Their Victorian forebears must be turning in their graves. Darwen Football Club, FA Cup Semi-Finalists in 1881 and members of the Football League from 1891 until 1899, are on the point of bankruptcy this weekend. The story of how they came to be in this predicament is an almost predictably complex story of financial skulduggery and mutual internecine loathing. Equally predictable is the fact that the only people that will suffer as a result of this bickering are the clubs few supporters. Perhaps the most depressing thing about this story, however, is the amount of money concerned. Darwen Football Club, founded in 1870, who were present and correct during a time in which the entire game of football was a white hot crucible of innovation and change, may go to the wall over a bill for… £12,000.
It seems difficult to believe that a club now playing in the North West Counties League could have revolutionised the game of football forever, but it happened. However, on New Years Day 1878, Darwen played a match that would change the face of football forever. The match that they played against Partick Thistle passed off without major incident, but after the match, two Partick players, Fergus Suter and James Love, wrote to them stating how impressed they had been with the town. The club strenuously denied that the two players were paid, but it is now commonly accepted that these two players were the first professional players. Later in the same year, they were instrumental in the formation of the Lancashire Football Association, and later hosted possibly the first ever floodlit match played in England, when they played Blackburn Olympic on a pitch lit by two steam-driven “Magneto electric engines”, which gave off a light with the equivalent strength of 36,000 candles. The experiment was deemed a success, but it proved to be too expensive to become a regular event. The following year they reached the quarter-finals of the FA Cup but, with FA rules insisting that the final three rounds of the competition were played in London, the club was almost financially ruined by the cost of it all. The FA changed their rules on this the following year. In 1881, Darwen made the semi-finals of the FA Cup before losing to Old Carthusians.
Their stay in the Football League was a short but eventful one. They were elected into the league in 1891 when it expanded from twelve to fourteen clubs. Their first season was an unmitigated disaster, as they finished bottom of the table, conceding one hundred and twelve goals, including losing 12-0 against West Bromwich Albion – a record for the top division which survives to this day. They were relegated at the end of the season as the Football League expanded into two divisions, with their place being taken by a club by the name of Newton Heath. They were promoted back at the end of the following season via test matches (the nineteenth century equivalent of play-offs), but were relegated again the following season. By 1899, they were virtually bankrupt and destitute. In their last season as a Football League club, they contrived to lose 10-0 on three separate occasions, against Woolwich Arsenal, Manchester City and Loughborough Town. At the end of the 1898/99 season, they didn’t seek re-election and dropped into the Lancashire Combination, where they would remain until 1975.
How the club managed to get itself into the state that it finds itself in now is a depressing story of ego and in-fighting. The club had been owned by a chap called Ted Ward under the name of Darwen Football and Social Club Ltd, but he also founded a company called Darwen Football and Rugby Club Ltd. The club’s debts were in the name of the original company, but all money paid into the club went into the bank account held by the new company. Ward then agreed to sell the club to a local businessman, Kevin Henry, but then reneged upon the deal. Henry obtained a high court injunction to take control of the club but, with the unpaid debts in the name of the old company and the newer company with no money in the bank (no-one seems to know where the money has gone), a brewery that hasn’t been paid for deliveries to the club has now petitioned for a winding up order against the club, which is to be heard on Wednesday. At first, it seemed certain that the club would not be contesting the winding up order, but now they seem likely to. Their future, however, remains very much in the balance.
It is a sad reflection on the state of the modern game that the size of the debt that could finish off Darwen FC and their one hundred and forty years of history is as low as £12,000. Their former rivals, Blackburn Olympic, were superceded by Blackburn Rovers during the 1880s and Rovers still inhabit the rarified air of the Premier League. The sad irony is that just one day of Rovers’ wage bill would keep the club alive and allow them flourish. As it is, with the club struggling at the bottom of the North West Counties League Division One and crowds having collapsed from a respectable (for their level of the game) average of 77 to an average of just 27 people this season, question marks have to remain over whether they could remain in business as a viable concern even if they do manage to postpone their liquidation next week.
Perhaps the time has come, particularly in light of the Premier League’s £1.782bn television deal with Sky Sports and Setanta being announced, to start wondering aloud whether more of these riches need to be redistributed to the bottom end of the game. Clubs such as Darwen are part of the rich fabric that makes the English game unique in world football. It’s this very heritage that FA will doubtlessly trade upon when they launch their bid for the 2018 World Cup. The smallest clubs have, however, been allowed to flounder and scrape their way from crisis to crisis over the last few decades, and this is a process which has been exacerbated by the Premier League’s all-reaching tentacles. Youngsters growing up in Darwen will grow up as Blackburn Rovers supporters if they are lucky. They might get subsumed into the Manchester United machine. They certainly don’t go and watch Darwen any more – we can see that from the club’s attendance figures. There’s a decent chance that they’re only barely aware that the club exists. To a point, this may be the club’s fault. Too many non-league clubs continue to operate almost as members only clubs – quasi-secret societies which are almost impenetrable to outsiders and make next to no effort to engage their local communities. For all of these criticisms, however, they have potential. They could act as a focus for local communities – a meeting place, a common cause and an identity for local people. If the government can throw billions of pounds propping up financial institutions, then the FA should look at throwing some money into saving football clubs that the world seems to have forgotten about a long time ago.