WITH Darlington Football Club having departed ten months ago, Darlington Mowden Park Rugby Club are the new owners of The Northern Echo Arena. Chief Sports Writer Scott Wilson was present on Saturday as the club played their first game in their new home.
DARLINGTON Mowden Park have been involved in plenty of conversions during their 67-year existence, but surely none have been anything like as dramatic as this.
No longer a hulking empty shell blighting the edge of town, Darlington's Northern Echo Arena is a functioning sporting venue once more.
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Where once there was only abandonment and the scent of failed ambition, now there is hope and, perhaps more importantly, a viable development plan it is hoped will provide a stable and sustainable future.
And whereas Mowden was initially formed as little more than a social club for ex-Darlington Grammar School pupils by a group of ex-servicemen in the wake of the Second World War, the club now finds itself presiding over the second biggest rugby union stadium in the country, behind only Twickenham, the headquarters of the national game. Times, it is fair to say, have changed.
“When we set the club up, we didn't really know if people would be interested enough to keep it going much longer than a season or two,” said 86-year-old Ray Scollay, who was a guest of honour at Saturday's game along with fellow founder member Ted Dixon. “But Ted's dad always said to us, 'If you stick together, you can do anything'. It's taken a while, but I guess this just proves he was right.”
Such pride was only fitting as more than 1,000 spectators packed into the Arena to watch Mowden trounce Bromsgrove 62-7 in their opening game, but beyond the confines of the club, there has been incredulity at the decision to take over George Reynolds' 25,000-seater plaything.
The stadium almost did for Darlington's football club, with the costs related to running it helping drive the Quakers into three spells of administration that culminated in last year's demotion to the Northern League.
Why have Mowden followed them down such a pothole riddled path?
The answer is twofold. First, out of necessity. Having agreed to sell their former home at Yiewsley Drive to a housing developer, their plans for a new stadium at West Park collapsed when another property developer quite literally moved the goalposts.
They needed somewhere to play, the Arena was up for sale, and the council was willing to sell the patch of land that backs on to the stadium.
Just as importantly, though, the club has plans for the future that require scope for development. They run 19 different teams, encompassing children as young as four, and need pitches for them to play on. They have already transformed some of the Arena space into offices and leisure facilities. And they have had expressions of interest from a range of sporting bodies keen to use their facility, including the RFU who could eventually opt to base the England Women's team in Darlington.
They are also hoping to grow themselves, and Saturday's victory enhances their push for a promotion that would leave them just two leagues away from the top-flight.
Reynolds always insisted he would watch a Premiership team playing in his stadium, and to be fair to the self-styled visionary, he was never asked to stipulate which sport.
“I'm not going to say we're going to be playing in the Premiership in five years because that would be ridiculous,” said first-team coach Danny Brown. “But we're ambitious and we want to get as far as we can. If we could get promotion to National One, hopefully this season, that would be a fantastic start.”
On the pitch, Mowden are making a decent fist of things, but given the Arena's chequered past, it will surely be off the field where the club's future path is charted, and to that end, Saturday's debut was a roaring success.
Around 800-or-so 'new fans' were present, and judging by the way they cheered Mowden to victory and remained in the bars to watch England's Six Nations win over Scotland, it is safe to assume they enjoyed themselves.
“I wouldn't really say I'm a rugby fan,” said Jack Harris, who watched with his son, Paul. “But the football team play in Bishop now so if we drive to watch them, we can't have a couple of beers. This gives us that option and we'll definitely come back.”
Another successful conversion on a day that contained more than its fair share.