Darlington’s post-war story is mostly one of serial, stubborn survival. The core of loyal fans are taking pride in past players, from Arthur Wharton, England’s first black footballer, who joined in 1885, to Craig Liddle, who played 315 matches in defence from 1998 to 2005.
And at Feethams, the unique, charming ground for cricket and football, with its twin towers, which sits abandoned in the town, missed by all who have shivered in Reynolds’s 25,000-seat arena since he moved the club there nine years ago.
The last owner, Raj Singh, appointed Madden after declaring the club unsustainable at the arena, having thrown in around £2m in three years, and been crippled by the stadium’s running costs. A local consortium is looking into salvage possibilities, but the overwhelming obstacle is the vanity stadium Reynolds built and named after himself.
With crowds of less than 2,000 huddled into one stand, the Darlington Arena is a rattling monument to the reckless buying, selling and mismanagement of historic football clubs.
The Football League used to laugh at the very idea of testing whether football club owners were “fit and proper people”, and back then it presented Reynolds in supporting evidence. He was a respectable businessman, it said, whose criminal career, which earned him time in prison for robbery, was behind him, so how would a test barring criminals apply to him?
The answer was obvious, incorporated into the fit and proper person test when the League finally adopted it in 2004, that convictions are a bar until they are spent.
But Reynolds’s case posed more difficult questions about his fitness, and the source of his money, which were never tackled, and to which football clubs are still vulnerable. He had made a fortune in chipboard, and via his company, GRUK, put £7m into Darlington, which was in financial difficulties then, with Feethams requiring repair.
Later, in 2005, Reynolds undertook not to act as a company director for eight years due to “unfit conduct” which, according to the Insolvency Service, was that the money was sunk into Darlington while GRUK was making “gross losses”, “to the detriment of GRUK’s creditors … imprudently or irresponsibly.”
Reynolds, in his autobiography – Cracked It! – chronicled his criminal life as a safecracker and thief, and the Dickensian misery of his childhood, when he was consigned to a residential approved school, where he was beaten and abused. But sympathy and admiration for his success dried up among most Darlo fans because Reynolds was a bully who did not listen to supporters dissenting from his grand plan.
Had he done so, he would never have considered spending around £20m building a 25,000-seat stadium for the Quakers.
In his time, and that of subsequent owners, it has proved a millstone to service, and a miserable experience for spectators. In October 2005 Reynolds, having lost the club and been forced to put it into administration, was convicted of defrauding the Inland Revenue and sentenced to three years in prison.
The arena is now owned by two businessmen, Philip Scott and Graham Sizer, who lent the last owner, George Houghton, £1.7m at 10% interest. They are not interested in taking over the club but said they will talk about a favourable rent deal for anybody who will.
A local consortium has been formed but the shortage of money is so acute that Madden is warning the club will fold before they have had a chance to inspect the disastrous accounts and consider whether any plans are viable.
Madden said he dismissed 12 staff the day he walked in because there was no money to pay them, and five employees remain, plus the players and the club legend Liddle, now the caretaker manager, awaiting their fate.
The supporters trust has raised £50,000 over years of rattling buckets, and some are urging it to hand that over now, to give the club a brief while longer to see if a rescue can be achieved. However, the trust says there is no viable long-term plan in which it can properly invest its members’ money; they do not want to lose it for Madden’s fees.
For years, since the first in a straggle of administrations, the trust has been preparing contingency plans for forming its own supporter-owned club and starting again, as AFC Wimbledon, now in the Football League, did, should the club finally fold.
Claire Stone, the trust secretary – the chairman, Tony Taylor, resigned following abuse he received – said she takes her autistic son, and four other young people with similar difficulties, to Darlington’s matches.
“Going to support the football has been a great benefit to these children; they have learned to socialise with each other, and make friendships.
If the club does fold, we will be devastated. We love the club, we want it to continue, but we cannot throw trust members’ money into a black hole.”
If Darlington do die, in the greatest financial boom English football has ever known, it will be at a folly of a stadium, built with millions improperly spent while Feethams, a beloved sporting home, sits rotting back in town.
That was a piece from an article published in The Guardian back in January 2012 when the death knell was sounding for one of our football league’s most loved clubs.
I say that because I always remember Darlo as perennial underdogs (and you do get status from being such) while as a traditional northern club, they were rich in cup history and slayed many a giant across the years. In any event, the sad demise of Darlington and that report apropos, came just a few years after another battle for survival, documented here in this article from the BBC.
What is it about following Darlo that seems to attract despair and joy in disproportionate measures?
In 1993, a farewell presentation was made to Dennis Thompson, my predecessor at BBC Tees (then BBC Radio Cleveland). Dennis had been covering the Quakers for around 30 years and somebody joked after the event: “Two good years, Dennis, and 28 bad ones.”
I think I’ve got almost the same ratio, since I started watching the Quakers in the early seventies as a teenager.
In only my second season, we had gates of around 1,000, and around Christmas one year, we lost 7-0 at Bradford City. The manager said afterwards: “That won’t happen again” – but a week later, we were thumped 7-0 at home by Southport.
In those days, Darlo were lucky that there was no automatic promotion and relegation into the Conference as there is now. The old pals’ act usually came to the rescue – that and the fact that Darlo is one of the stops on the main railway line and is right next to the A1. Barrow were booted out of the league because they finished at the bottom of the old Fourth Division at the wrong place at the wrong time – and Barrow doesn’t have a railway, and the nearest motorway is 40 miles away.
Owners have come and gone, the dim rays of hope have all too often been shut out, like a light bulb suddenly blowing when you arrive home from an away match at 3 in the morning.
The club has probably had more crises than any other in the Football League, and it hasn’t been helped by the spiralling costs of running a football club over the last three decades.
Managers have come and gone, so have ambitious owners who have vowed to turn the club – which hasn’t tasted football at a higher level since 1992 – and that one day it will play in the Premiership/Championship/Division Three.
Yes, it could be the Premier one day – the UniBond Premier.
And then, of course, there’s that 25,000 seater stadium, so grand, but so empty.
Feethams was maybe past its best, but it had a unique character – plus for us fans, you could walk all the way around the ground so then you could stand behind the end that Darlo were attacking, or in some of the bad seasons, watch them defend badly from 100 yards away.
There have been some great moments in the last thirty years or so. Back to back title wins in 1990 and 1991, a trip to Wembley for the play offs in 1996, a play off win against Hartlepool in 2000, a league cup draw at Leeds – and it’s the prospect of some sort of repeat that keeps us going.
Many fans thought before the home game with Rochdale on a Tuesday night in February that this could be Darlo’s year for promotion – and then suddenly at 11pm somebody switched the light off. We were in administration again, the Football League deducted ten points, and we’re trying to raise cash to save the club. Again – for the second time in six years, and for the umpteenth time in 35 years.
Why do we bother? Because it’s part of our lives and while we have more bad years than good, we always hope that there’ll be one good year around the corner.
So how had Darlington got to this stage in the first place?
In 1999, the club was bought by local businessman George Reynolds, who had huge ambitions for the club. This was shown by their unsuccessful approaches for players such as Paul Gascoigne and Faustino Asprilla, along with the brand new Reynolds arena. However, his ambition was the start of the end for Darlington.
Before the move to the Reynolds arena, Darlington played at Feethams, an 8,000 capacity stadium, right in the heart of the town. With Darlington only 30 miles away from Newcastle, many of the 100,000 population supported the Magpie’s, meaning that Feethams’ was rarely sold out. The small, intimidating ground suited Darlington, who became an established Football League club. Then Reynolds, in 2003, moved the club to the Reynolds arena.
On the outskirts of town, the Reynolds arena has an impressive capacity of 25,000, more than some Premiership clubs. An attendance of around 11,500 fans saw Darlington open the stadium against Kidderminster but this remains the stadium record to date. Even derbies against Hartlepool failed to attract large numbers, with the ground has averaging around 1,500 to 2.000 fans.
Six months after the completion of the stadium, Darlington went into administration. The cost and maintenance of the stadium (rumoured to be around £80,000 per month) was too much for the club to handle and it only survived due to a benefit match featuring ex-players such as Dalglish, which raised around £100,000.
Five years later the club was back in administration with the situation off the pitch affecting the one on it. In 2010, the club were relegated from the football league.
Darlington has remained in the Blue Square Premier ever since, struggling to attract crowds as the future looked bleaker and bleaker. The club won the FA trophy in 2011, but five months later, the club went back into administration. This saw a remarkable effort by fans, who helped raise money to pay for the club’s pre match meal, with the players only making the match due to the efforts of a local Newspaper.
The case of Darlington is a sad one, with one man’s ambition proving to be the downfall for the club. Fans plan to bring the club back under a phoenix name in a stadium closer to the town, where the Darlington story can start again.
The recent efforts of the fans and Liddle are truly remarkable, as they try to raise every pound they can in an effort to keep the dying club alive.
But there have been some better times:
Darlington 1883 were crowned Northern League Division One champions in 2012–13 with a club-record haul of 122 points, scoring 145 goals in the process. In the 2013–14 season they were Northern League Division One North runners-up, but lost in a play-off semi-final against Ramsbottom United.
Before I go on to look at where Darlington are right now, this piece taken from the blog ‘A Beautiful History’ tells us how Darlo came to be originally.
Despite there being a football club in the town since as far back as 1861, the Darlington Football Club that we know today grew from a meeting held at Darlington Grammar School in July 1883. They soon grew to be the leading club in South Durham and in 1889 became one of the ten founding members of the Northern League. Success followed with championships in 1896 and 1900, and the club moved on to the North Eastern League. Annual applications for Football League membership showed the club’s ambition, and although unsuccessful until 1921 they took professional status just before the First World War.
Football has been played at Feethams in one form or another since the 1860s. Feethams ground itself was originally rented from a certain magnificently named John Beaumont Pease, a prominent member of the local Quaker community. The ground was re-laid with turf from the old Park Street cricket ground, where cricket had been played since 1839. The early founder’s religious persuasion led to the team’s nickname of The Quakers.
Darlington took on the blue and white stripes of the first club in town, who in turn adopted these colours from the town’s shield, representing the River Tees. They introduced for themselves black and white hoops when they became founder members of the third division north in 1921. The choice for black and white was inspired by the traditional dress code of the Quakers and remains until today, having seen over the years both unusual and fashionable variations in shirt patterns, including chevrons and chest bands.
Towards the end of the penultimate century the town had adopted a locally designed “badge” or “symbol” which was widely used on uniform buttons, public transport and Council documents and publications. This was unofficial and never registered with the College of Arms. It also became Darlington’s first badge. The shield shows the Stephenson’s ‘Rocket Locomotion’, Stockton and Darlington Railway’s first steam engine, which dates from 1825.
The St. Cuthbert’s cross commemorates the legend of the monks of Lindisfarne fleeing from the Danish invaders. They carried with them the body of the Saint and eventually came to Darlington. On the spot where the body rested an early Saxon Church was built. Hence the Parish Church is named after Darlington’s Patron Saint, Cuthbert. The white and blue lines symbolise the River Tees. The motto ‘Floreat Industria’ means “Let Industry Flourish”
Darlo these days
Feethams these days means luxury homes. Darlington ground shared with Bishop Auckland at Heritage Park for a few seasons then struck a deal with Darlington Rugby Club to ground share at Blackwell Meadows in the town and have redeveloped the ground up to National League standard since.
Vanarama Northern League