Over the last two or three days, Darlington FC has started to unravel. What looked like a serious situation became a crisis, and the crisis is now starting to take on the appearance of the last rites. With every new day this week has come more and more bad news, the sort of news that puts the froth that clogs up the sports pages of our daily newspapers into very stark focus. Darlington Football Club is dying, and no-one seems willing or able to do anything about it. At this stage, the new season couldn’t seem further away for a club which, had it not been forced into administration and subsequently been docked ten points, would have been playing in the League Two play-offs last night.
Last weekend, a crowd of over 3,000 turned up at the club’s white elephant, The Darlington Arena, for a charity match to raise funds to keep the club going just a little longer. The Arena holds 27,000 people and, as ever, the fans rattled around it like peas in a can. Where was the rest of the town? There can’t be a single person amongst the population of just over 100,000 that doesn’t know of their fate. Did only one in thirty of the townsfolk care enough to turn out and give them one last tenner? The match raised £25,000 – nowhere near enough to keep them going – and, from that point on, bad news has followed on a daily basis.
The club’s administrators, Brackenbury, Clark & Company, had put a deadline of Tuesday for new buyers to come forward. There had been a chink of light in the hope that former deputy chairman Raj Singh would make a bid for the club, but this stumbled when it became apparent that incumbent chairman, George Houghton, who owns the Arena under the aegis of (you guessed it) a separate holding company, declined to sell him the club and the stadium. Singh must have asked himself what exactly he would have been buying. A five million pound debt, a pile of unaffordable contracts and a tenancy at a stadium that all too few people want to visit is the answer to that particular question.
So Tuesday came and went. Yesterday, assistant manager Martin Gray and nine full-time members of the backroom staff were made redundant. This was, by now, beyond merely another football club being in administration. This was way beyond what we have seen at any other Football League clubs in recent years. Gray was magnanimous in his departure. “This isn’t about me”, he told the Northern Echo, “what’s important is Darlington Football Club and the people who lost jobs”. The phrase being used by this time was that the club was being “mothballed for the summer”. David Clark, the administrator, confirmed today that “the majority” of players had also been made redundant. The PFA cast doubt upon this statement, but it seems unlikely that they can afford to maintain a full-time a playing staff at present.If they haven’t gone already, they will have to soon.
Plenty of football clubs have gone into administration before and survived, but this summer (and indeed the crisis at this club) feels different. There always used to be someone that would step in at the last minute with the money to keep a stricken club alive, but the current severe economic slump means that plenty of wealthy people have lost a lot of money and that plenty of other still wealthy people are hanging onto their money rather than choosing to throw it into the bottomless, fiery pit that is a football club. The vast size of the debts run up from years of mismanagement at Darlington FC and the gaping black holes between their income and their outgoings mean that the Supporters Trusts there can do little but fund-raise, hope for the best and plan for the worst. There is a deathly pallor enveloping Darlington Football Club, and their survival seems a million miles away at the moment.
If – or when – Darlington FC expire, however, it doesn’t mean the end of the club. Ultimately, a football club is just that – a club made up of the shared experiences of thousands of people – and they can rebuild again from the bottom up. There was a time when the death of a football club meant the death of football in that particular town, but the rebirth of clubs is a phenomenon that has become commonplace, and Darlington supporters might, should the worst come to the worst, find themselves re-engaging with the game and their club in a revitalising fashion. Should Darlington fold and be reborn away from the Arena, they may even find it easier to engage with a community that has showed no interest in travelling to a soulless bowl on the edge of town for the last few seasons.
Running their club for themselves, building it up from scratch and with a long-term target of fighting their way back into the Football League might even prove to more rewarding than bouncing around in the lower divisions of the League in perpetuity. It may feel like small consolation at the moment, but every cloud has a silver lining and a fan base of 2,500 will give them a definite head start should they need to be reborn. For now, Darlington Football Club is clinging on for dear life but, no matter how grim it might all look at the moment, in this case the end doesn’t have to mean the end. We wish them all the best, regardless of what may happen over the next few weeks.
Edit: The plot thickens, with the administrators confirming this morning that players haven’t been released after all. I am inclined to think that, in the medium to long term, this will make little difference to their chances of survival. How can they survive with no significant income for the next few weeks? Also, there is the small matter that, if I were a Darlington supporter, I wouldn’t be buying a season ticket there until cast iron assurances are put in place that they are going to be able to start and complete next season, lest said season ticket become a very expensive piece of garbage. Still, to the extent that there is any good news coming from The Arena this week, I guess that this is as good as it will get at the moment.