On the brink
Darlington fan Rob Parrish looks at how the Quakers have been taken to the point of extinction.
By Rob Parrish - Follow me on Twitter @skysportsrobp
Last Updated: 16/01/12 2:08pm
Back in December 1998, Darlington came close to upsetting Manchester City in the FA Cup. Fast forward 13 years and the financially-stricken North East club are on the brink of going out of existence, while City sit proudly at the Premier League summit after seeing their fortunes transformed by the arrival of owner Sheikh Mansour.
As City boss Roberto Mancini complains about being short of options due to injury, suspension and the African Cup of Nations, Quakers caretaker counterpart Craig Liddle is contemplating coming out of retirement at the age of 40, nearly seven years after hanging up his boots due to injury, with only 10 senior players left on his books for Saturday's Blue Square Premier clash with Fleetwood. One club is genuinely down to the bare bones.
It remains to be seen whether Darlington will even be in existence to fulfil their fixture this weekend, with the club's administrator poised to pull the plug on their life-support machine unless a last-ditch rescue package can be agreed. With mounting debts and the Quakers haemorrhaging money, liquidation is not an idle threat, but a grim reality for the 129-year old club.
I feel it is important to make clear I have no axe to grind with City. I've merely used them as an example of the financial disparities which exist between the elite and the also-rans in English football. The fact they are threatening the established order is good for the top-flight and only the most churlish would complain after the arrival of talents such as Sergio Aguero and David Silva on our shores.
Far, far away from the bright lights of the Premier League, the news of Darlington being plunged into administration for the third time in nine years earlier this month warranted barely a footnote in most newspapers, while for supporters of the team it marked confirmation of fears which had been circulating for some time.
The problem for Darlo, which outgoing chairman Raj Singh became the latest to realise, is that their current cavernous stadium acts only as a millstone to drag them into the financial depths and can never be a viable venue.
Built by former owner George Reynolds in 2003 and initially named after a man who has since spent time behind bars for tax evasion, the Darlington Arena has a frankly baffling capacity of 25,000. It was just over one tenth full for their last home game - the New Year's Day encounter against local rivals Gateshead and has often been much more sparsely populated.
Given Reynolds' proven approach to financial affairs, it was little surprise when the crippling costs of building a new stadium which could never be filled pushed the club to the brink financially for a first time in that same season. His departure soon after was welcomed by all associated with the Quakers, but a bitter legacy remains in the shape his self-indulgent folly, a mocking reminder that the misguided dreams of one man can bring the hub of local community to its knees.
The ground cannot be regarded as an asset in any form, particularly as ownership of the stadium was passed to major creditors Philip Scott and Graham Sizer when another previous chairman George Houghton took the club into administration in 2009.
And it is a world away from Feethams, Darlington's former home, which is now little more than an overgrown meadow in the centre of the town, with the remnants of just one stand - The Tin Shed - only still in place to act as a sight-screen for the cricket club next door. My first game there was a 0-0 draw with Merthyr Tydfil back in 1990, and after that I was hooked. Obviously.
Stay of execution
The highs of supporting a club like Darlington are few and far between, but they are certainly worth savouring. Back-to-back promotions from the Conference to the old Division Three in 1990 and 1991, plus three trips to Wembley and the last-gasp joy of Chris Senior's goal at the death against Mansfield in the FA Trophy in the last of those in May.
Memories may be all that fans are left with if the final discussions with the administrator fail to bear fruit. I've already been asked a couple of times who I will support if Darlo go to the wall. Anyone with a genuine understanding of football will know it doesn't work like that.
Even if an unlikely stay of execution is secured, the longer-term problem of financing a non-league club in an outsize ground will remain and would have to be addressed to prevent yet another inevitable trip to the precipice. And with 10 points deducted and strict Conference rules relating to teams in administration, a further relegation this season must be expected, should the Quakers make it to the end of the campaign and beyond.
If the axe does fall, discussions over a phoenix club have already taken place, but that version of Darlington would have to start again at the foot of the football pyramid, which would make their current standing in the highest level of non-league look like a place in the UEFA Champions League. And for every AFC Wimbledon success story, there is a Scarborough equivalent.
Whatever the outcome for Darlington, the continued blasé approach to loans, debts, wages and general financial management from clubs in the Premier League downwards, particularly in the face of a crippling global recession, has to be addressed by those in power, with UEFA president Michel Platini at least attempting to do so with rules on financial Fair Play.
The time for living the dream has gone. Now everyone needs to live within their means.