Darlington Arena has stood on the edge of the town for two turbulent decades.

Once hailed as an exciting project for Darlington and its football club set to bring a huge economic boost, many now brand it a white elephant.

Opened in the summer of 2003, issues on opening day could have foreshadowed what was to come for the stadium as the club headed for administration just months after.

It rarely drew crowds big enough to fill just one of its stands, but on August 16 that year when thousands turned up for its first match there was a sense of optimism at what the stadium could bring in the future.

The Northern Echo: The arena, pictured here on August 16 2003, ready to welcome fans for the first time.The arena, pictured here on August 16 2003, ready to welcome fans for the first time. (Image: CHRIS TINSLEY/ARCHIVE)

That June it had been announced the 25,000-seater stadium would be named after the club’s flamboyant chairman George Reynolds.

The Northern Echo: The arena was named after the club's owner George Reynolds.The arena was named after the club's owner George Reynolds. (Image: ANDY LAMB/ARCHIVE)

The ground hosted its first competitive match of the 2003/04 season on August 16 when Kidderminster Harriers visited for a Division Three clash.

But it was already off to a bumpy start amid parking fury and capped safety rules capping its capacity, in what should have been seen as a foreshadowing for what was to come.

The Northern Echo: George Reynolds welcomes fans to his new arena.George Reynolds welcomes fans to his new arena. (Image: CHRIS TINSLEY/ARCHIVE)

Residents in surrounding streets feared a parking free-for-all for the opening match as the club had failed to pay the £60,000 to set up and enforce a residents’ permit scheme.

It was required to pay that under a legally binding document agreed upon as part of planning permission being granted for the Neasham Road ground.

The Northern Echo: Parking issues caused issues on the first day as thousands descended on the arena.Parking issues caused issues on the first day as thousands descended on the arena. (Image: CHRIS TINSLEY/ARCHIVE)

On opening day its capacity was capped at just 11,510, despite having enough seats for more than double that, due to further work needed to be carried out on the North stand.

Restricting the capacity a Darlington Council spokesperson said two days before the first match: “The work that needs to be done on the North Stand is just on floors and fitting it out. Because of segregation of fans and certain amounts of seating that can't be used, this will be the capacity for now.”

The Northern Echo: Crowds outside the arena on opening day.Crowds outside the arena on opening day. (Image: CHRIS TINSLEY/ARCHIVE)

The day before it opened Reynolds confirmed more than 6,000 tickets had been sold but said he expected more than 10,000 to turn up for the match, branding the capacity restriction as “red tape and bureaucracy gone mad”.

On opening day teething problems including ticketing issues, long queues at food stalls and traffic chaos caused frustration, although thousands of fans turned out to see what they hoped would be a landmark new venue for Darlington and their club.

The Echo told at the time how diehard followers branded the stadium as "unbelievable", "magnificent", "incredible". Reynolds addressed fans welcoming them to the venue before Tina Turner’s ‘Simply the Best’ blared out across the arena. He later vowed to sort out the issues which had disrupted the first game.

The Northern Echo: Fans were excited for the new arena. Pictured: Supporter Steve Carvey with son Harry (left) and James DonaldFans were excited for the new arena. Pictured: Supporter Steve Carvey with son Harry (left) and James Donald (Image: CHRIS TINSLEY/ARCHIVE)

But it soon became issues off the pitch which created bigger problems for the club, hovering near the bottom of its division with a financial crisis threatening its existence.

Within months attendance had fallen below 3,000, the Echo reported at the time. For the club finances, it was disastrous, particularly with 2,800 season tickets sold on a two-for-one basis at the start of the season. The taxman was owed more than £200k and rumours of Reynolds selling were swirling.

The Echo’s Chief Feature Writer Chris Lloyd wrote at the time: “It is impossible not to admire the splendid construction that bears his name on the edge of town, but in bullying it through to completion he has alienated so many people that he has been left to foot the bill on his own.

The Northern Echo: Reynolds' name is removed from the arena in April 2004.Reynolds' name is removed from the arena in April 2004. (Image: MIKE GIBB/ARCHIVE)

“Footing that bill has brought the club to its knees and it is difficult to see how, with Mr Reynolds at the helm, it will get back on its feet.”

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Darlington fans know what came next for their club and Reynolds – administrators, attempts at fan ownership and their club changing its name.

It wasn’t a football match but a concert by Elton John which drew the arena’s largest crowd of 17,000 in 2008, four years before Darlington decided to leave the ground after just nine years.

Now home to Darlington Mowden Park Rugby Club instead after a 2012 sale it now hosts rugby matches and occasional concerts, and turned its hand to being a mass COVID-19 vaccination site during the pandemic.