Ambitious Darlington chief has Beckham in his sights

First published in Sport The Northern Echo: Photograph of the Author by , Chief Football/Golf Writer

AFTER witnessing his dream of leading Darlington to Wembley evaporate in the Lancashire air on Saturday, chairman George Houghton will take steps to ensure the club's future remains in a healthy state this week.

Houghton, while revealing an intention to step down after two more seasons in charge, will use this week's trip to America, where he is due to have surgery, to try to persuade David Beckham to become an ambassador for the League Two club.

While his plan appears to be fanciful, it forms part of the self-made millionaire's long-term vision to turn Darlington into a breeding ground for some of the world's best young talent.

In January Houghton travelled to Poland to discuss the possibility of two Warsaw-based clubs becoming feeder for the Darlington Arena.

Having liked what he heard, he now claims to have enjoyed successful early negotiations with three clubs in America with a view to embarking on a similar partnership.

Having witnessed the impact Beckham's arrival has had on Major League Soccer in the United States, Houghton is convinced that football in that part of the world is the future.

The 68-year-old was at Rochdale on Saturday, where 15-year-old Curtis Main was the only player in Darlington's squad to have graduated from the club's Academy on to the first team stage. There are also high hopes that teenage midfielder Lewis Hardman, who has been in the squad a few times, can step up to the first team next season.

But Houghton, looking to develop the club's youth ranks, feels striking a deal with clubs in America would ensure more youngsters make the step up and Darlington would continue to make progress on the pitch.

"I don't want to name the guy I'm talking to in Florida when I'm over there but he almost runs all of the football, or soccer as they call it, in the States," said Houghton. "I have been to the universities over there and they are playing soccer all the time. I can't believe it. Girls football, in particular, is incredible.

"I have three feeder clubs lined up, and another Premier League club in this country as well, but I can't name any of them. But the guy I'm talking to in America is looking to bring players across to this country and to us.

"I have not signed anything yet so I don't want to say anything about who they are, but hopefully things will happen."

Darlington's Polish keeper Przemyslaw Kazimierczak was signed in January from Bolton, where he arrived in 2006. He is regarded highly by Dave Penney and could be just the first of his nationality to move to the Arena.

But while Houghton still has an eye on talent in Poland and the rest of eastern Europe, he feels the American market is there to be exploited, hence the reason for contacting Beckham.

"My personal opinion is that David Beckham will stay in America and I'm looking to try and forge a link-up with clubs in America as well as Poland," said Houghton. "Our manager is a good friend of Steve McClaren, who obviously knows David.

"I can't call what David Beckham is going to do but I have been told his contract runs out in 2010 and that he is very keen to stay in the States. I won't mess around. I have learnt one thing in life, you ask someone and they can either say 'yes or no'. I would love him to be an ambassador for this club."

Darlington's failure to reach Wembley and the chance of promotion to League One is likely to fuel further suggestions that Penney will be leaving.

There have also been fears around Darlington that Houghton himself is ready to sell up, having been critical of the low attendances at the Arena before the play-off semi-final first leg with Rochdale ten days ago.

Houghton, however, insists he has no intentions of turning his back on the club yet, although he does admit that it will be time to stand down in two years.

"Everyone thinks I'm going to leave. I'm here until 2010," said Houghton, who has made no secret of his desire to take Darlington to the Championship. "I have a five-year plan and I will get that because I never lose.

"I will be 70 then and I can't go on. There has also been a lot of speculation about Dave as well. He signed a contract in January for four years. Everything's fine and he's here for good."

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