A ground conversion

A ground conversion

Try, try and try again would seem to be a good motto for Mowden Park Rugby Club – owners of one of Darlington’s most recognisable buildings.

The view will be very familiar to any drivers on the A66 around the edge of Darlington. The triangular framework of metal beams and the white ‘spaceship’ below them. It can only be the home of Mowden Park Rugby Club.

The 25,000 capacity Northern Echo Arena - the largest dedicated rugby union stadium in England after Twickenham - is proof of the club’s ambitions, as well as its business acumen.
It was only back in June 1950 that a letter was sent from the Rugby Football Union which read “I am pleased to inform you that my Committee has accepted the Darlington Grammar School Old Boys R.F.C. as a member of the Rugby Football Union from 1st September”.

This was the first milestone along the road which started in 1946 when the Old Boys of Darlington Queen Elizabeth Grammar School - mostly ex-forces - played some scratch games at the end of the 194546 season, and began the 194647 season as a properly constituted club, playing their games on the school field.

Now, as club chairman Mike Keeligan says, they are based among top-flight facilities - the former home of the Darlington FC - on the edge of town, but very much at the heart of it.

“It was an instant hit with us after we moved from Yiewsley Drive in Mowden in December 2012 – we could play immediately without having to build a pitch and let it mature, and all the extras were in place like the bars and eating areas,” said Mike.“It is an incredible place, we could never have afforded anything like this from scratch, so it has been a win for the town and the club.

“The team settled in right away – which was the important thing – and then we could concentrate on the costs and the overheads. We wanted to stabilise those costs and, given that almost everything in the arena works on electricity, we put almost 1,000 solar panels on the roof, which will have paid for themselves before long. We have a good range of long-term lets, with people understanding what we are trying to do and signing up for five years.

“On the pitch, we have had a really rewarding response, with bigger gates for some big games and around 900 to 1,400 for our regular home games. On a Sunday, we will get close to 400 kids here for the junior sessions. It’s awesome for us and for the families.

“All that support has led to a number of the boxes being permanently occupied through the season, and many being taken by our tenants which gives us a great revenue basis.

“We are looking to tap into the town’s imagination and host more events to bring them here. It is a great thing for us that we can attract good numbers to our events – the pubs down Neasham Road have been full and the taxi firms are busy.

“It is a very viable proposition and we are looking to build on all the advantages it gives us and the town, with fantastic support from the council. We are very proud of it and its place in the town.”

Embracing change is once again a recurring theme at the arena, just as it is across the town. When something of the scale of this building becomes available, nobody shies away from the challenge - it would only pass to somebody else.

As Mike says “The banks tell me they see Darlington as the gateway to the North East and it’s as good a place as any I’ve found to do business, with great connections and a good quality of life. The whole town just gets on with its work.”

That’s a premier league recommendation for the teamwork that has helped put Darlington on the map.