It was the sort of night to make you question your existence. It was not simply the sheets of Siberian wind and rain sweeping westwards down ill-lit Neasham Road that battered the strugglers, there was also the burden of pilgrimage.
Neasham Road is the too-long artery that connects Darlington town centre to a 25,000-seater white elephant stadium that has been home to Darlington FC since 2003. There has never been a human flow along it, more a trickle, and that is a major reason why, 12 days ago, for the visit of Notts County, the Darlington match programme had a new red stripe on its cover. "Admin special," it read.
This was Darlington's first home game since the club were placed in administration the previous week. News that the club were in the red did not come out of the blue, but administration did. Darlington have been in administration before, as recently as 2004, but this latest development was unforeseen, and the subsequent rumour compounded the shock: it was that by the third Thursday of March as many as nine Football League clubs would follow.
Darlington rarely set trends, but after Notts County had been beaten 1-0 in front of 2,450 hardy souls the talented but world-weary manager, Dave Penney, spoke about the bigger picture. "I've had contact from people not just in this division, but the division above," Penney said. "There's a cut-off date, 26 March, and I know a lot of clubs that are close to administration. From talking to people, we might be the first but we won't be the last. I'd say five will go this year."
From nine to five: that reduction supports the theory that some observers are prone to exaggerate the economic state of Leagues One and Two. Patrick Nelson, the chief executive of Macclesfield, made a key point that, with the vast majority of players on one-year contracts at this level, and with player wages the largest club expense, "each summer offers the chance to reset the compass, to adjust. You can be prudent. We will be".
On Tuesday night, with Liverpool and Chelsea both live on ITV, Macclesfield's game against Accrington Stanley was marketed as "Credit Crunch Tuesday". Tickets were £5 and 1,800 attended, when Nelson feared it might otherwise have been half that. The significance of the "third Thursday of March" is also disputed. It is a date set by the Football League by which clubs considering administration must enter if they are to take the 10-point deduction this season.
Cheltenham Town, said to be on the brink financially, are bottom of League One, 16 points off safety. They look certain to be relegated so 10 points would make little difference but, if Cheltenham were to enter administration after that Thursday, the 10 points would apply to next season. Cheltenham would begin 2009-10 on minus 10 points and in administration. That would concern prospective purchasers.
But for a club on the cusp of relegation, and in financial trouble – Southampton in the Championship, for example – Thursday week is a date of resonance. If Southampton move into administration after Thursday week, and stay up, then the 10-point deduction will be applied in May regardless. That could relegate them post-survival. If Southampton move into administration after Thursday week, and go down anyway, then the 10 points will apply next season.
Administration cannot be viewed in bureaucratic terms, even though some think it is part of a business process; that while it spells the end of one era, it signals a new beginning.
David Hinchliffe, of the Leeds firm Walker-Morris, sees it differently. Hinchliffe is one of the administrators at Darlington. It is his "16th or 17th" experience of insolvent football clubs.
"There is an acceptance," he says, "that all clubs in administration are going to survive. But maybe quite a few won't." Darlington would not have, he says, but for £300,000 pledged by the owner, George Houghton, to see them through this period. Otherwise a club founded in 1883 would have folded in 2009. They still might. Being in administration means Darlington are denied the quarterly central payment from the Football League of about £130,000. That money arrives in late April and is vital in helping clubs handle summers without gate receipts.
Hinchliffe is not keen on melodrama. His priority is the nitty-gritty. The Darlington programme lost £2,000 an issue; no longer, its production has been outsourced. He is hopeful for Darlington, because of the willingness of staff to take a 50 per cent wage deferral; he was in talks with an interested party in Sheffield on Thursday.
But Hinchliffe's general wariness chimes with John Beech's. Beech, from Coventry University's Centre for the International Business of Sport, has been researching insolvency in English football and spoke of "some form of insolvency at more than half the clubs in Leagues One and Two. I'll eat my hat if no one goes into administration in the next week".
Another voice, who wishes to remain anonymous, says that a League Two club will fold "this season" and will not be able to fulfil their fixtures.
Questioning existence again. Yet set against these warnings is the experience of the past 125 years. Lower-League clubs just keep going. In case you were watching Manchester United and Liverpool, League Two Grimsby Town took 12 busloads of fans to Chester City yesterday. For 90th versus 91st.
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