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The phrase “emotional rollercoaster” is one that is overused in football these days, but the supporters of Darlington FC are rapidly becoming more than familiar with the term after another week in which their club sailed close to extinction before receiving confirmation from its joint administrator that it had permission to continue to trade – and therefore play – until the end of this season. Two weeks ago, there were frantic scenes at the club as it desperately sought to raise £50,000 in order to continue to trade for a further three matches. In the pitch, the team could muster just one point from those three matches, but the value of the time that this money bought the club has proved to be critical.
This week started with BBC One in the north-east of England broadcasting an episode of its regional current affairs programme Inside Out which featured subject of the battle to save the club (UK residents can watch it on BBC iPlayer here). Amongst those interviewed therein was Paul Wildes, the Yorkshire-based property developer and venture capitalist whose bid had emerged as the front-runner to rescue the club. Yet while Wildes’ platitudes in front of the cameras regarding the future of the club hit the right keys, the supporters’ reaction to him had been lukewarm. Darlington supporters have seen white knights ride in to attempt to save their club before, and previous failures to do so seemed to weigh heavily on the minds of many. What, some asked, was going to change in the culture of the running of the club under his tentative proposals to run it under a power-sharing agreement with fans groups?
The sound of nails being tapped into the coffin of this interest became more audible when the Darlington Football Club Rescue Group stated that they would seek a fifty per cent shareholding in the club rather than the forty per cent that Wildes had proposed, and the question of what would happen to the substantial debt owed to former chairman Raj Singh – the size of which effectively means that any plans to rescue the club from administration will require his blessing – and whether he would or could be expected to write off millions of pounds worth of loans that he had out into the club over the last couple of years so that somebody else could make – or, to be more precise, attempt to make – a profit from the club.
An answer of sorts to this question came earlier this week with an announcement on Tuesday that Wildes’ bid for the club had been withdrawn. The reason for this is understood to have been that Wildes had been unable to reach agreement with Singh over his outstanding loans to the club. At this moment, then, the club’s existence was again hanging by a thread, but yesterday evening the story switched tack again with the news – reported by local television news – that Madden had agreed for the club to kept alive until the end of the season, withe the Darlington Football Club Rescue Group having been granted permission to form a Community Interest Company with a view to running the club as a community club. It had been suggested that any buyers would need half a millions pounds in order to fund the club, but the DFCRG yesterday stated that no target figure for fundraising had been agreed.
It is understood that all parties concerned have already met with Supporters Direct to discuss the way forward for the club from here, including local MP Jenny Chapman who has, in recent weeks become more and more closely involved with attempts to keep the club alive. What form the new company would take is at the time of writing far from certain, and what is clear is that a considerable amount of money needs to be raised in order to keep the club alive. However, all groups concerned have been spectacularly successful in raising the profile of the club’s plight, and on top of this the last two home league matches – both of which attracted crowds of well in excess of 6,000 people – have demonstrated that the will may still be there in the town itself to keep the club alive. Perhaps most importantly of all, however, the Rescue Group states that “We are also eternally indebted to Raj Singh for his support”, which indicates that the former owner can be brought onside with regard to the rebirth of the club as a community club.
This, however, is a golden opportunity. The tried and tested model of football club ownership – to depend upon the benevolence of one individual – has, as at other clubs, repeatedly failed Darlington FC. The challenges ahead in terms is fundraising and then maintaining the clubs solvency are massive, but there can be little arguing that this news gives the club a chance and some hope. The ongoing tragedy of the lower divisions is that supporters are put through the mill like this in the first place, and we can say with existing regulatory framework and debt ridden culture of the game in this country have been shown up for all their flaws time and time again. Perhaps, though things may be starting to turn the other way. The Football Conference is already the most tightly regulated league in Britain when it comes to finances and it was recently reported that they will be further tightening rules on membership in order to prevent further repeats of the situations that have come to blight their leagues with wearying familiarity in recent years. If tentative steps towards a culture in which this sort of situation becomes a thing of the past, then lower division football will be immeasurably healthier.
The mantra that must accompany stories like this is a simple one: it does not have to be like this. For all the pessimism and occasional bouts of defeatism that have been in the air of late, though, there has been much to celebrate in the Darlington story of the last few weeks: the tireless work of the Rescue Group has been a marvel to behold, and the work of MP Jenny Chapman and The Northern Echo has been outstanding. Moreover, supporters of other clubs have transcended football-related rivalries to come together with shows of support, whether through bucket collections, messages of solidarity or, as seen with a now-famous banner displayed by Barrow supporters when the gravity of Darlington’s plight was arguably at its gravest: “Our football clubs are for life, not just for business”, it read. In those ten simple words might lay the beginnings of a manifesto for the lower divisions, but that is for another day. For today, Darlington FC, founded in 1883, has a chance of rebirth, and that is a start.
Further details on how to donate to save Darlington FC are available here.
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Ian began writing Twohundredpercent in May 2006. He lives in Brighton. He has also written for, amongst others, Pitch Invasion, FC Business Magazine, The Score, When Saturday Comes, Stand Against Modern Football and The Football Supporter. Ian was the first winner of the Socrates Award For Not Being Dead Yet at the 2010 NOPA awards for football bloggers.
Fantastic writing and fantastic news. Of course it’s still a time for caution but to read about any sort of positive progress for Darlington is heartening.