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Exactly one week ago Darlington Football club “died”. The Joint Administrator for the club, tearfully, told the coach and the players that the club was finished. As one player tweeted a few minutes later “it’s gone”.
Several first-team players had already left the club by this time, hardly surprising as they hadn’t been paid for a while, and everyone’s got to earn a living. Most of them stuck it out almost to the bitter end, symptomatic of the great team spirit which pervaded the team which was, in no small part, due to the shining example shown Craig Liddle, their coach and leader - a modest and loyal hero of the moment who had been landed with the task of looking after first team affairs on top of his normal duties of coaching Darlington’s highly rated youth team.
Liddle was probably the glue which held Darlington’s supporters together in their hour of need too, as they desperately sought a figurehead around whom they could rally and group when former chairman Raj Singh plunged the club into administration immediately after the New Year.
And rally around they most certainly did.
In a remarkable turn of events, and in the space of just one action-packed end-to-end thriller of a month the Darlington fans suffered the whole gamut of emotions that only a true football supporter could understand. The highs and lows of supporting your team are widely felt by ordinary folks up and down the country, as they are worldwide, but the Darlington fans must have felt like they’d been cast adrift in a little rowing boat on the high seas of finance - trying desperately to get back to shore - seeing people on the land trying to help them - then getting forced back out to sea again in the swell before finally, in a moment of utter despair, getting smashed against the rocks and drowned.
Or so it seemed…
Just as Administrator Harvey Madden was closing the book on The Quakers’ 128-year history and preparing to liquidate the club, while fans and players past and present wept in and around the stadium, and around the world - a car came to a screeching halt outside the stadium entrance. A moment passed as the two occupants looked at each other and took a final sharp breath before walking into the centre of the media sideshow which was recording the club’s death for posterity.
In a scene reminiscent of the ending to Frank Capra’s classic Christmas movie “It’s a Wonderful Life” the two occupants banged on the stadium’s locked doors shouting “We’ve got the money!”. The two men were Shaun Campbell and Doug Embleton, members of the Darlington FC Rescue Group - a group of die-hard supporters who had been trying to save it the club and, for the moment, it seems there is some hope.
Yeah, yeah, we’ve heard it all before. But Darlington might just do what others have failed - develop a sustainable model which will not only ensure its own survival, but that of football in general. The madness which Darlington had to buy into, simply because everyone else was doing it, and it had to compete, cannot last forever.
A couple of hours later, while all around were turning blue - whether it was from the cold air coming in from the North Sea or from just holding their breath we’ll never know - Madden finally broke the news that everyone wanted to hear, that an extension of time had been granted until the end of January which would allow the Rescue Group sufficient time to comb through the club’s accounts and work out if they could come up with a viable business plan to breathe new life into the club, and also allow the club to stage two important and, potentially, highly lucrative home games against second in the table Fleetwood Town on the forthcoming Saturday, and against local rivals and also high-flying York City the following weekend.
Concurrently a hugely successful facebook and twitter campaign had helped to raise awareness of the club’s perilous condition and also the fans’ message board and supporters club had both been working overtime drumming up support and carrying out bucket collections.
The local newspaper, The Northern Echo in the guise of its Chief Editor Peter Barron, and the town’s MP Jenny Chapman had both also thrown their full weight behind the campaign with both players highly active in ongoing discussions and negotiations between all of the parties who were trying to find a way to untie the financial knot which was threatening to strangle the life out of this hub of the community, and therein lay the answer.
Despite the odd naysayer; negative people with nothing better to do than try to derail other peoples’ attempts to bring some happiness into their lives at a time when we all sorely need some good news, for a change, the support which the fans received from their fellow supporters up and down the country was quite astonishing culminating in a congregation of “fans united” at Darlington’s hastily arranged and entirely volunteer-staffed home game against Fleetwood Town at the weekend.
Fleetwood were the bookies favourites to beat the Quakers by a country mile as the mis-match of a strong team challenging for the title against a team made up of the few remaining first teamers and youth team players. In the end Fleetwood scraped a 1-0 victory but the result didn’t matter as Darlington’s makeshift team, buoyed by the sudden U-turn of one player - Aaron Brown - who, in a move which typified the togetherness of this club returned to stand shoulder with his comrades after heading off to seek his fortune elsewhere when he thought the club had been closed down, battled away and nearly pulled off a shock victory in front of a crowd drawn from all over the country - all wearing their own club colours and all (aside from the fifty people who had come to cheer Fleetwood on) doing their level best to encourage the kids on the pitch.
Yesterday the town’s MP announced the start of an appeal to raise £500,000 to buy the club. The Northern Echo writes:
The rescue plan, which will enable fans to take over and run the club as a community interest company, has been hammered out over the weekend in talks between Darlington MP Jenny Chapman, the administrator, supporters’ organisations, and other groups.
Supporters hope that the target – equivalent to £5 from every person in the town – is achievable.
A board of trustees, including community figures and fans, would take over running the club, with all proceeds from matches and merchandise reinvested.
The Northern Echo understands that if the club becomes a community concern, former chairman and creditor Raj Singh has agreed to waive any debts owed to him by the club.
Maybe Darlington will force every other club to come to its senses by persuading them all that this is not only the way to survive financially but gain the bedrock of popular support which will sustain them through thick and thin.
Darlington wants to do things everyone supports. What’s more, it can do it and keep that support going. Its current plight gives it the chance to do that. This is not the end, it is the beginning, and the more clubs become part of it now, the more they will ultimately gain.
Supporters may have the club’s best interests at heart, but that does not guarantee that they can save the same club which they themselves were partly responsible for allowing to get into this mess; when the brown stuff hit the fan (or “fans”) no-one stepped forward to try and turn the fan off - there was no response plan ready to be swung into action and the Supporters’ Trust, a body which was set up to do just that, had been allowed to go away into a corner and become a kind of personal club - mistrusted by the majority of fans and, perhaps, sulking because of that. Lesson learned, let’s move on.
What they can do now, however, is use what they have learned from this failure to ensure that they had an official body behind them, ready to step in and speak up for them, and manage the plan to save the club. Supporters’ Trusts gain initial support because they assume that “the little guy”, who most of us believe ourselves to be, has higher values than the “big guy”. When the novelty of community management has worn off, the little guys start to look like big guys themselves, and lose much of that support. If they continue to appeal to higher principles however, and put these into practice, they have the potential to attract, and retain, enough residual support to sustain them for years to come.
Darlington’s survival may become a landmark victory which could provide hope for thousands of fellow sufferers.