AS the chief executive of a football club, one of David Johnston’s major roles is to ensure his club is playing football matches. As the chief executive of a football club that has come perilously close to being liquidated on more than one occasion in the last couple of decades, however, another one of his major responsibilities is to ensure that his club does not play football matches that could threaten its very existence.

So, while Darlington’s chief executive might have felt conflicted when he was asked to help decide whether to declare the National League North season null and void – a scenario that formally came to pass earlier this month – ultimately, the choice was a simple one.

Play on and incur debts that would have a crippling impact for years, perhaps decades, to come. Or call it a day and safeguard the stable financial position created by more than a decade of supporter-led initiatives. Put it like that, and there was not really a decision to make.

“No one wanted things to play out the way they did, but in the end, it could only go one way,” said Johnston, who was appointed as the head of Darlington’s board in 2017. “When we agreed to start the season, we did so because of the guarantee of grants from DCMS (the Department of Digital, Culture, Media and Sport). There’s a legal challenge over the way those grants were allocated rumbling along, but to all intents and purposes, that money came.

“Then, all of a sudden, we were told that for the remainder of the season, it would be loans not grants. We lost around £50,000 in January and were on track to lose the same in February. We still had 30 games to play, so we would almost certainly have been playing until July. That could have cost us more than £300,000.

“If we’d taken out a loan against that, and had to repay it over ten years, the repayments would have had a huge effect on our playing budget for the next ten seasons. You might have been talking about a reduction of ten per cent or so, which would probably have meant cutting the squad by two or three players every season. We run a tight ship as it is, so pick up a couple of long-term injuries, which sadly is pretty inevitable, and we wouldn’t even have been able to fill a bench.

“I wasn’t prepared to jeopardise the future of the club just to play out the season. Then, on top of that, there was also the issue of Covid testing. Unlike in the professional game, we haven’t had a testing process brought in. A lot of our lads have other jobs, and certainly at other clubs, I’ve heard of employers raising concerns about their employees being exposed to the risk of contracting Covid while playing, training or travelling with their team. Some players were concerned about pregnant partners or vulnerable relatives. Those issues weren’t being addressed.”

So, Darlington’s league campaign is at an end. The club will, however, return to action on Saturday when they host Isthmian Premier League side Hornchurch in the quarter-finals of the FA Trophy. Isn’t it hypocritical to be playing in the last eight of the Trophy, with the carrot of a potential Wembley appearance just two wins away, when Quakers refused to play in a league game a few days before the National League programme was officially halted?

“I can understand those criticisms, but I wouldn’t question what any other club has been doing in terms of playing or not because I don’t know the details of their situation or finances,” said Johnston. “The financial position is clear with regard to the Trophy – it’s a separate competition run by the FA rather than the National League, and win or lose on Saturday, we’ll receive some income from the game.

“We’ve taken players off furlough to play in the game, and if we can win on Saturday, the prize money will more than cover the wages. If we could go all the way and win the final, we’d get £86,000. That’s a massive incentive to try to win the next three matches.”

Beyond that, thoughts will turn to next season, when it is hoped a fair degree of normality will have returned. Johnston is planning for the 2021-22 campaign to begin in front of full crowds, and while there was a proposal to return to the Arena in order to increase attendances when the regulations were different in September, the board’s current forward planning is very much based around remaining at Blackwell Meadows.

Discussions have already taken place with Alun Armstrong about how best to strengthen the squad, with Darlington in a healthy financial position despite the difficulties of the last few months.

“We’ll be coming out of this okay,” said Johnston. “We haven’t had to incur big debts and we haven’t had to undo the good work that’s been done over the last few years. We’ve done all the right things, and we’re in good shape.

“We’ve got to improve the squad, and we know that, but I think the Trophy matches in particular this season have proved we’re capable of competing with teams in the National League. Hopefully, with a few astute additions here and there, we can kick on next season and really challenge at the top end of the table.

“The most important thing is that the fans don’t have anything to worry about. The board, the supporters’ group, Alun and the squad – we’re all working together to take the club in the right direction.

"It hasn’t been an easy season – in fact, it’s pretty much been a write off – but we could end it at Wembley with the club in a good state. I think we’d all be happy with that.”