Seaside resort offers Bulgar pleasure

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It can't be often that the Bulgarian football team find their patronage the subject of an unseemly tug of war. Certainly never between two towns in the north-east of England.

But with the side's imminent arrival for the qualifying group matches of the European Championships that is precisely what has happened, with Scarborough and Darlington vying for the honour of hosting the players and their entourage.

Darlington, in Co Durham, was convinced it already had the team, along with Romania, in the bag, with provisional bookings at hotels for the duration of their Group B matches.

But four days ago the reservations for June were cancelled and the Bulgarians switched their allegiance to Scarborough, in North Yorkshire.

Instrumental in the move to the seaside was Don Robinson, a Scarborough businessman with interests in Bulgaria, who helped persuade the eastern European officials of its benefits.

The biggest source of controversy, though, is the pounds 25,000 that the town's local authority yesterday decided to contribute to the team's accommodation bill and training facilities.

Incensed, John Williams, leader of Darlington council, immediately accused the rival of "bribery" in persuading the team to stay in the area.

Scarborough council's chief executive, John Trebble, was equally quick to rebut the charge, judging the decision to help with the team's costs as a hard-headed commercial decision which would draw in extra revenue from the team's fans.

Estimates suggest that the team's presence at Ravenscar 12 miles from the town could attract between 3,000 and 5,000visitors with a spin-off of pounds 4-5m for local businesses.

"We have already been in discussions with the Bulgarian tour operator, Balkantourist, and ... we're on the point of taking block bookings for 2,500 people. So the whole economy will benefit," Mr Trebble said.

Darlington, smarting from the loss but anxious to stress they wish their rivals no ill-will, was sceptical of the economic benefits that would accrue from the investment.

Yet, Mr Williams was not above noting that the team would be at least two hours from St James' Park, Newcastle, and one and half hours from Elland Road, Leeds, venues for their matches, while Darlington is a mere 45 minutes from both.

"We are not in the business of offering bribes," said Mr Williams. "It's my firm belief that the Bulgarian football team will rue the day they made this decision. The travelling will unsettle the team and I fail to see how they couldn't see the logic of Darlington's case."

In a last-ditch effort to rescue the situation, Mr Williams wrote to the Bulgarian football union's general secretary re- emphasising the English Football Association's reasons for suggesting Darlington and inviting a delegation to the town when they come to England for a conference next week.

A spokesman for the FA, however, said teams were perfectly at liberty to ignore the hotels suggested and choose their own accommodation.

Mischievously, though, a source added: "The only thing a can remember about Ravenscar is that a hotel fell into the sea there not so long ago, so the Bulgarians might want to be careful which one they choose."