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Quakers: Back from the dead
EARLIER this month, an exhibition entitled "Back from the brink" opened at Middlesbrough's Dorman Museum featuring memorabilia charting Middlesbrough Football Club's dramatic flirtation with financial disaster in 1986.
Back from the brink? After the events of yesterday, Darlington can go a couple of steps better than that.
On a day that combined edge-of-the-seat drama with wild fluctuations of emotion, the Quakers did not just approach the brink, they went beyond it yet somehow survived to tell the tale.
At a little after midday, joint administrator Harvey Madden was telling the remaining members of Darlington's first-team squad that the club was dead.
There were tears in his eye, just as there was despair in the faces of players and staff alike.
Yet after a last-gasp intervention from the Darlington Rescue Group and a hastily-convened meeting at a secret location, the death rites were reversed and a stay of execution was confirmed.
Three more matches; a precious ten further days in which to conclude the rescue talks that collapsed so spectacularly yesterday morning.
Given the geographical proximity of the two towns, the parallels between Darlington's dalliance with death and Middlesbrough's dramatic survival are remarkable.
Back in 1986, Bruce Rioch and 29 members of his non-playing staff were sacked. Earlier this week, Craig Liddle and Darlington's senior players were told their contracts would be terminated.
Twenty-five years ago, Middlesbrough were only saved because a London-based businessman, Henry Moszkowicz, met Steve Gibson at Heathrow Airport and handed over £300,000 in cash to join the current chairman's consortium. There might not have been a suitcase stuffed with notes yesterday, but Darlington only rowed back from the brink when the Rescue Group began knocking on the Arena doors with a pledge of £50,000 and a promise of a further £110,000 of investment.
The exact figures vary, but when Middlesbrough rose from their death bed, it is believed that Gibson and ICI's Colin Henderson only signed the Football League forms guaranteeing their club's survival with 25 minutes to spare. Yesterday, the administrator's deadline had passed when Darlington were rescued.
Two tales of victory being snatched from the jaws of defeat, but will the final outcome be the same?
In many ways, Darlington are in a much worse position than Middlesbrough were two-and-a-half decades ago, even if Boro's £2m debt would have been enough to take the Quakers under had it been mirrored with the effects of inflation today.
When Middlesbrough were liquidated, Football League rules allowed the new club that formed under Gibson to retain their place in Division Three.
Liquidation for Darlington would mean a phoenix club re-emerging three rungs down the Football League pyramid, in the Evo-Stick First Division.
While a reborn Boro were forced to play their first few games at the Victoria Ground, home to neighbours Hartlepool, within a month they were back in Ayresome Park, a ground that neatly fitted their needs.
The Northern Echo Arena has been an albatross around the neck of successive Darlington administrations, and the future of the stadium will be a key topic in the negotiations that will now take place over the next ten days.
Debt will also be an issue for a new Quakers regime in a way that was never really the case for the successful Middlesbrough consortium, as ICI agreed to take on a bond that effectively wiped out a major part of Boro's pre-existing debt. It is hard to imagine a Darlington company making similar concessions for their hometown club.
Yet despite the hurdles that still need to be overcome, at least yesterday's developments provide cause for optimism where it briefly looked as though none would exist.
Will this week's talks succeed? Much depends on the stance of Darlington's former chairman, Raj Singh, whose insistence on receiving the full £1.8m he claims he is owed effectively led to a stalemate yesterday morning.
Singh has been at loggerheads with a group of developers who have grand visions for both the future of the football club and its Neasham Road site.
Perhaps understandably, the Teessider feels aggrieved at the council's willingness to re-examine the covenants relating to the development of the Arena and its environs, when he felt they were unwilling to assist in his own scheme for the site.
This is no time for personal grievances though. The past is past, and it is be hoped that Singh sees both the bigger picture and a potential to make his money back by embracing the mixture of housing and leisure that is envisaged.
That is the first obstacle to overcome, but there will be more. How is the Rescue Group going to fund the football club moving forward? Should the Arena be retained in its existing form as part of any development, or would it be better to push for a smaller, purpose-built stadium, either on the site or in another part of town? Will a core support of less than 2,000 ever be enough to sustain a professional outfit?
There are no easy answers, but at least in the case of Middlesbrough, there is a precedent for a club flourishing after rising from the dead.
Less than 20 years after their liquidation, Middlesbrough were playing in the UEFA Cup final in Eindhoven. No one is suggesting Darlington will ever get that far, but at least it proves what can be done.
Coming back from the brink should be a beginning, not an end. Darlington have flirted with disaster and lived to tell the tale. Let us hope, like Middlesbrough, they make the most of their second chance.
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