AS DARLINGTON chairman Stewart Davies sits in one of the executive boxes at his club's palatial home, he is able to survey a sea of empty seats.

It is a Thursday morning, two days before his side entertain League Two opponents Bristol Rovers, and while the lack of spectators may be inevitable, the sparse and barren backdrop is a fitting one.

Later this afternoon, the majority of those seats will remain unfilled as the Quakers continue their push for the play-offs.

For a man who has spent his working life solving seemingly impossible business conundrums, improving Darlington's attendance is proving to be the most intractable puzzle of them all.

"We've tried everything to get people through the gate," said Davies, who claimed sole control of the club after former chairman, George Reynolds, instigated administration proceedings in December 2003.

"We've tried cutting prices, putting on special deals, improving the match-day environment - we've even tried winning - but it doesn't seem to be making any difference at all."

With David Hodgson's side currently lying seventh in League Two, Davies is entitled to shake his head. The outcry that accompanied the club's dramatic slide towards liquidation has already become a whimper now that it is worthy of praise.

Like the village pub that is only supported when it is about to close, Darlington's football club has quickly been forgotten once its financial survival has been secured.

In January 2004, less than a month after the club had been placed in the hands of the administrators, more than 14,000 fans turned out to attend a charity fundraising game.

The match raised more than £130,000 for Darlington's survival fund and, just as significantly, underlined the extent of the latent support for a Football League presence in the town.

Sadly, it has not taken long for most of that support to drift away.

The club's last home game - a flamboyant 4-0 win over Mansfield - was attended by just 4,282 supporters and only once this season - September's Friday night draw with Notts County - has Darlington's crowd broken the 5,000 mark.

Given that the club kicked off the campaign with expectations of an average gate of at least 6,000, the dwindling attendances are beginning to cause serious concern.

"When I first came into football, I didn't understand it at all and it didn't make any sense," said Davies, whose business background as a money lender hardly prepared him for the day-to-day demands of football chairmanship.

"Now, a year or so later, I understand it a little bit and I know it makes absolutely no sense at all.

"We are financially secure because we have a lot more people that come and use the stadium.

"There are a lot more sponsors, conferences on almost every day and we have nearly 400 people that come and have Sunday lunch with us every week. The stadium is well used and doing well.

"What isn't doing so well, though, is the attendance on a match day. We've been successful on the football side, but here we are poised to make the play-offs, with a really good side together, and nothing seems to have changed.

"I don't know what the answer is because I think we play attractive, competitive football.

"Last month, we had lost once in the last nine games, and we were playing a local team, Grimsby, who were up at the top of the league.

"We got 4,200 people. That was very disappointing. I make a habit of speaking to the fans and no one has an answer to the problem."

Crucially, Davies' non-match-day initiatives have tempered the financial impact of the lack of support.

Darlington's short-term survival is not dependent on how many people come through the gate this season but, in the longer term, the club's development will be inextricably linked to the level of attendance on a match day.

In part that is good business sense - no sensible chairman would be willing to gamble away crowd receipts that do not exist - but, in the main, it is because of a Football League ruling introduced to prevent the kind of financial meltdown suffered by Darlington.

Two seasons ago, after more than a dozen clubs came close to going to the wall in the wake of the collapse of ITV digital, the Football League's chairmen came together to discuss how to prevent clubs spending money they did not have.

The result was a form of salary cap, whereby a club's entire budget for players' wages must not exceed more than 60 per cent of their total income from match-day attendance.

"In League Two, a club's development is entirely dependent on attendance," said Davies.

"This season, the Football League felt we would be likely to have an attendance of 6,000 based on our crowd last year and the fact that we had just finished outside the play-offs. Sadly, they were wrong.

"The budget that I will agree for next year with the Football League will be determined by the level of crowds we are able to attract this year. They will look at our attendances and act accordingly.

"The Football League are quite right to do that. The number of Football League sides in financial difficulty this year has dropped dramatically. I don't think there have been any that have declared administration or insolvency.

"So the policy is working, but it means that clubs are likely to be promoted on the basis of attendance."

Therefore, a club such as Carlisle, who are capable of attracting crowds of more than 10,000, are able to spend more than twice as much on their players as Darlington.

As a result, the Cumbrians, boasting a squad that includes former Sunderland and Newcastle striker Michael Bridges, currently sit on top of the table.

Darlington, on the other hand, are being forced to operate with one hand tied behind their back, a situation that is only going to get worse unless crowds pick up between now and the end of the season.

"The chairmen of League Two have said 'Let's be sensible'," said Davies.

"Why should it be the people with the most money that win League Two? Even if you had a Roman Abramovich figure wanting to buy a League Two club, he couldn't buy his way into League One and the Championship.

"In one sense it has worked. The football is really close and a club's success has been put into the hands of the fans.

"Carlisle will get a side at the top of the league because up to 12,000 people turn out to watch their home games.

"Attendances like that make a difference.

"In the end, each town will get the club that it deserves."

The inference from that comment is clear.

Davies has done all he can to provide a financial platform for progress - whether or not that progress occurs is entirely dependent on Darlington's residents themselves.

They have already saved the club from ruin - now they are being asked to carry it forward./

Read more about the Quakers here.