Over the last few years it has become one of English footballs most instantly recognisable totems of the folly of ego, and now it seems as if The Reynolds Arena – currently known as The Northern Echo Arena – which has been an albatross around the neck of the club since it moved into it in 2003, may finally be play a significant role in the end of Darlington Football Club. The club had become separated from the holding company which owned it in 2009, when current owner Raj Singh purchased it from former owner George Houghton after a spell in administration, with the club continuing to use the Arena on a lease from the holding company.
Earlier this year, though, two of the club’s creditors, Philip Scott and Graham Sizer, took control of the stadium with the club still playing there under an existing lease agreement. This lease has thirteen years to run on it with the club paying a peppercorn rent on an annual basis, but the continuation of this agreement is dependent upon Singh remaining as the owner of the football club. Should he resign his position, the terms of the lease will have to be renegotiated and the terms are unlikely to be as favourable to the football club again. Should Singh decide to throw in the towel at Darlington, therefore, the club’s future will start to look very bleak indeed.
Although only (relatively) recently out of administration, though, Darlington have continued to lose money, and a Wembley appearance in the FA Trophy last season in which they beat Mansfield Town by a single goal, doesn’t seem to have been enough to reignite interest in the club in the town. The team has stumbled on the pitch, and currently sits in fourteenth place in the Blue Square Premier, with crowds sitting at around the 1,800 mark. The many thousands that accompanied the club to Wembley already seem like a distant memory and, with losses already starting to mount again, Singh is giving the distinct impression of starting to get cold feet again.
His last statement on the subject, published in The Northern Echo earlier this week, throws down an ultimatum to the local council which seem to indicate that the council should acquiesce financially to keep the football club alive. Currently, a covenant held on the land at the Arena ensures that 75% of any profit made from the sale of the land upon which the stadium sits has to go to the council. Singh claims that the football club cannot ever have much hope of being solvent unless it owns its own ground, and this covenant is understood to be making negotiations with Scott and Sizer all but impossible, while the council’s comments on the subject – a spokesman said, “we have to ensure we act in a fair and proper manner in relation to the tax payer” – would seem to indicate that the club should not be expecting any significant bail-outs from them.
Singh is believed to have put around £3m into the club over the course of the three years that he has been involved with it. The question of what he might have been expecting to get from a lower division football club by way of a financial return – football is littered with the ghosts with those that have tried and failed in that respect – is anybody’s guess. The covenant, though, is in place for a very good reason and whether the council should remove it is far from cut and dried. The land was purchased in 2003 at a far cheaper than it would have cost for had it been used for other developments. Considering this, the council can be considered to be doing little more than protecting an investment that it made on the part of the local community at the time that the land was sold so that the Arena could be built.
Does the local community care about Darlington Football Club, though? Or, to put the question a slightly different way, does it care enough? Notwithstanding the fact that 25,000 capacity stadium with less than 2,000 people rattling around it like peas in a can makes for a depressing sight, that crowds are so low there this season can only indicate that the local community doesn’t care enough about its local football club to turn out and give it the cash-flow that it needs to survive. The Arena is hopelessly disproportional for the clubs needs and Scott & Sizer had previously stated that they would, if they were able to redevelop the site of it, look to build another new stadium that would be more appropriate for the club’s size.
At this precise moment in time, though, this outcome couldn’t feel much further away. “Unless this can be resolved fairly quickly, I don’t think I have any option other than walking away”, Singh has said, and he has added that – with regard to finding a replacement for manager Mark Cooper, who left the club last month – “it’s pointless bringing them [a new manager] in until we get everything sorted out”, which can only serve to act to further darken the mood around the club. It is possible that this part of a wider game of brinkmanship, but the truth of the matter is that, if the end is nigh for Darlington FC this time, then supporters need to start acting now in order to ensure that they have a team to watch again next season.
The club’s supporters trust, as at so many other clubs, divides opinion amongst the support base. It is understood, though, that the trust has around £50,000 set aside from fund-raising, subscriptions and so on. This is far too small an amount of money to be of any use in combatting the club’s current financial losses, which are running at around £80,000 per month. Given the gravity of the current situation at the club, perhaps the only option for the trust is to begin a contingency plan for a new club, for if – or when – Darlington FC finally fails. It should go without saying that this is not a decision that anybody would want to take. Furthermore, it is not a decision that anybody should ever have to take. The reality of the position in which the club finds itself, however, negates all bar the most pragmatic of decisions. The idea of another white knight on a charger arriving at the club to save it is fundamentally flawed and, having entered administration twice in recent years, another CVA would also seem unlikely. The sad truth of the matter is that this football club is, and has been proved to be twice in less than three years, broken. The application of a sticking plaster at this stage is likely to be forlorn, to say the least.
Now is not the time for supporters of the club to become divided over the minutiae of the supporters trust. The time for the burying of heads in the sand in the hope that something, anything will come along to rescue the club has also passed. Now is the time for all supporters to join the supporters trust and for the trust itself to prepare for the worst while hoping for the best and to raise money as a fighting fund for if it turns out to be needed, not to prop the cadaver of someone else’s – however well intentioned – failed business ventures. If the club is to fail, though, any new club for Darlington may have to play away from the town for a while, but it must have a clear plan towards seeking a home of its own back in the town as soon as possible. There are precious few examples of clubs, even in the lower divisions, keeping their identities and thriving whilst playing away from their home town in anything like the long term.
The events of the next couple of weeks will determine how pressing such ideas become, and it is, of course, to be hoped that this incarnation of Darlington FC can somehow find a way of resolving their current woes. If, however, these woes remain intractable, though, the supporters of the club can take control of their own destinies. If those currently running the supporters trust are unpopular, they can be replaced through democratic means. The options would be as open as the supporters of the club wish them to be, should the worst come to the worst. It has been done elsewhere – from Chester to Wimbledon, from Exeter to Dundee – and there is no reason why it should fail in Darlington. And that is more than can be said for the discredited model of club ownership which has put Darlington FC in the position in which it finds itself today.
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