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Darlington’s fans have been trapped on board a rollercoaster since the turn of the year, and they all want to get off. When former Chairman Raj Singh plunged the club into it’s third period of administration at the turn of the year many thought that this signalled the end of the club’s 128-year history. It nearly was, then it wasn’t, and now it might be.. again. The problem with Darlington is that it refused to die. When Administrator Harvey Madden read the club its last rites a week gone Wednesday no-one could have imagined what was about to happen.
The fans were angry, and rightfully so. A succession of Chairman have raped and pillaged the club, almost into obscurity. While each may have wanted the club to do well this was only a means to an end which was, of course, to either make money for themselves, or boost their own ego. Each time the Chairmen suffered a setback in their scheme the threat of pulling the financial plug on the club was often sufficient for an army of worker-fans to stand around for hours outside football grounds collecting money in plastic buckets.
Why? Why do the fans, and not just of Darlington, allow themselves to be used like this, time and again? At what was to be Darlington’s last ever match, away to Barrow FC, the Barrow fans unfurled a giant banner before the game which said it all.
“Our football clubs are for life, not just for business“, evoked memories of the very familiar “a dog is for life, not just for Christmas” message which was issued every year to ask people to think before buying someone a pet for Christmas, and the Barrow fans’ version was received and understood by thousands of soccer fans from up and down the country.
The message from the Barrow fans, which was issued to show solidarity with their fellow Darlington fans, struck a chord in every football fan who heard it, and hear it they did as the Darlo fans took to the internet to make sure that as many people as possible heard about their plight.
This week’s news about a young entrepreneur emerging as an apparent saviour of the club should have come as welcome relief to the hundreds of individuals who have worked religiously during the past few weeks in an effort to save the club from the knackers yard, but the comments being made on the fans’ main message board seems to suggest an air of suspicion, or could it actually be disappointment?
Just over a week ago the club was on the verge of extinction and I myself felt the loss of the club I’d supported for over 40 years as I read the bad news tweet “it’s gone”, sent by one of the players just before I left work for the day, and I spent the next hour sitting in a car reflecting on everything. Passing Rustavi FC’s ground, which always reminded me of happier days spent screaming for penalties at Darlo’s old ground, Feethams, I was thinking “well, I could start supporting them”, but I don’t think I could really follow any other club in quite the same way again. I arrived back in Tbilisi thinking “that was it”, there goes my great love of football.
Of course, when I got home and checked the internet, expecting to see a few news reports featuring the usual “messages of condolences” from here, there, and everywhere I was reminded of Jimmy Greaves’ famous catch phrase - football was, indeed, “a funny old game”. We had been thrown a lifeline in the shape of £50,000 which the DFC Rescue Group had somehow scraped together at the last minute in order to persuade the Administrator to grant the group a couple of weeks grace to carry out due diligence and come up with a viable long-term plan to provide the club with a sustainable future.
The extension of time granted by Harvey Madden (the Administrator) has allowed the club to continue operating until the end of January, however with only one member of staff and no players or coach (as Mr Madden had made them all redundant last Monday) it took the combined efforts of a determined team of volunteers and the goodwill of several first team players to ensure that last weekend’s game with Fleetwood Town could take place at all. We should be similarly grateful to all concerned that this Saturday’s home game against York City can take place.
But then “tha-tha-tha-tha-that’s all folks!”, unless our saviour steps in and plonks an acceptable plan on Harvey Maddens desk, or he accepts an offer from one of the other parties who are reported to be interested - not so much in the club, but in the stadium and the surrounding land.
The old saying “beggars can’t be choosers” springs to mind when you consider the options which could save the club - and we most certainly aren’t counting our chickens just yet, not after the promise and hope felt by all concerned last Tuesday, that the club would somehow survive only to feel the cold, hard steel of the administrator’s axe stop dead on our necks the following day.
On the one hand we have a property developer who want to give the club £2 million to “move on” so they can create a “snow dome” (or some such thing) and build some “eco” houses, while on the other we have Owls fan Paul Wildes, a Sheffield venture capitalist, who plans to invest £300,000 in the club with fans contributing a further £200,000 in return for a 40 per cent share.
Mr Wildes’ proposal appears to have come out of the blue. On the face of it - yeah, the club is saved… great achievement by all concerned now lets get back to work but I feel a bit uneasy about this proposal. Here’s why…
When I started this blog I had no idea of what was to come. My club had just entered it’s third and possibly final period of administration within the space of 10 years and the outlook looked bleak. We had no money and no real assets, and we had no-one to stand up for us.
True, the Darlo Trust should have been zooming out of their secret cave in our hour of need, and do all the things which a good Trust should do but, for various reasons, they didn’t and we fans were left to our own devices. A lot of unfortunate things were said and done which further soured relations with the Trust - the general feeling at the time was that the Trust had become a kind of splinter-group with their own agenda of creating a “phoenix” club which is actually one of the more probable avenues which we would need to travel down if the current club folds, and it still might just do that, but parallels were drawn with what happened to Scarborough FC when they folded.
The Seadog Trust (Scarborough’s Football Trust) spearheaded the reformation of the club in the guise of Scarborough Athletic but, for one reason or another, their leadership didn’t sit well with many of the old Scarborough fans who eventually formed a rival club called Scarborough Town, but the ongoing war of words between the two camps suggests that it will take many years before their differences are fully reconciled and we can look forward to seeing a team called Scarborough challenging for a place back in the football league.
If Darlington were to have folded a few weeks ago I think that there was a real danger, at that time, that we would have suffered the same fate as Scarborough. Now that we’ve all had a chance to have our two-penneth worth on the issue, and I personally feel that the finger of guilt about why the Trust appeared to go AWOL just when we needed it most needs pointing squarely at the bathroom mirror every morning, I’d say that such an outcome is less likely to happen.
For a moment, last week, it looked as though the Trust were reaching out with an olive branch when they contributed £10,000 to the sack of cash which bought the Rescue Group some time to examine the club’s accounts, though their statement about that transaction was the last we’ve heard from them. Granted, they are in a state of disarray caused by the resignation of the Chairman and Vice-Chairman, shortly after the club was placed into administration, but the very fact that I’ve quite naturally used the word “they” instead of “our Trust” is quite telling.
For the record I did re-join the Trust and make an additional contribution to their funds a couple of weeks ago as, with my “better late than never” head on I did (and still do) think that it is important to have a body representing us. In short, the silence from the Trust has generally been quite deafening and what noise has come from them have been reactionary and critical of just about everyone else except themselves which isn’t very helpful when you consider the dire circumstances the club now finds itself in.
I know that a number of other of fans have similarly taken up or renewed their membership during the past few weeks, judging by the comments made on the message board, but we’ve yet to see any positives coming from “them”, aside from the aforementioned £10k. Some cynics might say that this money was simply handed over as a kind of “political manoeuvre” - so they can say (to whoever still regards them as being representative of the majority of the fans) that they helped to save the club and they did, they almost begrudgingly did, but that’s all they did.
So, what do we do now?
If Mr Wildes steps in and helps to save the club isn’t that “Mission Accomplished”? Shouldn’t we all be bowing down and hailing him as the answer to our prayers? You could say that the fans’ response has been muted, but there was something else in the air.
Our twitter & facebook campaign has been hugely successful in spreading word of our imminent demise, and in raking in donations to help save the club. Last weekend fans came from all over the country to sit and watch Darlington take on Fleetwood Town in a “show of unity” which was hard for the media to ignore.
But that popularity has come, not so much because fans all over the world want to see a historic club like Darlington continue playing football, but because the central message of the campaign seems to have become the one which the Barrow fans so eloquently conveyed to the football world, reinforced by a heart-felt plea by one Darlington fan for football fans everywhere to feel the pain and suffering which we Darlington fans were being subjected to.
Football fans came out of the woodwork to support our cause and, for while, we actually believed our own hype - that we really could take back our club, and Mr Wildes’ arrival on the scene has upset the apple cart. I think some (probably A LOT) of us feel like we’re selling out at the first sign of someone with money. While he may be a football fan himself, he is also a very successful businessman and of that ilk which we and thousands of other people seemed to be staging some sort of rebellion against.
Mr Wildes could be forgiven for thinking that he wasn’t wanted at this point in time - he most certainly IS wanted, but we hope that the partnership which he is proposing with the fans is fair and equitable. The fans themselves are an inherently suspicious lot, and some are prone to shoot first and ask questions later when confronted by a situation which, if handled well, could actually work in their favour.
You see, maybe there IS a way to take back our club - by which I mean return it to a state where it can heap unequal measures of joy and misery on us fans, with almost predictable regularity (and often on successive Saturday afternoons) for many years to come. While we may never be a football club which is as commercially successful as the larger clubs, we can be successful in our own way, in our own very special and somewhat groundbreaking way.
Everyone keeps talking about business plans, sustainable models, pop concerts at the Arena, sportsman’s dinners, car boot sales, etc. etc. as a means to keep the tank topped up and allow the club to continue playing football and give us all a good reason not to simply head down to B&Q every Saturday.
Everyone really wants the community to become more involved in the club in some way, as means to help sustain it and help it to grow. But these are difficult times and Darlington is a small town with a traditionally low proportion of residents who actually give two hoots about the football club.
Everyone suspects that the people who come in to “save” football clubs are only seeking personal gain.
These are the harsh realities against which we have made some headway, but still there remains a significant number of people who have not yet been converted to the new religion in town, and there will be some Churchillian naysayers and doom mongers who will never surrender their lofty opinions about what they think should happen to the club.
What you’re about to read may seem even more rambling that all which you (hopefully) have just read, but it’s pieced together from some initial emails I sent when I was discussing this with someone over here in Georgia.
So, here goes nothing…
The Quakers Trust
“fulfilling the dream”
we could follow the Ipswich Town model where they also have a charitable trust which reaches to communities outside of the football sphere, because that’s what I think we need to be looking at, and not just local communities.
Beggars can’t be choosers and we ARE beggars right now, so there are bound to be some decisions made which are out of our control. A lot of time and effort has gone into the campaign to raise awareness of our plight, and the Barrow fans’ message to return our (and all) football clubs back to the fans, and bring some sort of fiscal sanity back into the sport has, intended or not, been central to achieving the level of support that we’ve got. I somehow feel like we’re “selling out” at the first whiff of a rich benefactor, and letting all those people down who had begun to see Darlington as some sort of champion of their common dream to one day wrestle control of their clubs back from the money men.
Of course our original aim was to raise funds to buy a few sandwiches and flag up the availability of the club for purchase by a rich benefactor, but the campaign went into orbit.
I do think we now need to compromise in order to survive, and I think we could best do that by capitalising on all this love and attention we currently have - before it all dissipates - by renaming/relaunching/rebranding the charity we already have (i.e. Darlington FC Football in the Community Limited) as something like the “Quakers Trust”, a name which evokes thoughts of friendliness and does not contain the word “football”, allowing it to more easily broaden the scope of its activities to incorporate any and all community-related activities which it can comfortably accommodate, and not simply to the physical local community but to wider communities such as special-needs communities whose now-great strength of presence and purpose have been made possible thanks to the global reach of the internet. I’m a member of one myself - Encephalitis Global have members all of the world but they almost exclusively hold meetings in North America. The Quakers Trust could attract these types of groups to the Arena to hold conferences, or to listen to lectures.
Employ a fund-raiser - not a locally appointed “Commercial Manager” of dubious qualifications and expertise, but a dedicated and experienced top-notch charities fund raiser, the sort of person who can draw money in as easily as they draw breath. These people exist - we just have to find one and let them earn themselves plenty of commission.
It’s possible that the land around the stadium could be eventually be developed into some kind of “village” - similar to a Camphill Village - which could include a hostel for disabled people who might want to take part in residential rehabilitation programmes, workshops, etc. and sell some products which might be made there in the club shop.
You only need to look back to the planning application for the Arena Sports Village to see what could be developed there, and if this was something which was wholly directed towards improving the lives of people, rather than turning in a healthy profit for private individuals, then how could DBC have the heart to deprive them of what could become a fantastic regional/national asset?
As Darlington is surrounded by history it should be possible to use the football team bus to take these people on outings to nearby places - lots of castles and museums and so on, so loads and loads of nearby things for people to go and see and most of these places are adapted with accessibility in mind, there are even “walks for wheelchairs” in the Lake District, which isn’t too far away.
The team bus (there isn’t one at the moment) could be fully adapted to meet the needs of wheelchair users and would be painted in livery which would help to spread the name of both the football club AND the other activities of the Quakers Trust around the country - all over the country when the team play away from home, and on excursions for residents of the hostel, and staffing/running the hostel AND the office dealing with arranging excursions is one area where disabled people could play their part - who better to look after the kind of people who would stay there than people who fully understand who to treat them? The bus could also carry sponsorship from locally based multi-nationals such as Orange and GlaxoSmithKline, and also Cummins Diesel Engines have a major manufacturing plant in the town, and I think some buses have Cummins Engines in them (?) so who better to get their name on the bus?
We could actually create a highly regarded international centre of excellence which could tie-in with similar facilities and charities all over the world to allow for exchange training visits, and also enable overseas visitors to use the facilities. It could even have some relationship with local universities to help develop technology to help people to walk again, for instance. Other countries are way ahead of Britain in this sphere, Japan, Israel and Holland to name just three are developing things like power assisted devices to help people to walk again.
The benefits to all are plain to see, and the football club would gain enormous exposure and it’s reputation as “The Friendly Club” could go through the roof - it would become the favourite team of so many people simply because it represents and helps so many people in the “international” community.
I can’t think of any better way to fully realise the potential of the stadium - pop concerts can only add so much money to the pot. A scheme like this would do so much more.
If someone with a bit of vision and acumen got hold of this, and a professional fund-raiser was appointed with a blistering track record of drawing in money from all kinds of grants and other sources, then I really think it could work.
Perhaps Paul Wildes, or even Raj himself (or both of them?) might like that idea - he could come back, take us out of administration, and we all live happily ever after.