Gone one minute, then a 13th hour lifeline for Darlington

Two unlikely saviours stump up £50,000 to keep 128-year-old club afloat – for now. Martin Hardy saw the hectic day unfold

The clock in Darlington yesterday had reached the 13th hour when two men came flying around the corner of the Northern Echo Arena in a silver Peugeot 308. "We've got the money!" the pair shouted as they jumped out of their car and ran to the main entrance.

Observers are still needing to reassure themselves that this did actually happen. With hindsight – and it was a day for repeated double takes, such were its extraordinary events – both doors should really have been locked and the dynamic duo made to jump out of the windows.

But some instinct – or maybe the infectious blind hope of the two fans who stood outside the ground in their club's darkest hour from early on a freezing cold day – suggested that these were the good guys.

At that point, legally, Darlington Football Club (and its 128 years of history) no longer existed, buried beneath £1.8m of debt, and the main doors to the stadium were locked.

So it was easy for those there to be lost in a moment that lurched between genuine drama, comic absurdity and tearful sadness.

Gareth Percival, a fan for 20 of his 28 years, had symbolically placed his scarf outside the ground's main reception gate at 12.20pm. At that point a player had tweeted: "The club has gone." Gareth was filling up in his single moment of respect as he placed his black-and-white wreath.

Our superheroes for the day were a couple of blokes in jeans – Shaun Campbell, a local businessman, and Doug Embleton, position unknown.

They were on the move. "We've got the money!" they repeated as they ran for the main doors.

They had driven a 10-minute route in six minutes and both looked at each other as they parked up and took a simultaneous deep breath – before making a run for the doors to their club's stadium, in an attempt to save more than a century of history.

It made you believe in people, never mind football. But, at that moment Craig Liddle, the temporary Darlington manager, was inside the stadium, telling 10 young professionals they didn't have jobs any more.

By now it is 12.38pm. Only 18 minutes have actually passed, between a player's tweet and two men jumping out of a car, but Campbell and Embleton said: "We've put £50,000 on the table for the next two weeks so we can get the due diligence done.

"We need to see the books to see if it's a sustainable football club."

The locked doors open once more and the duo enter, amid cheers that are hopeful, borderline hysterical.

"There is a 13th-hour possibility that this club can be saved," says the administrator. "I hope it's serious."

Campbell, Embleton, the representatives of the Darlington Football Club Rescue Group, are followed to an unknown venue by the administrator to talk of a rescue package.

Around 90 minutes pass and they are back with Campbell announcing: "We're not going to end today." For another three games at least, Darlington will have its football club.

On Saturday, at 11am, Liddle will manage the youth team against Lincoln at a college in Durham. As soon as the game ends he will race to the Northern Echo Arena to manage Darlington FC against Fleetwood in the Blue Square Premier Division.

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