By Ian King
The thoughts of a great many football supporters in England this week have been with those of Darlington FC. The Blue Square Premier club, founded in 1883, recently entered into administration for the third time in less than a decade and the prognosis for the club’s future is not a positive one, with the joint administrator, Harvey Madden, having already stated earlier this week that, “The position of the club is such that without any financial support from outside the club, or anyone willing to acquire the club, I will, unfortunately, have little alternative but to cease to trade in a very short time” – the sort of statement that makes the blood of anybody that cares about the lower divisions in Britain run cold.
At the time of writing, Darlington FC remains on life support, but this dire state of affairs has led to discussion amongst the club’s support regarding what they might do should the worst come to the worst and Darlington FC folds completely. Some are already arguing that the club’s support should cut its ties and begin planning for a new club to start next season at a lower level, whilst others remain convinced that they should continue to fight for the survival of this incarnation of Darlington FC. It’s a debate that took a fractious turn earlier this week when Philip Scott and Graham Sizer, two creditors of the club who took ownership of the club’s Northern Echo Arena – a wholly unsuitable stadium for a club the size of Darlington which has, by common assent, been the root of the club’s difficulties in recent years – last year after the holding company that owned it, DFC Investments Limited, entered into receivership.
Darlington have continued to play at The Arena on a peppercorn rent since then, and Scott & Sizer offered to put £50,000 into the club if the club’s Supporters Trust would put match the figure – a ring-fenced amount raised from fund-raising through previous financial crises – themselves. The issue was divisive, with a split amongst the support over whether the Trust should send this money or not. Those who felt they shouldn’t argued that, with Darlington losing an estimated £20,000 per week, even an extra £100,000 of investment would only be applying the most temporary solution possible to the club’s woes and that this money would be better off being put aside for a new club that would need to be formed in the event of this one closing. Those in favour argued that the Trust have an obligation to do everything possible to save the club in its current form and that supporters will drift away should a new club have to start next season at the very foot of the English league system.
This question for Darlington receded very quickly, for reasons to do with planning permission should The Arena fall vacant, and I’m not here today to argue the finer points of that debate. What is occasionally forgotten by the supporters of clubs in the position in which Darlington find themselves today is that the formation of a new club to replace one that goes bust hasn’t always been an option for supporters. Consider, for example, the case of Bedford Town. The Eagles were, for almost four decades, members of the Southern League with a reputation for FA Cup giant-killing, holding Arsenal to a draw in the Third Round in 1956 and beating Newcastle United by two goals to one at St James Park in 1964. By the late 1970s, however, the club had fallen into difficulties and in 1982, unable to find a new home after its owners refused to renew the expired lease on The Eyrie, where they had played since 1913, the club folded.
Bedford Town reformed seven years later, and they are far from the only example of a club that disappeared before resurfacing several years later. Bradford Park Avenue, who were voted out of the Football League in 1970 and folded four years later, restarted as a Sunday League club but didn’t return to senior football until 1989, while Gateshead FC, surprisingly voted out of the Football League in 1960, limped along as a non-league club before folding in 1973. Their replacement club was founded four years later, under the same name. It wasn’t until the late 1980s that the notion of reforming immediately gained widespread acceptance. When Aldershot FC became the last club – so far – to fold during a Football League season in March 1992, the new Aldershot Town FC began its life within months, starting back in the Third Division of the Isthmian League for the start of the 1993/94 season.
The most important single turning point in the culture of reformed clubs – often referred to as “phoenix clubs” – came with the formation of Supporters Direct in January 2000. A result of the UK House of Commons all party Football Task Force, Supporters Direct was formed with a view towards empowering football supporters – according to their own mission statement, to “promote sustainable spectator sports clubs based on supporters’ involvement & community ownership.” Decisive events at several clubs – most notably at Enfield, Wimbledon & FC United of Manchester, where supporters walked out en masse to start their own clubs under their own steam – led to the idea of Supporters Trusts being protest groups. Yet there are instances when Supporters Trusts have worked with clubs, buying share-holdings and taking on directorships, and offering support to – often beleagured – club owners that might not otherwise have been there.
At the time of writing, there are twenty-seven supporter-owned clubs in England and Wales, and a further six in Scotland. Each of these clubs has its own tale to tell, but a rising awareness of the issues relating to football finance have led to a more questioning attitude amongst club fans. When, though, is the right time for supporters of a troubled club to throw in the towel and start afresh, though? For those that followed the late Chester City, the answer came in the middle of the 2009/10 season, when City Fans United, a Supporters Trust formed through the merger of previously disparate supporters groups, voted to boycott their club, which had been relegated into the Blue Square Premier at the end of the season and had started that season with a twenty-five point deduction incurred after the club failed to agree a Companies Voluntary Arrangement with its creditors.
With home crowds falling to as few as 400 people, Chester City limped on until February of 2010 before being expelled from the Blue Square Premier for failing to fulfil fixtures, and was wound up several weeks later. With its ground, The Deva Stadium, owned by the local council, a new, supporter-owned club was quickly formed, took up the lease on the stadium and started the new season three divisions below where Chester City had left off. Phoenix clubs do not even have to be supporter-owned, either. Halifax Town, Nuneaton Borough and Farnborough Town were amongst other non-league clubs to reform under nominally different names after the original clubs went to the wall. Under current FA rules, phoenix clubs – defined as those reformed after a club goes bust – have to start five divisions below the Football League, but there is at least now a structure in place to allow supporters, who are usually innocent parties in the collapse of football clubs, to rebuild a club should the worst happen.
Just as supporter ownership isn’t a panacea for all of English football’s current financial woes, nor should football supporters jettison their clubs in preference for a new one at the precise moment that financial difficulties become apparent. A phoenix club is, perhaps, the supporters’ equivalent of preparing for the worst whilst hoping for the best. League and associations have rules on when new clubs can register with them by, and missing these deadlines can be costly – to give one example, supporters of AFC Rushden & Diamonds, formed after the collapse of their old club last summer, have been left watching their youth team for a season because the old club folded during the summer. At both Darlington and the similarly stricken Kettering Town, the existence of the current clubs are out of the hands of the supporters – no amount of bucket collections are going to save those clubs in the long-term.
Supporters Trusts have a responsibility – presuming the will to be there – to prepare for such eventualities, and it should go without saying that there is no-one on the Trust Boards at either Darlington or Kettering Town that is willing their club to go out of business. While some supporters at both clubs seem to believe this to be the case, the fact that, even in the worst case scenario, they are almost certain to have a team to watch somewhere next season was not a luxury afforded to the people of Bedford in 1982. This in itself may not get the credit that it deserves, but, in the grip of the perpetually dismal financial state that the lower divisions of English football seems to find itself these days, it should be a small cause for celebration that, even in the worst case scenario, the supporters of both of these stricken clubs should have a team to support playing somewhere, in some league, next season.
Ian King is the author of the vital award-winning, Football League-focused twoundredpercent.net.