Darlington FC is planning one of the greatest football comebacks.
Darlington FC’s tactics seem very sound. The club is working on plans to return to the heart of the town where it belongs, just as a surge of developments and confidence lift the whole area.
It was only back in May 2012 that a triple relegation imposed by the FA led to a hugely emotional time as fans battled to save their club which at one stage had no team, no manager, no ground and little hope of survival.
Promotion as Northern League champions the following year showed determination and passion from the players as well, but it was still lurching through a series of last-minute bail-outs. But there is more of an air of progress now with Darlington 1883, as the team heads back down the road towards the town where the commercial benefits really lie and where the club can re-engage with community and fans.
Darlington needs all its assets operating at full capacity as it drives through the next decade. There are the bigger elements alongside the valuable smaller ones, but they all have influence. Jobs, investment, families, infrastructure, developments... and sport all matter.
The power of the Quakers fans in refusing to give in and then reaching into their own pockets to save the club is inspiring and shows the attachment a town has to its modern-day heroes, but there is pure business to be done as well, and the board is determined to dig deep to make it happen.
Martin Jesper, a former KPMG manager who became a turnaround specialist with his own company Rootcorz is the football fan who got to do his dream job. He was asked by the solicitors acting for the fans’ group if he could investigate whether the club could afford to stay at the Northern Echo Arena under a Company Voluntary Arrangement (CVA) used to pay creditors over a fixed period.
“Unfortunately that position just wasn’t possible, so I told them that and moved on,” said Martin, until recently the CEO of the club. “A few months later they contacted me again to try to find a strategy to take the club forward because a lot of things were in a mess and things needed to be a lot clearer.
“I remember at one stage telling the board they had three months left before they ran out of money, only eight months after they had rescued the club, because a lot of the financial disciplines were not in place.
“We needed to redress a cash shortfall, so went through a crowd-funding route, offering shares to the fans and went from 30 shareholders to about 230, raising about £85,000. Some only owned £1, but there was a sense of ownership from the people of Darlington who love their sport and love their club.
“I absolutely adore my football, and have supported my club Leeds for years. To get the chance to work with a professional set-up was fantastic and I had great professional pride in seeing this job through and getting the town’s club to the next stage of evolution.
“Football is a magnet for this town. It makes it very easy for people to network when you say you are with Darlington Football Club because people will come in their numbers to listen.
“Crucially, because of the nature of football, that attraction goes well outside the town as well. People in London are well aware of the club and what it has been through. It opens doors.”
When Chris Senior’s goal won Darlington the FA Trophy at Wembley in 2011 they took close to 10,000 fans with them. That is the size of the prize for the town to contemplate, an ambitious figure but one that you can’t ignore. They turned up before and they could turn up again. Not directly through the gate perhaps, but supporting and spending in the town.
One obvious reason the crowd base came right down was because the club has been based in Bishop Auckland. They simply needed to be back in town sooner rather than later and increase the ability to sell sponsorship and advertising – that’s what the Darlington businesses have been telling the club. The emotional attachment of sport is a powerful asset. It may seem like the most irrational idea to ask someone to buy your product when some weeks it might be really poor and some weeks it might be great. But it’s the pure emotion in this town that has driven it.
The support has been led by Darlington Building Society, which is sponsoring the junior teams, and by fans paying an average of around £800 for five-year season tickets to help raise £250,000 towards returning the club to its home. That’s how much the club means to the town. It is respected because, literally and emotionally, part of it belongs to the people.
As well as the players hitting peak performance on a Saturday afternoon, for the supporters the club has taken on an identity of its own, battling almost impossible odds and hitting its own peaks just when they are needed.
That close bond with the town is there for any new business investing here. Bring your ideas, jobs and optimism here and thousands of people will stand up to welcome you. And if you face a challenge along the way, that spirit is there for the asking.
Darlington’s businesses and people will never let a good opportunity pass them by.