Next up in our series on the lost football grounds of Britain, comes one of the most poignant stories of all. Darlington left Feethams for The Reynolds Arena in 2003, leaving behind a home of over a hundred years to play in a vast bowl that has proved to be disastrous for the club. Stefan Volkmann writes on this most painful of moves.
When historians of the beautiful game look back at the cast of tinpot dictators and petty megalomaniacs that have graced English football throughout it’s chequered history, the figure of George Reynolds will be little more than a footnote, albeit a quirky one. Born into poverty in Sunderland and raised in a poorhouse before being convicted and sent down for safe-cracking, Reynolds emerged from humble begininngs to become a multi-millionare in the kitchen surfaces industry before saving Darlington from the brink of bankcruptcy in 1999.
Had he stopped there, he would have secured his place in the hearts and minds of Darlington fans forever. He didn’t, though, and before long he began to talk of taking Darlington from Feethams, their home since the club was founded in 1883, to a new 25,000 seater arena. Unlike much of what Reynolds said, sadly this time he backed up his word with actions, and went on to spend £18 million on the decadent Reynolds Arena, the whitest of white elephants, which opened with a 2-0 defeat to Kidderminster Harriers in August 2003.
Thus ended the one hundred and twenty year history of Feethams, as a football ground at least. Like all of the best football grounds, Feethams was imbued with any number of idiosyncracies that made the matchday experience unique, not least the mile-long detour through a warren of back alleys that away fans had to make to reach their enclosure from the main entrance. Then there was the faux twin towers that embellished the main entrance to the ground, splendid in their stumped grandeur. Coming through these towers, the first-time spectator was struck by the first oddity of this lovely football ground. A cricket pitch.
Feethams was the last place where professional football was played alongside County Championship cricket, the twin bastions of English sports overlapping in the late summer. To reach the stadium the home fans had to walk around the cricket pitch, and so the Darlington faithful were the last who had to make their way into their football ground mindful of the threat to crania of a lusty hook or a booming slogged sweep. Once this obstacle had been overcome, the football ground itself lay before you. Nestled in a leafy corner of Darlington and with the river Skerne running behind the East Stand the location of the stadium was, if not exactly idyllic, then certainly more agreeable than many football grounds. After all, I’ve been to Hartlepool.
The majority of the home fans gathered in the East Stand, which, having been opened in 1997, was the only nod to modernity in the place. Opposite lay the ramshackle West Stand, a throw back to the days when bare wooden planks sufficed for seating. The Polam Lane end was an uncovered terrace behind the goal at the south end of the ground. The nucleus of the home support however flocked to the largest sight-screen in cricket, the Tin Shed end, the covered terrace at the north end of the ground that backed onto the cricket pitch. It was at this end that Neil Wainwright scored the last goal ever at this venerable stadium, an uncharacteristic thumping header that secured a 2-2 draw against Leyton Orient on the 3rd May 2003.
Maybe the most heart-wrenching aspect of the whole affair is that Feethams is still there, with various mooted projects to tear the ground down to build flats having failed to come to fruition. The sacred pitch, that hallowed turf, is now a weed patch, and with the other stands having been dismantled or sold on, only the Tin Shed remains. It’s a squalid, dilipidated reminder of the futility of the entire Reynolds project. Feethams, though, was – and remains to the majority of supporters – the spiritual home of Darlington F.C.
The present stadium, a hollow shell of a place next to a motorway, is rightly an object of derision from opposition supporters. More importantly, a generation of Darlington supporters is growing up in this empty sanitised shell of a stadium, a cathedral to the vanity and narcissism of one man. It’s very difficult to fall in love with football amongst the rows of empty seats, and it is hard to avoid the feeling, as the club slips from crisis to crisis and the fanbase continues to dwindle, that the new stadium is a millstone around the neck of the club that will eventually bring it to it’s knees.
Feethams however was beloved, and even when filled with only a couple of thousand spectators still managed to generate at atmosphere and a warmth that is not to be found anymore. The notion that a stadium has worth beyond its potenial commerical value or it’s proximity to transport links – as a spiritual repository of the hopes, fears, agonies and excitements of generations of supporters, or as a physical manifestation of the football club in the community, is a dying one in football. It died eight years in Darlington, and we are still struggling to come to terms with the consequences.
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