Just a few months ago, Darlington Football Club and 129 years of heritage were all but consigned to the history books. For a while, the supporters, players, and staff must have felt something akin to bereavement, but for me, as an outsider with family ties to the area, I also felt a deep sense of disappointment for the town itself.
There can be little doubt that football is an emotional business. As Bill Shankly said, “Some people think football is a matter of life and death. I assure you, it’s much more serious than that.”
While that might overstate the case, arguments can easily be made for the great value sport can bring to society. As an Olympic year demonstrates, sport can serve more than just an emotional or physical need.
It can help to improve the towns and cities it touches. It can help promote good causes and businesses. It can have a positive affect on people’s lives at many different levels. In that context, a football club should not exist just for the benefit of players and fans; it should be an emblem, the embodiment of a town or city, with the players, staff, and fans in the role of ambassadors.
Whether you embrace that sentiment or not, it is hard to ignore that football has a long reach, as well as the attention of a wide and varied audience. In London, when I speak about Darlington, those who have heard of the town at all generally have done so because of the football club.
Some know about the eccentric and erratic former chairman, about Faustino Asprilla and Paul Gascoigne, about the huge 25,000-seater stadium. Some know about last year’s last gasp FA Trophy victory and some know about the current financial troubles and the last-ditch reprieve. Whatever the case, it has raised the town’s profile and made Darlington a more interesting place for many, putting it on the map for many more.
Those who have heard about the fan’s attempts to buy the club respect the effort, the idea and seem genuinely impressed. Perhaps that isn’t so surprising with high-profile clubs like Rangers and Portsmouth highlighting flaws in the benefactor model. For now, the fans continue to work hard to raise funds and are unsurprisingly enthusiastic about saving their club.
A few small businesses like Little Coffee Van have invested, and a couple of larger local businesses, The Northern Echo and The Priory Group, are supporting the club, pledging £10,000 each. On the whole, however, the town seems largely, and worryingly, apathetic.
The fans may be understandably disappointed, but it isn’t hard to understand why businesses and people, with little or no interest in football, are reluctant to invest in the club. Fundamentally, a football club is not a charity; even if it were, it is not one that everyone would necessarily choose to support. However, while that may be an understandable view, I think it risks missing a broader point and a bigger picture.
That bigger picture is the positive impact that the club could have on the wider lives of people in the town and the surrounding areas, and it is why Darlington, as a community, should have a vested interest in the club’s survival, whether people want to be at games to see it or not.
Darlington FC, like any local club, should be an integral part of the town, building relationships with local businesses, especially those who can supply goods and services through the club, but also offering exposure via sponsorship deals, advertising, and opportunities for all local businesses to network and evolve. A very obvious synergy also exists between football clubs and community fitness projects, for adults and children.
Perhaps it is idealistic and a little naive, but if the club can survive and can be run as a sustainable business, the town will not only have a football club that everyone can be proud of, football fan or not, they will have created a business geared to engage with the community and one that can help raise the profile of the town and region, acting as a hub for local business and charitable projects alike. Just as importantly, they will have saved something that could prove to be an invaluable asset to the town in difficult financial times.
In the next few weeks, it will become clear whether or not the people and businesses in and around Darlington want a professional football club. Personally, I think to discard it would be a short-sighted mistake and I sincerely hope that people grasp the opportunity to establish a community run, mutually beneficial enterprise. If it is run well, the club could be a beacon, demonstrating the qualities and spirit I still believe help make the North-East a special place.
For more information on the campaign to save Darlington Football Club please go to: http://www.buydarlo.org/
For anything else, I’m available on Twitter: @Andrew_C_Dawson