We are at a crossroads
by Scott Thornberry - 22nd April 2017
Back in 2012 Darlington fans found themselves on the verge of not having a football club anymore. In administration, relegated from the National League and a story fitting of a blockbuster movie. The FA stuck their boot in and demoted us to the Northern League and for good measure made us change our name. Did we roll over and die? Did we hell. But Darlo fans now have choices to make, choices which will decide the path on which the football club will follow, fan owned or welcoming to investors.
When the fans took over the running of Darlington Football Club back in 2012 it was always going to be a rollercoaster journey. As Darlington fans I seriously don't think we expected anything different and we have kept up our Quakers tradition.. We had no ground, no players, no manager and banished to play in the Northern League, great stuff how the hell did that happen.
The aim for us was to run a fan owned club, climb back up the leagues, get back to playing in Darlington and find our level to which we can sustain ourselves. 5 years later we have done just that, we have returned to Darlington, albeit not at an ideal location but we are here. We are in the league below where we finished which is an incredible achievement, and as of next week we will be officially known as Darlington Football Club. So now we ask ourselves whether we are happy and do we actually want to continue being a fan owned club?
I am not going to dwell over the seating and play off situation as I believe that is a minor issue in comparison to the decisions and debates we are now having in regards to our long term future and finances.
I think we have now found our level as a fan owned club. Due to attendances not increasing since the return to Darlington we are actually over achieving as we have overspent by £80k. We cannot sustain such a loss going forward so something has to give. With the club spending 70% of income on the playing budget then sadly that is what will take the hit. A cut of £85k a year. As a fan owned model and the principle of spending only what you bring in then that is what we can afford. A club that would be competing in the lower to middle National League North.
So now the big questions, which has been created by Martin Grays speech at the Fans Forum on Friday evening. A fans forum in which I must some fans let themselves down in.
1: Are you happy to continue being a fan owned club and stay at the level we are for the foreseeable future?
2: Are you open to investors joining us and pushing the club forward back to full time and aiming to get back to the football league but losing the status of fan owned and us having full control?
In my opinion the questions above cover both options. I will be open and honest and tell the camp I am in.
Events over the last two weeks have shown me that the Fan Owned model does not have much of a future for Darlington. Why? Because we are running dry of volunteers, in particular volunteers with the business experience needed to keep the club going. If I was a successful businessman why would I look at the last 2 weeks events and think "you know what I am going to come and offer my services". It would be reputation suicide as it stands. One mistake, one decision which some fans may not agree with and you end up in a kangaroo court and are hung drawn and quartered. I get peoples frustrations, I get peoples passion. But we are a club run by volunteers, fans who have given hours and hours of their time and some investing large chunks of cash. We are now in a position of few directors and we will see if anybody steps forward to fill the gap.
The other main reason is that I don't believe the majority of fans are happy for us to settle for the level we are at, we want more. It was apparent at the fans forum that people want us to spent money on players and money on infrastructure, but the problem is we don't have that money. Its as simple as that. If you spend what your income is then next season we slash the playing budget by £85k a year and we try and do some fundraising to build some more seats at Blackwell. Going forward the club can realistically not afford to go up to the next league and will really struggle to get anywhere near league status again (my opinion)
My preference is to go for the investor route. As a Darlington fan I did not decide to follow a lower non league team back in the late 80's, I have always been league (try to forget about the conference :) ).
Yes the last 5 years have been great but I don't want to see my team struggling to beat clubs at the bottom of the national league north. I dont want to see us struggling to attract players as they join the likes of Spennymoor Town or Blyth instead. I don't want to continue to see bucket rattling for the next 10 years.
I fear if we stagnate then the crowds will drop. We have a hardcore of around a 1000 fans and should we settle for fighting to stay in this league then I would imagine that hardcore would drop and then the club will start going backwards. It's now or never, we have momentum and if there are interested investors out there lets go for it. But lets not go for it blind, have some due diligence, lets not throw away all of the great work done by so many over the last 5 years on a punt, it has to be clear what the future plans are. We have rebuilt Darlington Football Club and hopefully it is now attractive to people to come in and help us progress to the next level, because unfortunately we cannot make the jump alone.