The news from Darlington FC isn’t good at all. The club could be wound up in the very near future. Two factors make this likelier than not: they’re not in the league, and that they have a monstrously unsuitable stadium which leeches any cash they have.
Not being in the Football League means you simply don’t get the coverage, which can create a sense that a deal must be and can be done. Administrators perhaps take more risk (they’re liable for all operating losses when the club is in administration) by keeping things going longer, and the cachet of being a league club is greater than the Conference can bestow, which can increase the number of suitors.
But most important of all is the fact that the George Reynolds EgoDome, currently known as the Northern Echo Stadium, is killing them. The stadium was a vanity project for their former owner, who seemed to want to cock a snoop at Sunderland (who had rejected his advances) by doing a kind of Bullseye’s special prize reveal: look what you could have won! It’s safe to say that the good people of Sunderland are glad not to have won; Darlington are like the couple who won a speedboat from Bully despite living in a town miles from the sea. At least those winners could flog the boat; Darlington are stuck with the damned thing.
This is the club’s third administration in 8 years, and this one, like the previous two, are all about dealing with the debts run up in the construction, and the fact that the costs to run it are so out of proportion with the club’s income. Three sides of it are mothballed, to save on those costs, and gates have unsurprisingly, slowly slid down from what the club got at their old ground of Feethams, one of the loveliest, well-appointed grounds in the league. Perfect and appropriate for the club’s needs, but what were those in comparison to their owner’s?
The Reynolds EgoDome is an amazing thing, a perfect architectural distillation of its founder’s psyche. The marble-clad front office had sliding glass doors behind which sat the Chairman’s office, as Reynolds wanted to see everyone coming in or out of the building, lest they be plotting. It was said that he used to give employees of his other firms a house to rent and a car to drive so he could threaten to remove everything from them if you fell foul of him.
He used to turn up at fans’ houses if they’d dared to criticise him, and ban them from stadiums (as happened to the 16-year old fanzine editor); Reynolds justified this by saying “People are all right in groups until you knock on their front doors at 20 past two in the morning. They don’t like that; nobody has a go at me. I find out where they live and I go and knock on their door.”His temper extended to more established targets, and the new stadium’s location on the A66 gave him a good location to hang banner querying the sexuality of a local radio presenter within whom he was having a spat.
Much was said of Reynold’s former career as a convicted thief; it made for picaresque copy. I attended a football writers annual awards do at the time, and the after-dinner speaker had them rolling in the aisles telling tall tales of George’s exploits. He was ‘a character’, great for the game, larger than life. That he wasn’t great to anyone who happened to think that years of support gave them a right to have an opinion was of no consequence. He gave the football press what they wanted, and he also gave the football industry what they wanted too. George threw ‘money’ at the club, couminating in the stadium, and an iron law of football is that more ‘money’ is always a completely 100% good thing; anything which might stop money coming into the game is to be fought tooth and nail.
In the early 2000s, it was clear that too many people were causing mayhem at lower level clubs, getting them into all sorts of debts, ruining the club and being very nasty pieces of work with it. I was in a meeting with the then Chief Executive of the Football League, who said that the problem with having a Fit and Proper Person Test (as recommended 5 years earlier in 1997 by Sir John Smith’s report into the bungs scandal) was that characters like George would be driven from the game, because of his previous convictions, and if George wasn’t around, he wouldn’t be able to spend all this money, and build this wonderful new stadium.
It was somewhat surreal to hear someone accept every premise of your argument, but interpret it completely the opposite way. The difference that where I thought George was a menace who should be kicked out, he was one of the Chief Executive’s 72 bosses. Reynolds was in the box seat (though despite this, he started to get annoyed with these fans and their supporters groups, and canvassed support for setting up a group to defend the interests of league club Chairmen; he got nowhere with this, not realising that such a body existed already, called ‘The Football League’).
Reynolds embodied two virtues which underpinned football’s regulatory approach at the time, and still fundamentally continue to do so. The first is that the owners of clubs are the best able to make decisions about them. Darlington fans were aware of a flaw in capitalism in which the owners of equity could make insanely stupid decisions that torpedoed their assets much earlier than Alan Greenspan came to understand it. Regulators in football took the Greenspan view, which is to say the view JK Galbraith excoriated in The Great Crash 1929 that ‘become obligatory for the regulators at every opportunity to confess their inadequacy, which in any case is all too evident’. Someone with money is a sharp guy, and who are we to second-guess his wisdom?
The League’s CEO could have been watching his words because he didn’t want Reynolds on his back. But more importantly, he – and many people who said the same and are in positions of influence still – actually believed what he was saying. George was great for the club, and was great for the game. He was the pin-up boy of why the governing bodies couldn’t and shouldn’t try to regulate who should own clubs.
It wasn’t just English football’s governing bodies. Darlington Council should have had no business giving them planning permission, but they too had their own version of the growth fetish, in which any economic activity in a community is always a good thing, regardless of how ludicrous or unsustainable that is. When football cedes all owed to the owner of the shares in the club, only local authorities can bring to bear on the club a longer view, but in this instance, they failed completely.
Maybe Darlington will survive; maybe they’ll be reformed playing in the lower leagues like not too distant Scarborough Athletic, hopefully owned by their fans, because that’s the only antidote to the ego power problem. The only time you can say that the interests of the club and the interests of the owners are aligned is when those owners are the club – its supporters. The increasing spread of financial fair play underscores the growing change to the notion that owners can be left to achieve optimal collective outputs through pursuing individual self-interest.
But what can’t and shouldn’t survive is the stadium as a sports ground. It will probably eventually be knocked down and something new built over it and of the Reynolds folly, there won’t be a trace. More fitting (albeit more embarrassing to the Council) would that it be left to become a ruin. A monument to a (hopefully) bygone time when the game clung to a bigger folly, the notion that rich men know what’s best, that money is always a good thing, and that fans of today and tomorrow can be sidelined, bullied and treated with contempt.