Football club chairman admits: ‘We’ll never fill £20m arena.'

A NORTH-EAST football club’s £20m stadium could be partly demolished – only five years after it opened.

Darlington FC has given up hope of ever filling its 25,000- seater Neasham Road ground.

While the stadium may be the envy of most teams in the lower divisions, it has become a financial millstone for the club, with crowds averaging only 2,996 this season.

Former chairman George Reynolds built the arena as his legacy to the town, but the club has failed to live up to his lofty dreams.

Present chairman George Houghton, who took control of the club in 2006, has admitted the five-year-old stadium is too big.

Businessman Mr Houghton said demolishing one of the stands and replacing it with offices, business space and hospitality suites would provide the club with a vital source of revenue.

The idea, which has not gone down well with supporters would, he said, also help to improve the atmosphere in the ground.

Darlington Arena opened in August 2003, but the massive expenditure led to the club going into administration only four months later.

Mr Houghton became chairman in 2006, taking over from Stewart Davies, and he has helped to bankroll it during an as-yet unsuccessful bid to win promotion from the bottom tier of the Football League.

But nearly five years after administrators were called in, a move that led many fans to fear they would be making a quick return to their former Feethams home, Mr Houghton has admitted the club will never fill the ground.

While not specifying which of the stands would be demolished, it is believed it would be one of those behind the goals, with fans being moved into the vacant North Stand.

Mr Houghton said: “I have thought about this and, apart from getting cardboard cutouts, we won’t fill the stadium – 25,000 is too big for this club, even if we got to the Championship.

“That side (the vacant side stand) is a waste of time. It is costing money. I have seen abroad and other places down south, where they put in offices.

“It will also increase the atmosphere.”

Mr Houghton, a Tynemouthborn property developer, unveiled multi-million pound plans for a sporting academy, hotel, banqueting and conference facilities at the stadium in March last year.

Councillors approved his plans in April. He now hopes to start work on the academy in the spring. However, the self-proclaimed “ideas man” has remained in talks with his planners and lawyers about possible changes to the rest of the plan.

He is also considering further financial input into the playing side of the team, which has not won in seven games, but is just a point off the promotion play-offs.

Mr Houghton said: “Businesswise, promotion is very important to the club. We will be up against bigger league teams. Last year, we would have definitely gone up had it not been for injuries.

“The academy will be great for the club and great for the town. It is a big project. There are 29 acres. It is the only way to sustain Darlington FC and to get them to the Championship within 20 years.”

Mr Houghton pledged he would consult supporters before advancing on any plans.

He added: “The first thing we will do is ask the fans and see what they think.

“If I was here before George Reynolds, I would have asked for a 15,000-seater stadium. That or 20,000 is great because we have other events and concerts to think about.”

Internet site darlington. was busy with fans talking about the proposals yesterday.

One wrote: “Demolishing the West Stand? Is this guy for real? Why not demolish the stand that sits there every other week closed, or the one that holds 400 away fans if we are lucky? I can see a lot more fans becoming disillusioned if that happens, me for one.”

Scott Thornberry, who runs a fans’ website, said: “I can see why he thinks the ground is too big. It is obvious it’s too big for us.

“Demolishing one of the stands may look a bit odd. Oxford have three stands and it doesn’t look right.”