control in the power of one individual with too few checks and balances to ensure that they can deliver on the most basic reponsibility that they have in their chosen position – to ensure the ongoing existence of the football club that they are the custodians of. Yet again, English football is seen to be failing in the most public manner possible. Something has to give.
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