Last spring, Durham were very close to running out of money.
They wanted to sign an overseas batsman. They could not.
They wanted to send the team on a pre-season tour. They could not.
They were unable to afford a marquee to train outside if the weather worked against them, as it inevitably did.
They had long-held plans for a new stand for this summer’s Ashes, but had to make do with a smaller, hastily-erected one.
That Durham are champions of England is astonishing. When you consider they lost their one-day captain – and at times their four-day skipper – and their coach nearly lost his life mid-season it is little short of miraculous.
Picking up English cricket’s most important trophy, as Paul Collingwood did at Chester-le-Street last month, has not ended the problems.
The County Championship comes with £500,000 prize money, but 70% goes direct to the players.
The wage bill will be slashed by a third this winter. Callum Thorp and Will Smith, regulars in all three of Durham’s title-winning seasons, have been released along with Stephen Harmison.
But there is light at the end of the tunnel.
“I wouldn’t say we’re in good shape, but we’re in stable shape,” says chairman Clive Leach.
“We’re not so badly off at the moment. A nice £150,000 came from winning the Championship and we’ve had terrific support from Durham County Council and the local enterprise partnership. We had a £1m injection from the ECB, which they’ve injected into every club.
“But let’s put it this way – and you’ll have to believe me because it is true – even if I did have the money I don’t think I’d necessarily buy a top player.
“One of the things I need to see first is Dale. He’s had a shoulder operation and if he’s back to full fitness he’s a class player.”
Dale Benkenstein is one of Durham’s most iconic players, captain when they won their first major trophy, then maiden Championship and their most prolific run-scorer in First-Class cricket. He is now limited-overs skipper.
In May Benkenstein dislocated his shoulder. It ended his season and he returned to South Africa for surgery. He has spoken from Natal of his family’s homesickness, and taken a winter job there as a batting consultant.
“He’s a class player under contract (until 2014),” says Leach.
“He’s terrifically vital in the middle order with the runs he’s got in the past years. But Dale feels Durham in a big way, and that’s great.”
This time last year, with Michael Di Venuto retired and Ian Blackwell soon to do likewise, an overseas batsman was high on Leach’s wishlist. Then reality struck.
“The financial situation was very difficult, not least because we had some previous debts which had to be dealt with, as well as some development work (on the ground),” he reveals.
“We were very close to having difficulties with our cash situation. It’s gone now, we are under control. I’ve been looking at the report of the 2012 finances for all the clubs and other than probably just a couple we are not that badly off.
“In April, May, I’ll be honest, I did think we needed a bit of bolstering. When Dale was incapacitated very early in the season there was a big, big hole. A successful team needs a strong middle order. Fortunately three young men stepped up with the bat – Mark Stoneman, Scott Borthwick and Ben Stokes.
“We were looking for a quality batsman in the No 2, 3, 4 slot but we got away with it.”
“Got away with it” could be the understatement of the year. Every setback, even coach Geoff Cook’s heart attack, created an opportunity someone took advantage of. It rewarded the long-term thinking Leach has always embraced.
“It’s come out very well indeed,” Leach says. “We’ve always planned to have a good academy and encourage young people through our second XI, and we’ve always had a very strong team of coaches. But it would be a lie to say we put the plan into operation.
“We were forced into relying on young players. The big thing is, they all rose to it. If you asked me what was the one thing that really made it work it was the togetherness of the whole team.
“We all feel very, very strongly about the club, the team and the people.
“But well done to the young people, they stood up to be counted.
“Now they’re a bit more experienced and they’ve got a tougher job because a lot will be expected of them but I’m very confident they will rise to the occasion again.”
Five departures will weaken Durham’s squad, but again Leach says they are thinking long term.
“Most were conscious decisions,” he insists.
“We would have liked to have kept Will Smith but you can’t spend money that isn’t there. If someone had put the money on the table to keep him, we would have.
“But I’m delighted we’ve got Gordon Muchall staying with us because I think the best of Gordon is still to come.
“He’s a very talented player who’s done very well in the shorter-form games and he can be an even finer player in the longer form. And there’s guys coming up like young (Rammy) Singh, who’s a good batter. So it’s okay.
“Callum Thorp’s been a fine player for us but keeping him would block the path of younger players like (Jamie) Harrison and (Usman) Arshad.”
You wonder why counties like Surrey, who bought in most of their squad and were relegated, have not followed suit.
“Sometimes when you’ve got a surplus of money you can lose sight of the right way of doing things,” Leach replies tactfully. “For as long as I’m involved we will try to do things the right way.
“But just because things have worked for us doesn’t mean it would work for other clubs with different situations. I wouldn’t dream of telling them how to run their own clubs.”