David Conn: Reynolds' festive fable with a Twist in the tail

He endured an upbringing of Dickensian hardship but Darlington's saviour found out there would be no happy ending
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The Independent Football

It was the perfect seasonal fable, served up just in time. The true story of a poor boy, all alone in the world, forced to work cruel hours in a brutal care home, who turned away from a life of crime to become a millionaire, and built a huge mansion for himself and his lovely young wife. Then he heard his local football club was in trouble, bailiffs at the doors, the supporters desperate for salvation. So, to help the townspeople - and, perhaps, looking for some of the love he never had as a child - he bought the club, promising to lead them to the promised land of the Premiership within five years. He built them a magnificent new stadium, with escalators and halls of marble, and named it after himself: the George Reynolds Arena. Fifteen thousand people clamoured to the first game, but the rich man had too little money left for the team and they lost 4-1.

He had spent his fortune, but the supporters grew unhappy; they had not really wanted to leave their cosy old home in the first place and were singing: "Stand up, if you loved Feethams..." The rich man could not understand how they could criticise him after all he had done, and he threatened to confront them at their homes. The week before Christmas, just 2,920 supporters shivered together in the icy expanses of the huge arena, seeing their team lose 1-0 to humble Macclesfield. Three days later, the rich man saw that while the taxman wanted his money, the club could not pay and it was bust. The dream was over, and the supporters want their club back.

Darlington, in other words, are in administration. It has been one of the most bizarre chapters in the life of a football club, ever. Established in 1883, the Quakers have spent just two seasons, from 1925-27, in the heady regions of the second flight; for the rest of their history they have muddled in the old Third and bottom divisions - except for the 1989-90 season in the Conference. Darlington are more familiar with crises than trophies, but their Feethams home, by the tree-lined river and twinned with cricket, had a charm the fans loved and visitors appreciated.

In January 1997, the club reached another financial precipice and went into administration. Enter George Reynolds. He has traded volubly on his own background and criminal record as a thief and safecracker, but he really did endure a childhood which makes Oliver Twist look like a Macauley Culkin romp. Revealed in his recently published autobiography, Cracked It! (John Blake, £16.99), Sunderland education authority actually sold him, to Besford Court residential approved school, for £100, for consistently playing truant. There he was beaten and abused, forced to work eight hours a day from the age of eight, 12 hours a day from the age of 12. Labelled educationally sub-normal, "unstable and not averse to petty theft" in his school reports, George left for a life of crime, bullying and intimidation. But in the end he made his money going straight - in chipboard.

George Reynolds UK was formed in 1966. It made kitchen worktops, then expanded into manufacturing chipboard. By October 1998, it was such a success that Reynolds sold the worktops business to an American company, Wilsonat, for £32.2m. George himself pocketed around £4m. Witton Hall, his mansion, cost him £7m to build.

Flush, in May 1999, George bought Darlington, promising to wipe out the debts, build a new stadium and reach the Premier League within five years. They arrived to find bailiffs making off with the office furniture. George strode out on to the pitch at Feethams, the crowd gave it up for him and he drank in the adulation.

That year, his company lent the club £3m, then made further payments of £1.2m to help it to its feet. Darlington have since periodically popped into the national headlines, but usually for embarrassing episodes, certainly not back-to-back promotions. Faustino Asprilla came, George said they were signing him, then he left. The club finished fourth in 2000, but has since been mired in the bottom half of the Third Division. Frustrated, Reynolds' wife, Sue, infamously told a public meeting, attended by the players: "It is not unknown for games to be thrown." The players walked out.

George defiantly completed the Reynolds Arena, for, he says, £18m - the Football Stadium Improvement Fund awarded a £2m grant - opening it for the start of this season. But as the pressures grew, the stories became more disturbing. Insulting messages went out on a huge advertising hoarding. Reynolds publicly threatened to confront his critics "at the ground or at home", and he did go to the house of Peter Barron, the editor of the Northern Echo, and put a note through his door. He also took exception to the unofficial website www.darlofc.co.uk and one September evening turned up at the house of the editor, Scott Thornberry, to remonstrate. George, this week, was unrepentant.

Less well known was that while the stadium was going up, Reynolds' fortune was falling. Even in 1999-2000, the year his company poured money into Darlington, they, left with the chipboard-making business, lost £2.5m. The following year the company haemorrhaged money; they paid a further £1.9m to Darlington, but lost £9m. Insolvency was around the corner.

In February 2002, they sold the chipboard business to another company, Vertex Panel Products. Vertex agreed to pay £9.25m, but George did not receive much more than £2m up front; the rest was to be paid later, including £6.2m in monthly instalments of £115,740 over five years. But Vertex had immediate difficulties, quickly called in insolvency practitioners and by December last year were in administration. A letter from the administrators to creditors, which I have seen, states problems including "Plant breakdowns caused by a poor maintenance regime, and neglect of the plant over several months leading up to the sale" and "the need to enhance work practices to ensure safer working for the employees".

Vertex could not make their payments to Reynolds and the business was sold off for a fraction of its previous value. In October 2002, George was forced to declare that his company could not meet its debts, and in February this year, George Reynolds UK was put into liquidation with debts, reportedly, of £4.7m. Reynolds has been summoned personally to a public examination, in court in January, about his running of GRUK; a previous date was adjourned after he said he was suffering from stress.

At the football club, last year's accounts showed a £1.2m loss, and the auditors cited "uncertainty regarding the club's going concern basis". Reynolds was cited to have loans of £5.6m outstanding, he was guaranteeing the overdraft and said he was personally funding the £18m stadium, except - and here the fans grew concerned - for a £2m loan. This turned out to be from those serial lenders to hard-up lower-division clubs, the accountants Melvyn Laughton, Sean Verity and Stewart Davies - the Sterling Consortium, who have a mortgage on the Reynolds Arena.

Reynolds this week confirmed Sterling's place in the financing firmament, telling me: "Sterling have been good. They lent us money when nobody else would." He would not say how much the club owes beyond Sterling and £400,000 to the Inland Revenue, who were pressing for payment when he called the administrators in.

"I'm all right," he said, referring back, yet again, to his ragged childhood. "I've been through so much, I don't feel it. What can you do? You don't go and commit suicide when you go skint."

He said he would listen to offers but after building the stadium, he himself is the biggest creditor, and will need to be satisfied. "I'd let the club go for not much," he said, "and hang on to the stadium."

But Tony Taylor, of the Supporters Trust which hopes to be part of the solution, said most fans were grateful to Reynolds originally for saving the club, but had been alienated by his overblown ambitions and the recent dismal confrontations. "George ought to go gracefully," he said. "It's a personal tragedy for him and we're sorry. But if he'd listened we'd have told him we never wanted to leave Feethams and it wouldn't work in this massive stadium, which is a huge white elephant. Darlington was always a warm, friendly club, and we want to reclaim it."

George still doesn't understand. "I paid the debts and built a new stadium," he said. "What on earth can be wrong with that?" He did it, spent all his money on the townspeople. Yet still they love him not.