It is a sobering thought to consider that, for all the hard work and drama involved in keeping Darlington FC alive just nine days ago, the looming deadline over the clubs future comes up for renewal again on Monday. The last few days have seen a patchwork team lose narrowly to Fleetwood Town and Hayes & Yeading United in the league, but performances on the pitch have, by necessity, had to take a back seat to the continuing efforts to save the club. T-shirts are for sale and the collection buckets, that totem symbol of the overreached football club, have been dusted off. With the clock ticking again, however, a new potential bid may prove to be the one that the clubs administrators. Why is it, then, that some of the clubs supporters are treating it with extreme caution?
The man behind this particular bid is Paul Wildes, a Yorkshire-based – you guessed it – property developer and venture capitalist. Wildes has no prior involvement of running a football club and, while he is understood to be a supporter of Sheffield Wednesday, no prior recorded interest in Darlington FC. His proposal is simple. He will put in £300,000 for a sixty per cent shareholding in the club. The remaining forty per cent of shares will then be available to the Darlington Football Club Rescue Group (DFCRG or the Rescue Group), in return for further investment of £200,000. It all seems very simple, but some supporters of the club are already starting to ask the question of what they would be getting for this considerable outlay.
To be able to even stand a chance of answering this question, we need to consider what Darlington FC actually is at present. Since losing ownership of its ground last year, the club, as a business, has few tangible assets. The value of the current playing staff is minimal, and other solid assets would be unlikely to raise too many eyebrows were they to come up for auction. In terms of its less tangible assets, the clubs Football Conference membership remains under threat – it has to agree a CVA and pay its football creditors in full as per the leagues regulations within their specified time frame or face further sanctions, which could include expulsion and relegation to the Northern Premier League – and it has its support base, which this season has averaged at about 1,800 people, although the response of the town to the clubs recent difficulties – over 5,000 turned out for the Fleetwood match – and historical evidence would tend to suggest that there is scope for this to increase.
Of greater importance, however, is the least tangible asset of all – the possibility of future returns from The Northern Echo Arena. Wildes claims that, “The stadium should not be seen as a liability but as the club’s biggest asset. Used properly, managed properly, it can be very profitable”, which would seem to indicate that he intends to keep the club at the Arena. It would also seem to indicate that he – as Raj Singh did, as George Houghton did and as even George Reynolds may have done – has seen the potential for the club’s commercial activities to be expanded at the current ground and likes what he sees. Quite how he intends to do this, considering the club’s current financial position and the covenants that still restrict the use of the land upon which the ground stands is open to question, and his recent interview was light on detail.
None of the platitudes and good intentions, however, remove the Raj Singh shaped elephant in Darlington’s room. Former chairman Singh remains the club’s biggest creditor and there will be no CVA or exit from administration without his agreement to whatever proposals are made. Singh has been quiet over the last few days and it may not be until Monday that his decision is known. Liquidation of the club would mean that he received nothing, but he has already agreed to write off his debts to the club and subsequently retracted that offer. The question of how much of this was brinkmanship and what sort of offer he might agree through a CVA is not known. What we can reasonably assume is that there will be a considerable amount more talking to be done before Monday’s next deadline comes and passes.
There was further confusion last night when it was first reported that Wildes had pulled his bid to buy the club by a journalist from BBC Radio Tees, only for this to be contradicted elsewhere. We will, perhaps, find out more about this over the course of today, but Darlington supporters may face a weekend of rumour which may yet go to the wire. As long as no papers have been signed, nothing is definite. The doubt that some have cast of Wildes’ credentials, however, is not entirely without justification. Darlington supporters have had their fingers burned before by people that have come into the club promising to rebuild it, and Wildes’ lack of previous experience and lack of previous connection with the club are a cause for concern. Although he has been successful in business elsewhere, it is worth bearing in mind that considerably bigger businessmen than him have lost considerable amounts of money in football clubs, and turning Darlington’s fortunes around is unlikely to be a challenge for the faint-hearted. Meanwhile, it is understood that another consortium – whose identities are unknown at the time of writing – are also preparing a bid for the club.
On Saturday afternoon, Darlington play York City in what might yet, for the second time this season, be the club’s final match, and there is consolation for the club to take from the fact that a large away following should help to boost the crowd and the club’s cash flow at a time when they desperately need to be boosted. It is to be hoped that woolly, non-specific use of the term “community club” should, when talking of Darlington FC, be replaced with something a little more concrete, and that the division of shares proposed won’t exclude supporters groups – including the astonishingly still maligned supporters trust – from getting involved in the genuine day-to-day running of the club.
After almost a decade of mismanagement, the supporters of Darlington FC might have hoped that they would break from the cycle of being dependent upon the munificence of one individual. At the time of writing, it is starting to feel as if that hope is fading from view. If private individuals arriving at Darlington FC are to be, yet again, the salvation of this club for the time being, then they should be aware that cycle of failure that has blighted the club’s recent past cannot continue in perpetuity. The discredited model of running a football club according to the whims of one private individual has let Darlington down too many times before. It is to be hoped that this will be the last time that we will find this particular football club in this position.
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