x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

English football scores an own goal as smaller clubs falter

A tiny beleagured football club on the verge of extinction symbolises the grassroots troubles in English sport.

If you're a fan of the beautiful game, you might well have spent this weekend in front of the television watching the mouth-watering FA Cup tie between Liverpool and Manchester United.

These twin giants of the sport represent everything that's glamorous and glitzy about the domestic game. Both clubs have massive financial resources and a global fan base running into the millions; both clubs' star players have to carry their weekly wages home in a wheelbarrow.

But even as you marvel at the conspicuous wealth and wizardry, I hope you spared a thought for those teams languishing in the lower abyss.

The market town of Darlington in the north-east of England may have a population of only 100,000, but it boasts a proud history. As well as enjoying a reputation for hard work and hospitality, it was the location of the world's first steam railway, and is home to one the of the country's finest Victorian theatres (indeed, I'm appearing there myself in a few weeks).

It also possesses one the country's oldest and most illustrious football clubs. Darlington FC has been playing since 1883, reaching the last 16 of the FA Cup as far back as 1910, and enjoying crowds in excess of 20,000 during its heyday in the 1960s.

But recent history has not been kind to "Darlo". The topmost echelons of English football may be awash with cash and glamour, but sadly none of it seems to have trickled down to this rugged outpost of the game.

Having been hamstrung by years of mismanagement, a ruinous relocation and on-field results that would have Sir Alec Ferguson hanging himself (or his players) from the nearest bridge, so parlous were the club's finances that it had already suffered the ignominy of being put into financial administration on January 3. Indeed, so bad were things that Darlington's local rivals, Hartlepool FC, even had to loan the club their pitch mower after Darlo's broke down.

Yet with things continuing to slide and no saviour in sight, the accountants who now control the boardroom decided they had no option but to sack the entire team.

In the best traditions of goal-line scrambles, the club has since secured temporary funding that has allowed it to rehire the players and struggle on for a few weeks. Meanwhile, the members of the long-suffering supporters club have even been rattling collecting boxes on street corners to drum up money (although even this heartwarming initiative came unstuck after it was discovered the volunteers hadn't applied for the necessary permit.)

The latest bailout package is due to run out just about the time you're reading this article. Or to put it more starkly, this weekend's fixture against York City may have been the last game Darlington ever plays.

You might wonder how such a venerable club could have got into such a fix when the sport is drowning in money, but while everything in the Premier League may indeed be lovely, over the last 30 years a staggering 57 professional clubs in the lower divisions have filed for administration, bankruptcy or insolvency. And while the blooms of Manchester City and Tottenham Hotspur flourish in ever-more dazzling profusion, the roots that nourish them in the lower tiers of the professional game are withering at an alarming rate.

But does it matter? Would anyone, apart from a few loyal diehards, really miss them if they went out of business? Why should we worry about Darlington versus York when we can thrill to Chelsea versus Arsenal?

Well, I think we should. The notion of teams sharing lawnmowers may seem laughable at the Emirates or Stamford Bridge, but these provincial clubs mean every bit as much to their local communities as Arsenal or Chelsea - arguably more so, given the anonymity of life in most large cities. Austerity and recession may seem a distant dream in the hospitality boxes at Old Trafford, but in towns already struggling to cope with rising unemployment and social breakdown, the local football club can be an incalculable social asset.

In Darlo's case, salvation may yet be at hand from a consortium of local businessmen, but with only hours to go until the deadline for liquidation, Darlo's plight looks certain to go into injury time.

In the meantime, I may just pack my old football boots in among my costume and make-up when I set off for Darlington next month. Who knows? Given their current travails, I may get a game myself. That is, if there's still a club left to play for.

 

Michael Simkins is an actor and writer based in London