The Agenda: How football may soon be coming home to Darlington

Darlington FC may soon be playing in the town again, club officials have revealed

Owen Humphreys/PA Wire Darlington Arena
Darlington Arena

Nothing is yet set in stone. The facilities do not meet Conference regulations and the pitch may take a battering.

However, thanks to rugby and with respect to Darlington Railway Athletic, as one Quakers supporter wrote online, “Football’s Coming Home”.

Darlington (1883) are, it seems, returning to Darlington.

A “brilliant positive outcome tonight,” wrote another web messenger on Tuesday after the news the club are close to finalising plans, 14 months in the making, to play from next season at Blackwell Meadows, the home of Darlington Rugby Football Club, was revealed to around 100 in attendance at a fans’ forum at the venue on Tuesday.

“Lets hope we make it happen,” he continued, “going home is only way to sustainability.”

It is a long time since the club could be associated with such terms.

Entering administration for the third time in 10 years in January 2012, Darlington exited the Conference Premier that May - 12 months after winning the FA Trophy at Wembley.

Despite having escaped liquidation in the most thrilling, last-ditch circumstances imaginable to resurface as a community interest company, failure to enter into a creditors voluntary agreement led the FA to reclassify the club as ‘new’, enforcing its demotion to Ebac Northern League Division One.

Under Martin Gray, that was promptly won, promoting a rechristened Darlington 1883 to Evo-Stik North, wherein before last night’s home game with Ossett Albion, they stood third.

Home, however, had by then become, and remains, Bishop Auckland’s Heritage Park, tenancy of the George Reynolds-inspired ‘white elephant’ on Neasham Road having itself become too financially burdensome, and Feethams long since a distant memory (although its mothballed Tin Shed may now be resurrected).

For in a joint-statement issued on Tuesday, the directors of both the football and rugby clubs said: “We are delighted to announce we are in the final stages of agreeing ‘Heads of Terms’ for the sharing of facilities at Blackwell Meadows, thereby setting a target for the football club to be able to play league and cup matches on the site during the 2014-5 season, satisfying all FA and league facility requirements.

“Both clubs share the common objective of providing community-based sports facilities and opportunities for the benefit of Darlington and surrounding areas.

“The alliance between the clubs now strengthens the ability to achieve this shared objective and comes on the back of many months of work and discussions on both sides.

“Negotiations are still ongoing in respect of final designs, specifications and construction costs, but both clubs will drive the delivery of the project to realistic timescales and at a high professional standard.

“The club have shared this strategy with its advisory panel, receiving positive support and encouragement to the plans.

“As the site is already being utilised for sporting activity, this agreement will accelerate the football club’s ability to return to Darlington quickly and in controlled and visible phases.

“Also, given the facilities already in place, the opportunity also exists to grow essential off-field commercial revenues for both clubs through increased footfall and local interest, thereby giving both clubs financial sustainability.”

Second in Durham and Northumberland Division One, Darlington RFC attract relatively small crowds, but The Journal understands Blackwell Meadows has hosted international youth games and could accommodate attendances up to around 2000.

Plans are afoot to provide covered seating for 250 spectators, covered terracing for a further 250, turnstiles, hard standing and 500 additional car parking spaces.

Having applied for grants to upgrade the facilities, Darlington 1883 chief executive Martin Jesper told fans attending the forum a new shares issue and an appeal for donations were designed to raise a target of at least £100,000 and reduce debt.

Most crucially, a return to the town is intended to boost flagging crowds, thus increasing income and reducing costs with the ultimate aim of self-sufficiency, and to that end, Blackwell Meadows appears to be a satisfactory solution.

Situated just outside the town centre on Grange Road, near the golf course, it runs parallel to the A66 bypass.

“We want to make sure Darlington Football Club have a proper home,” the rugby club chairman Michael Wilkinson told the forum. “You don’t want to continue being nomads in the future.”

Whether the move improves attendances sufficiently to sustain a dream return to the Football League, or even the Conference, remains to be seen.

Manager Gray recently called on the club’s lapsed supporters - this year’s average is down on last year - to return and was rewarded with 1253 for the game against Harrogate RA, the second highest at Heritage Park this term.

“The fans were very good, they made a lot of noise and the extra numbers that came are appreciated, so I’d like to thank them for that,” he said.

“One or two might have thought I was having a pop last week, but I wasn’t.

“We’re grateful for those who come every week and those extra fans who came today.”

Darlington needs them all.

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