Monday 9th April provided very contrasting fortunes for two clubs in England. Whilst 5,009 people crammed into the Deva Stadium to watch the reformed Chester F.C promoted to the Blue Square North, 172 Darlington fans were sat at Lincoln’s Sincil Bank watching their team take a 5-0 hammering and all but relegate them into the same league. It was in stark contrast to the circumstances of the last game played between Darlington and what was then Chester City F.C.
It was a warm, final day of the season when the teams met at the Chester’s Deva Stadium on May 3rd, 2009. Darlington, who had been defeated on penalties in the League Two play-off semi-final the season before, came to Chester in administration and with a ten point penalty to their name. Whilst it had curtailed their promotion ambitions, they were still sitting comfortably in mid table whilst Chester were staring into the abyss of non-league, three points behind their nearest rivals but with a 20 goal imbalance to make up. Darlington’s 2-1 victory sealed Chester’s relegation, a 90th minute winner the final kick in the teeth for the Deva faithful in what had been a torrid season.
Whilst Darlington had a buyer lined up in the shape of Raj Singh, a local, self-made millionaire; Chester had no such plan in place and were put into administration two weeks into the off-season. With the club starting in the Conference on minus ten points due to their administration, things would only get worse for City as they were then handed a further 15 point penalty for financial irregularities involving Stephen Vaughan, their former Chairman. Whilst local fan Mike Green had tried to organise a rescue package, it was Vaughan and his family who once again took ownership of the club through the company Chester City Fc (2004) Ltd. After missing the first two games of the Conference season, Chester managed to get their season underway midway through August but with the 25 point penalty hanging over their heads and the turmoil at the club, a bad start to the season was inevitable. The manager Mick Wadsworth was sacked and replaced by Jim Harvey, leading to a slight upturn in form, but the handling of the club by Vaughan and his family was becoming of ever increasing concern. City Fans United (CFU) was formed in October, a fan led group in protest at the state of the clubs finances and Vaughan’s ownership.
Mass protests followed, including a pitch invasion at home to Eastbourne Borough which led to the abandonment of the game with City leading 3-2. After Jim Harvey was sacked in January 2010, CFU called for a boycott of games, which led to dwindling attendances and further financial plight for the club. Before an away game at Forest Green Rovers, the players went on strike over non-payment of their wages. CFU began making preparations for a “phoenix club” to be set up, intending to begin playing at the start of the 2010/11 season. Meanwhile The Conference, with little option, suspended Chester and at their next board meeting recommended that City be expelled from the league. Less than a month later, the club was liquidated, a 2-1 defeat to Ebbsfleet in the FA Trophy proving to be the final game of the proud club. It was a sad end, to what had once been the stomping ground for Liverpool legend Ian Rush. For some Chester fans however, it was seen as a breath of fresh air and a new dawn for the club. The years of the Vaughan family running the club into the ground had been ended, perhaps more down to financial issues but with significant help from the fans boycott. The phoenix club that was to be created gave the fans the chance to shape the future of the club, do away with the previous tyrannical owners and re-engage with the public of Chester.
150 miles north in Darlington, “The Quakers” would end up having a tumultuous and traumatic season too. With Raj Singh finalising his takeover of the club in pre-season, pledging to run the club at a sustainable level, the future looked safe for the club. The ex-Bolton manager Colin Todd was brought in and immediately set about building a squad after the departure of the entire first team. Perhaps inevitably given the time period and budget constraints Todd was working to, the club only managed two draws and seven defeats from the opening nine games of the League Two season, leaving them rooted to the foot of the table. Todd was replaced by former Ireland manager Steve Staunton, who while having struggled with International management, was seen by many as a major coup for the team propping up the entire Football League. Staunton’s reign however, proved one of the most disastrous in Darlington’s long history, a return of only four wins of the twenty-three that he was in charge with, led to the same fate that had befallen Chester the season before and relegation to The Conference.
As the 2010/11 got under way, the fans of the now defunct Chester City had set up a new club called Chester F.C. Initially placed in the North West Counties Premier Division, the new club appealed the decision and were placed in the Northern Premier League Division One North, the 8th tier of the Football League pyramid. With the club allowed to return to play at the Deva Stadium by Chester council, an excited feeling pervaded around the City. With an average of 2,383 fans coming through the turnstiles each game, “The Blues” secured the title with a haul of 97 points.
The step up to the NPL Premier Division proved difficult at first but after the first few games Chester managed to find their feet and hit the top of the table in December. The club then went on a 16 match unbeaten run, leading to the 1-1 draw against Northwich Victoria on 9th April this year, the almost capacity crowd witnessing Chester’s promotion in to the Blue Square North.
The next two years of Darlington’s existence however, would prove to be quite the opposite of the Chester experience. Simon Davey was brought in by Raj Singh in the final weeks of the previous relegation season in an attempt to get a head start on the squad rebuilding needed for an assault on the Conference. It would not however be a smooth summer, with Davey jumping ship to League Two Hereford leading to his assistant Ryan Kidd taking charge. Kidd only lasted 11 days in the job, before leaving for what are still now unexplained reasons. Singh then turned to Mark Cooper, who had achieved notable success with Kettering Town. A poor start to the season left the club too much ground to make up, and they finished just outside the play off places despite a strong run of form from late January until the end of the season. There was to be success in the FA Trophy however, Cooper guiding his team past local rivals Gateshead in the semi-finals before Chris Senior secured a 1-0 win with almost the last touch of extra-time at a gloriously sunny Wembley in May.
On the back of 10 000 Darlington fans witnessing glory at Wembley, hopes were high for the coming season. Cooper made way in his squad for four or five new faces and Darlington were installed as second favourites for the Conference title. The reality of the season would prove greatly different to pre-season expectations; Cooper losing his job after a string of poor performances left the team in the bottom half of the table in late October. Singh refused to appoint a new manager, club legend Craig Liddle taking over as “interim manager” but would go on to see out the season in this role. Following defeat away to minnows Hinckley United in the FA Cup fourth qualifying round, ensuring Darlington did not compete in the 1st round of the national cup for the first time in their history, Singh plunged the club into administration for the third time in nine years. With no buyers coming in for the club, it looked like Darlington had played their last game away at Barrow, with a travelling contingent of over 1,000 making the trip over to Cumbria. Perhaps the most dramatic day in Darlington’s history was about to unfold though. As the administrator Harvey Madden informed the staff at the club that Darlington was to be liquidated, a group called the Darlington FC Rescue Group (DFCRG) arrived with £50 000 to see the club through another three games, thus giving extra time for a long term solution to be found for the club. Using a share issue scheme, in which fans could purchase a share in the club for £100, the fans of Darlington raised £335 000 to enable the purchase of the club. On the pitch things were not going well for the club, their win at home to Cambridge United in December being their last before the inevitable relegation which followed the 5-0 drubbing away at Lincoln City.
The purchase of the club ran into difficulty late into the season, with a roadblock in the form of of former chairman Raj Singh. Being the major creditor, he had experienced a change of heart from his declaration in January that he would waive his debt owed by the club if it was to be purchased by the fans. This change of heart stopped any Creditors Voluntary Agreement (CVA) being completed, which meant the club were expelled from the Conference North. Last week however, administrator Harvey Madden allowed a new company called Darlington 1883 to be formed and agreed to sell the assets of the club to this new company for £100 000, thus ensuring the club would not be liquidated and Singh would be denied any payment of his debts. With the expulsion from The Conference, it is now in the hands of The Football Association to decide where to place Darlington for the next season. It appears the most likely options are either the Evostick Premier or the Evostick Division 1, one and two divisions below the Conference North respectively. The new ownership did not dwell on the bad news and took the key decision of moving the club out of their crippling 25 000 all-seater Arena , preferring to play at local non-league Shildon AFC. Whilst the club is now technically homeless, the move away from the stadium should enable the club to be run along more practical financial lines and generate a better matchday atmosphere that was so lacking at the soulless, empty bowl that Darlington used to call home.
Whilst the symmetry of Darlington and the reformed Chester meeting up in the Blue Square North has been avoided due to Darlo’s expulsion, the future is looking significantly brighter for both teams. Chester have managed to garner great support from the local community and following two consecutive promotions, they look set to have a great chance of achieving a third. Darlington, on the other hand, are taking their first tentative steps as a fan owned club, following those taken by the Blues two years previously. Whilst there are differences between the two clubs, most notably the fact that Darlington are currently homeless, the two have arrived at a very similar point in their histories, having come from such differing situations when they last met on the final day of the League Two season in 2009. The success that fan owned clubs, not just Chester, but AFC Wimbledon and Exeter City have had, must provide hope for The Quakers. They have seemingly ended the revolving door of millionaire chairmen, who have left the club in a considerably worse position than when they took over. Their success, much like that of Chester’s, will hinge on keeping the fan base engaged and in touch with the decisions that the new ownership takes. If a situation like Scarborough’s can be avoided, where two competing teams were set up, then it may not be long before Darlington can return to the level from which they have just been relegated.
The future for Chester in contrast, looks a little clearer. A strong title challenge in the Blue Square North will be expected. With an average attendance that will dwarf every club in the division, it is not an unreasonable expectation from their supporters. Perhaps the toughest challenge however, will be when things do not go as planned. As every football fan knows, it is an easy prospect supporting your local team when things are going well, but it is a much sterner proposition when things are not. If they keep heading in the same direction however, it may not be a long time before we see them challenging at the top of the Conference Premier and even back into League Two, where things started going drastically wrong for them. In time, with hard work and dedication from the fans, it may not be long before Darlington are following the boys from Deva Stadium up the non-league pyramid, back to the promised land of the Football League. If all goes to plan for both clubs, the next meeting at the Deva could be in League Two, and it would be fitting if it were to occur on the final day of the season. Let’s hope this time both clubs will be chasing promotion, not facing extinction and that they will not be protesting but celebrating, along with the 5000 other owners of both clubs, crammed in to the terraces.