WORDS: RAY SIMPSON
After plunging into administration on three separate occasions and reaching the very brink of extinction, Darlington FC looked set to disappear off the footballing map. However, having been forced to start again from the Northern League, the Quakers are now finding their feet again as a fan-owned club…
When Darlington skipper Ian Miller climbed up to the royal box at Wembley and triumphantly lifted the FA Carlsberg Trophy to the ecstatic cheers of 10,000 fans in May 2011, Darlington followers genuinely thought that the long, dark and uncertain days at the club were finally over.
Every football club has its miserable times, but Darlington seemed to have had more than its fair share in the previous decade. The much heralded move across town in 2003 led by George Reynolds from the charming but outdated Feethams to a brand new 25,000-seater stadium, which many thought was far too big for the club’s needs, fell flat within just six months when the club was put into administration for the first time.
After agonizingly missing out on a Wembley play off final appearance in 2008 because of a penalty shootout failure, another spell in administration followed when another owner, George Houghton, pulled the plug just as the club was poised to occupy a League Two promotion spot in February 2009.
That action prompted a rapid decline into the Conference, the fans completely bemused by the fall from grace. Managers Colin Todd and Steve Staunton could do nothing to stop the slide, and despite the best efforts late in the season of Simon Davey, the club was relegated. Davey, to everyone’s surprise, then took advantage of a clause in his contract and walked out on the club the following summer when he was offered the Hereford job, and his assistant, Ryan Kidd, was appointed manager in his place, but to add to the feeling of embarrassment, only lasted 10 days.
The man who bought the club in the summer of 2009, Raj Singh, appointed Mark Cooper as manager for the first Conference season, but crowds never lived up to Singh’s expectations, and certainly came nowhere near to filling a vast stadium. For most games, only one side of the stadium was opened – Darlo fans couldn’t even sit behind the goal.
In February 2011 Singh warned that the club needed more fans to take up season tickets, but when Quakers got to Wembley, courtesy of a thrilling fightback against Gateshead from a 2-0 deficit in the first leg of their semi-final, the dark clouds seemed to have been dispelled, even more so when Chris Senior popped up and scored the most dramatic and unforgettable of winners in the last minute of extra time.
Cue delirium, everyone forgave and forgot about the two previous Wembley defeats together with the disappointments and the big let downs of the previous 20 years, let alone the previous eight. With a rejuvenated Singh and a crafty Cooper at the helm, surely Darlo would be among the frontrunners for promotion back to the Football League in season 2011-12?
But within seven months of walking out at Wembley, the club was on the brink of extinction. The summer signings failed to ignite the promotion challenge and, after an FA Cup embarrassment at Hinckley in October 2011, to the dismay of Darlo fans, Singh placed the club into administration for the third time, which must have been some sort of unwanted record. Some players, having received PFA and legal advice, started to drift away, and Craig Liddle, who thought he would be caretaker manager for just a few weeks, suddenly became the figurehead of the club as permanent manager.
The away game at Barrow in early January 2012 was proclaimed as the club’s last ever after 128 years, unless a new investor came forward, and sadly eleven days later at midday the administrator, Harvey Madden, emotionally told the players and staff that the club had joined the list of clubs that are no more.
The Darlo fans congregated outside, and together with those listening to live updates on BBC Tees and watching developments on Twitter, all mourned the loss. Texts stating “Darlo RIP” were distributed.
And then, right on cue in the most dramatic and bizarre of circumstances, along came two members of the fledgling Rescue Group, Doug Embleton and Shaun Campbell. They screeched to halt outside the doors of the stadium in their Peugeot car, and announced to the assembled fans and media “We’ve got the money!” It could only happen at Darlo.
After a frantic afternoon transferring cash, Madden performed a U-turn, and informed the bemused staff and players that the club was still alive. The fans, clutching their mobiles and listening to the radio, couldn’t believe it either. For the forthcoming book “In the Dying Seconds” someone has actually written a piece about who was the best administrator!
The £50,000 gave the club some breathing space, but the fans had to step up their efforts to keep the club going. Out came the collecting buckets and begging bowls once again, appeals were made far and wide for support, and over 5,000 fans turned up from all over the country for home games against York and Fleetwood.
They provided enough finance to keep the club going, but there were other agonies to go through. Potential owners surfaced and then quickly submerged, and it became more and more obvious that the fans would have to save the club themselves. Many thought that was inevitable after all the let downs of previous years – their attitude was “there’ll be nobody but ourselves to blame if it goes wrong.” So they launched a fundraising campaign to finance the purchase of the club, and raised a six-figure sum.
Negotiations with Singh were deadlocked, so the supporters brokered a deal with Madden for the club, and came out of admin without a creditors’ voluntary agreement. They also announced their intention to move away from their home ground – the fixed costs alone were £250,000 per year – and groundshare with a local club, which after a brief spell with Shildon, became Bishop Auckland.
They argued their case with the FA and were given a degree of sympathy for their circumstances together with some encouragement – but to no avail, as the club was deemed to be a new club by the FA and was relegated to Step 5, the Northern League. The fans very strongly argued that the club was the existing one, but the FA turned a deaf ear to their appeal.
The fans’ backing for the club was unrelenting, even though it didn’t have a manager or a ground of its own, and only one contracted player. Former Sunderland midfielder Martin Gray was appointed manager, and he set about building a competitive team, a difficult task considering that he now had to deal with players who also had full-time jobs. He couldn’t get to grips with players going away on holiday during the season, for example. Gray’s main aim was to build a team that could challenge for promotion – a big task considering that the league had been won in three successive years by Spennymoor, while other teams such as West Auckland, Dunston and Whitley Bay had all played in the FA Vase final.
But within weeks he’d built a winning team, and the faith of the fans didn’t diminish. A winning start to the season helped to build the momentum, and gates were regularly over the thousand mark – the highest since official records began in the Northern League.
Most of all, the club was now an integral part of the community, and gained more respect from schools and community groups – at least one attended every home game last season, something unknown for many years.
Sponsorship also increased, as everyone rallied round. No longer was the club at the mercy of one man, and instead the fans had a real sense of achievement and value as they contributed to the running of the club. Two seasons ago, the club asked for volunteers to fork the Arena pitch, and no one turned up. When the club made a similar appeal last season, around 20 people appeared within half an hour. It was truly now a fans’ club.
The momentum increased. Some fans likened the feeling to a juggernaut as the team put together a fantastic unbeaten run from November to the end of the season that won the Northern League title, and promotion to the next level up, the Evo-Stik First Division North. Their last two games were watched by 4,000 fans, for a seasonal average of just over 1,300.
When the club won the FA Trophy in 2011, the silverware only left the club on a few occasions, and the club missed a huge public relations opportunity. For this celebration, the club made it known right at the start that the Northern League trophy would be available for visits, and at the time of writing, it has been to 90 different places and been handled by over 10,000 people.
So what next for Quakers? A return to the town is a top priority, but now the fans feel that their destiny is in their own hands. They possess a wide variety of skills from legal, to commercial, to administration, to organization, allied with a huge amount of energy, appetite and enthusiasm. It is a big team effort. And most of all, they possess a burning desire not to let the club die, because next time, there won’t be a last ditch reprieve.