The news that Darlington went into administration at 15:00 on Wednesday and the ten point penalty that comes with that helps City’s promotion bid no end but as a development in football it could not be less welcome.
The Quakers are doing well in League Two but struggle to be financially viable with a massive stadium – it is bigger than Valley Parade – and low attendances making the business of football in that corner of the North East especially hard to manage.
The club were in administration as recently as 2004 and – as with City – are having their second slump into enforced financial controls is a result of falling attendances blamed on the credit crunch and an inability to maximise rental revenues from land around the stadium both of which – while regrettable – were too predictable to reliable part of the last CVA which they (one suspects) did.
Oddly enough Bradford City have found a way to address the falling attendance revenue and maximise the size of the stadium although Mark Lawn has recently cast doubts as to the long term viability of the cheapest season tickets in football should they not be taken up by an enlarged mass of the Bradford population.
That Darlington could have learnt from City’s example in the way that Huddersfield Town have is more than an annoying hindsight and it would seem that the supporters of the Quakers are once again suffering from an unrealistic boardroom that assumed that the future of the club would be different by willing it to be so and shouting enough at the 97,000 or so in the area who do not follow the club.
Darlington are reported to need a crowd of 5,500 to break even and attract under 3,000. Without a change as City have done, a promotion or something else of significance it is simple mismanagement to expect that number to be added to by two thirds. Dave Penney’s sides are robust, sturdy, work hard but they played at Valley Parade two weeks ago and were not nice to watch. The lesson of precedence from other clubs coming out of administration suggests that to expect another two thousand bums on is naive to say the least. Yes, credit crunch and Yes, Premiership stealing supporters but when costs of running a club are planned to be offset against extraordinary activity then mismanagement is not far away.
All of which is a nightmare for Darlington’s supporters and a sobering for all football fans who would like to consign the era of administration to history. That no club in the Football League had suffered this fate this season was seen as progress and build confidence that ebbs away. Even the loss of ten points – while supposedly good news and arguably fair redress for a club living beyond its means – is scant recompense for continued damage to confidence that clubs being managed in this way does in the wider community in Darlington and beyond. For football’s economy to gain any internal parity or stability clubs in League Two level need to be run more correctly.
The Darlington side that played at Valley Parade had loan players like Liam Hatch – a £100,000 rated striker on the bench. Ambition and striving for promotion is a good thing but not when it is paid for by speculative ideas of increasing gate revenues. This is the kind of management that damages us all by association just as paying £55,000 a week for Benito Carbone in the expectation of him establishing Bradford City as a Premiership club or borrow against twenty years of Champions League money to let Leeds United “live the dream” became phrases used to describe the lack of realism in football planning.
What is bad for the tea and biscuit company is bad for me. I want a strong division and a strong Darlington who do everything within their powers to win promotion up to the point where they start risking the long term future of the club for the medium term aim of a promotion which – if not won – leaves the club in danger. Are Darlington risking their future to try get ahead or to keep up? At this stage it probably does not matter any more.
Today we talk about Darlington – and I feel empathy for the fans – while League Two leaders Brentford are reported to be in £10m which they hope to pay off with promotion. Hopefully Mark Lawn and many other chairmen have their clubs living within their means but to a lesser extent Darlington and certainly Brentford are creating a situation while clubs have to join in in risking their futures just to compete or accept playing on an unlevel playing field.