At the end of yesterday, Darlington FC remained alive albeit on life support. Today, however, stories started to emerge which threaten to fragment an increasingly fractious fan-base as the matter of this club’s survival draws closer and closer to its denouement.
There have been words of encouragement and support funds and fury from many supporters that a situation such as this should be allowed to happen to the same club yet again but, at the time of writing, we are still nowhere near knowing whether the club will saved or, if it will, who by.
The first task that any new owner would have to face would be rounding up the players and management that were released by the clubs administrators at the end of yesterday. Manager Craig Liddle and his players were released from their contracts by the administrators, most likely because the administrators themselves would have had to start taking responsibility for their wages in the near future. This, of course, can only throw the club’s match against title-chasing Fleetwood Town on Saturday into some degree of doubt. How many of those players will find somewhere else to play over the next day or two? What sort of team will Darlington be able to put out on Saturday afternoon? Right now, no-one has anything like a definitive answer to these questions.
Such considerations were put into the shade this morning by the news of the interest in one particular individual whose name continues to loom large in the minds of many of the club’s supporters – George Houghton. According to today’s Northern Echo, Houghton will be speaking to the administrators tomorrow afternoon, and it’s fair to say that his interest in the club will prove to be controversial, to say the least, because Houghton and Darlington FC Have some considerable history, and it’s a history that many supporters of the club would rather forget.
Houghton previously arrived at the club in March 2006 after one of their previous spells in administration with big plans. He spent heavily but his largesse was not matched by significant improvement on the pitch and by February 2009 the club was back in administration. Three months later, Houghton was back at the club, brokering the deal that brought former deputy chairman Raj Singh to Darlington, but Darlington failed to spark under new manager Colin Todd (and his successor, Steve Staunton), and were relegated out of the Football League at the end of the 2009/10 season. Off the pitch, meanwhile, a loan taken out by Houghton in 2007 came back to bite the club when, in February of last year, its holding company entered into administration, meaning that it defaulted on a £1.7m loan to businessmen Philip Scott and Graham Sizer. They took ownership of The Arena, and the club continues to play there on a peppercorn lease of £10,000 per year.
The mention of Houghton’s name, perhaps unsurprisingly, sharply divided Darlington’s already fractured support-base between those that claimed that they would never set foot inside the ground if he became involved with the club again and those that want to see it saved at any cost. By early this evening, though, reports were starting to filter through that Houghton may not be involved with any attempt to save the club – yet again – in any case. There is now a cut-off date of noon tomorrow, by which time the administrators have stated that they will have made a final decision over whether to accept one of the bids or to begin the process of winding the club up. There are said to be two groups currently bidding to run it. The DFCRG bid is one, and another is from a mystery consortium – some of us may pause to wonder at this point what the need for “mystery” is in the takeover of a Blue Square Premier football club, but it is not known at present whether either of these bids will be acceptable to the administrators as financially viable to keep the club alive as a going concern.
All roads, however, lead back to the covenants held over the land upon which The Arena stands. Without these being relaxed, it is unlikely that any investor will wish to keep pouring money into the club. The council could relax these and allow development of the site in return for a new, more sustainable ground in the town but, as ever in what has started to become an extraordarily convoluted story, there are further complications. Raj Singh, the last chairman of the club and the man that put them into administration this time around, had been understood to have stated that he would agree to the writing off of the loans that he had put into the club over the last couple of years in order to keep it afloat. This afternoon, however, rumours have started to circulate that he may reconsider his position should covenants on The Arena be relaxed. Such a move would render any attempt at rescuing this incarnation of Darlington FC as all but fruitless. The club would be highly likely to have to be liquidated.
Meanwhile, the abuse thrown in the direction of the club’s supporters trust over the last few days took a more unpleasant turn with the news that the disabled former Trust chair Tony Taylor, who has stepped down from his position as a reaction to abuse that he received last week, has been assaulted in his own home. It is not known whether this incident is related to recent events concerning the supporters trust, but it certainly may have given some pause for thought before continuing the personal vituperation that has been spat at the trust board over the last couple of weeks or so.
Ultimately, though, all roads may yet lead back to the Trust. If the club is liquidated (and Houghton’s comments on BBC Radio Tees tonight that it owes £1.2m with £200,000 having to be paid by the middle of June would indicate that the clubs current financial position may be intractable as to make it unsaveable), then all eyes will be on it with regard to the establishment of a phoenix club and at that point the ring-fenced £50,000 will take on considerably greater importance than it currently has. There will be those that continue to view “the trust” as being, somehow, a separate organisation to the rest of Darlington FC, but more pragmatic supporters may choose instead to make the experience of the last few weeks a galvanising point to make it stronger, involve people that cam express its viewpoint more positively and make it again a force for strength and unity amongst the club’s support. What we can say for certain is that its current, marginalised position benefits nobody apart from those that would, for their own ends, seek to see it enfeebled.
For now, though, all that anybody can do is wait. If tomorrow’s announcement is positive, then perhaps a sense of normality can return to this most bedevilled of football clubs, although, unless absolute transparency can be guaranteed from all parties concerned (and if there has been one thing missing from the last couple of weeks at Darlington, it has been transparency), the possibility of further arguing, factionalising and discord remains distinct. If this incarnation of Darlington FC, however, cannot be rescued, then the corpse must be lain to rest and the future, wherever it ends up and whatever it consists of, must begin as soon as possible. It is time for the madness that has been engulfing this football club for far too long to stop.
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