Football: Quakers' ground breaker

What drives rich men to dig deeply for football? One new benefactor is ignoring all the alarm bells; Ronald Atkin finds there's more to Darlington's saviour than money
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The Independent Online
THE NORTH-EAST football rumour mill was churning away yesterday; Paul Gascoigne and Peter Beardsley on the move again. This time to Darlington.

That's right, Darlington.

Actually, that's wrong. Darlington, under new ownership since last Thursday afternoon, are not interested in figureheads according to the man who bought the club, George Reynolds. "I'm a figurehead," he said, reclining in stockinged feet on a vast sofa in the executive suite of his Shildon factory. "I'm better known around the world than Kevin Keegan, me. So why should I pay for a figurehead? Look at Kenny Dalglish. He was a figurehead at Newcastle. Didn't go down very well in the end, though, did he?"

Reynolds' bombast can be forgiven. Here is the archetypal self-made man, someone who has vaulted from grinding poverty and a life of crime to a pounds 250m fortune and a position next to the Queen on Britain's rich people list.

A man who was bombed out three times in the Second World War, who spent time in children's institutions, who did four years in prison for safe- blowing ("where I came from you either stole or starved"), who couldn't read or write until he was 21 and who is dyslexic, has long been a benefactor. He gave pounds 100,000 to a school near his home and paid off the mortgages of employees who helped him fight a fire on his premises.

Now the Reynolds riches are aimed at Darlington, suddenly struggling no longer. Born in Sunderland, he always supported the town football club and has a box at the Stadium of Light. So why Darlington, then, George? "Because they were in a mess, owed pounds 5m, were ready for closing. If I hadn't gone along, who would? I suppose I'm a bit old-fashioned but if a club that has been going for 116 years closed down you'd never get it back. That's history gone, like pulling down a cathedral. Darlington is the closest town to me, I've lived here about 30 years. This is going to make the town and the fans very happy."

It is also, it seems, going to make George Reynolds very popular in Darlington. He went along to last Tuesday's home game with Exeter, the first time he had been to the Feetham's ground, and got a standing ovation as the prospective redeemer. Before the kick-off he popped in to say hello to the team. "I stuck me nose through the door and told them I wanted three or four goals. I told them just get the cowing ball and kick it into the back of the net, nothing difficult about that, I've had bigger challenges in me life." Suitably awed, Darlington won 4-0.

In recent years Darlington have welcomed other saviours who turned out to be nothing of the sort. When Reynolds saw the books even he blinked but within 24 hours the club were back in the black. "They were borrowing off a loan shark, pounds 1.2m at eight per cent over base rate, they had just under pounds 5m in debts. I am now clearing up about 37 court orders and the wages have been paid. As from two o'clock yesterday the club has no financial problem, a big achievement in one day."

For his next big achievement, Reynolds intends to build a new 25,000- seat stadium while retaining the present town- centre ground, leased from the adjoining cricket club, for reserve games. Four possible sites have already been scouted and he hopes to break ground at the chosen one by August.

"The new stadium will be state of the art. I know it won't be the biggest around these parts but it will be the most lavish. I can't do anything half-measure." George waved an arm. "Look at me offices." He pointed to pictures of a boat, the MV Secret Love. "Look at me yacht."

He has now sold the pounds 7m Secret Love, which was based at Palma. "The crew loved it, they had parties, birds in bikinis. They didn't want me there, just wanted me to pay the bills."

The prospect of paying Darlington's bills and getting none of his money back does not bother Reynolds. "Whatever I go into, I don't do it for the business or the money, I do it for the aggravation." With reason, this former safe-blower gets much satisfaction from proving doubters wrong. A leading City firm once forecast he was three months away from bankruptcy. "Nine months later I was worth pounds 250m."

Reynolds feels other big-money attempts to revive clubs have failed because of their reliance on accountants, solicitors, consultants and bank managers, all of whom are dismissed as "dumplings". "At so many clubs the money is gobbled up by the weekend Perry Comos and the 30-bob millionaires sitting back and giving it 'Hooray old boy'. My attitude is completely different. I am hands on everything I do, my chipboard business, engineering, shipping, warehousing, recycling. Now I've got football. I've been in it two weeks and know everything there is to know about it." He permitted himself a grin.

Reynolds, who will celebrate his 64th birthday on Wednesday by flying to Germany to buy machinery, says he has no plans to supplant the Darlington manager, Dave Hodgson. "I've got no worries with him or the playing staff. Dave is brilliant, I can work with him. If he takes the club from Third to Premier, what do I want to change him for? Don't change him, make him a legend."

And if in the end it doesn't happen, will George Reynolds, like so many before him, walk away from the Quakers? "I have never touched anything that hasn't worked. If it doesn't work I'll stick at it till it does."