Gone one minute then, at the 13th hour, a lifeline for Darlington
129 years of history looked certain to end under £1.8m of debt but a pair of unlikely saviours came up with £50,000 to save their club for now. Martin Hardy was on hand to witness dramatic scenes
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.
As at the time, observers still need 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. At this point they could have been the Duke brothers exiting the General Lee, or Batman and Robin emerging from the Batmobile.
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."
He was filling up – Gareth, that is – in his single moment of respect as he placed his black-and-white wreath, invaded by a host of television cameras. But then this was a day that cared little for boundaries – emotional or legal.
Our superheroes for the day were a couple of blokes in jeans, and afterwards that did feel even more appropriate. Shaun Campbell, a local businessman, and Doug Embleton, position still unknown, were on the move.
"We've got the money!" they repeated as they ran for the main doors.
Only afterwards would the true drama of their journey become apparent. That they had driven a 10-minute route in six minutes, that they had been blasting Mott The Hoople on their iPod as destiny beckoned, that they had both looked at each other as they parked up and took a simultaneous deep breath – and then made a run for the doors to their club's stadium, in an attempt to save more than a century of history.
It made you feel good to be told their story. It made you believe in people, never mind football.
You laughed and you smiled.
But you only did that afterwards, because at that moment Craig Liddle, the temporary Darlington manager, was in the largely empty players' lounge, deep inside the stadium, addressing 10 young football professionals and telling them they didn't have jobs any more.
"I met with Harvey Madden [the administrator]," Liddle revealed later (emotionally, light years later; in real time, about three hours). "He told me that the club ceased to exist. I had to go and discuss it with the players, which was difficult, quite emotional.
"Like me the players were disappointed and confused. We said our goodbyes, shook hands. It was difficult. This is a temporary role for me – I see my future in youth football – and this hasn't whetted my appetite for management, but I have a duty to the lads who are left to get us through this period.
"Nobody broke down, nobody lost their composure and, just as the boys were leaving, Harvey gave me a little wave. I ushered everyone back into the room and that was when the belief started to come back. He told me there was a lifeline, no more.
"But it was a glimmer. You're overwhelmed, I know what this means to a lot of people."
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 it feels like so much longer. "It's a f****** rollercoaster," one fan shouts throughout the afternoon. That being the case, we have just gone through the ginormous dip that begins these rides, and everybody who cares for Darlington Football Club has white knuckles and their entire body jammed back into their seat.
Campbell – he is wearing a black and white tie – has a bag, but it does not have "Swag" or "Loot" on the side, so the assumption has to be that he is not actually carrying the cash physically. Embleton starts talking: "We're after talks. We've got £50,000 from various sources and we've just put it on the table. That money is to try to buy the next two weeks so that we can get the due diligence done. We need to see the books to see if it's a sustainable football club.
"We can't do the negotiations with a gun to our head, £50,000 will keep the club going for two weeks. All we are trying to do is save the football club for the town. We'll know within 30 or 40 minutes, maybe an hour."
The locked doors open once more – optimism remains on both sides of them throughout – and the duo enter, amid cheers that are... what? Hopeful, borderline hysterical?
It is not deflated even by Aaron Brown's realism. Aaron Brown is not from the North-east of England. Aaron Brown is a non-League footballer from Bristol with a pregnant girlfriend. He leaves the stadium, as crisis-crisis talks go on inside it, for the very last time.
"The administrator took us into a room and read a note that said the club no longer exists," he said as he walked to his car. "The lads were in shock, devastated. We weren't even allowed to take any mementos. The kitman, Tommo, was inconsolable. The lads all shook hands. As we were getting ready to leave the administrator got a phone call and we were told someone was coming in to try and save it.
"I've had enough. That's me done. I've got a girlfriend in Bristol with a baby on the way and I've got an offer. It's from a club in the same division but I don't know the length of it or anything."
There is no sniff of vilification of Brown's realism. Inside, men are too busy fighting for Darlington's future. There are no trials going on, no questions as to why George Reynolds built a 25,000-capacity, state-of-the art stadium for a club with average crowds (2,000) that would not even fill a section of it. Of why no solution was found as to what to do with the land around the ground (out-of-town, so commercially not too viable) or how to judge the current owner, Raj Singh, with an estimated loss of £1.8m but reportedly unwilling (so far at least) to accept a compensation figure if the council now give the go-ahead for new developers.
None of that matters – of course, it will in the coming days – as the duo emerge to say they are off for talks with Madden at a village nearby. Genuine hope is starting to break through now, and even the biting wind seems softer.
"There is a 13th-hour possibility that this club can be saved," says the administrator. "I hope it's very serious. I would not be going if I didn't think it was."
Liddle says the sick feeling he has felt all day is starting to diminish as Campbell, Embleton, the representatives of the Darlington Football Club Rescue Group it now emerges, are followed to an unknown venue by the administrator to talk of a rescue package.
Around 90 minutes pass and they are back, Madden is smiling, as a result of his first ever football club administration. Campbell, a director for the Arthur Warton Foundation, has centre stage. "The car's going into folklore, it wasn't a big Beamer. We were listening to Mott The Hoople on the iPod. We had it on full blast.
"Our concern was getting to Harvey Madden before he said the club was liquidated publicly. I'm glad we did. I can't remember when a club has been put into liquidation five minutes before a crazy man like me bangs on the door. This is part of the history of Darlington but we're not going to end today."
The rescue package opens a window of opportunity, it turns out, until the end of January. For another three games at least Darlington will have its football club. In another room, a bit later, Liddle talks. He is a 40-year-old who had a beer named after him in these parts because he was so well liked when he played for the club. All that is pale in its almost insignificance now, compared with what he has just done.
"I got up this morning, took my kids to school and I didn't know what to expect after that. You worry, are you going to come home without a job? When I got here at about 11.15 this morning I really thought that was the end. I've got to be strong now."
On Saturday, at 11am, he 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 in a match that so nearly did not happen. If he arrives in a silver Peugeot 308, with Mott the Hoople blaring out, no sweat.
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