When George Houghton took control in March 2006, he spoke of “banging on the Premiership’s door” within five years. Three years later and the only door he is pushing against is the one marked “Exit”. As the administrators sift through the wreckage of Houghton’s reign, Scott Wilson looks at where it all went wrong.


The crux of the Quakers’ problems is simple – not enough supporters are coming through the gate.

Average attendances this season have dropped to around 2,900, the lowest since the Arena was opened in August 2003.

Houghton’s business plan, like George Reynolds’ before it, was premised upon gates of more than 5,000. But the club have never looked like attracting attendances of that magnitude.

The shortfall has proved crippling, and while the club have introduced a variety of schemes in an attempt to entice more supporters – under-10s have been admitted for free all season – the crowds have continued to drop.

“I can’t give any more tickets away,” said Houghton. “I’ve given tickets away for free, but we’re still not getting enough people through the doors. That’s a disastrous situation.

“Look at Hartlepool – they’re getting up to 5,000 every game. If you had 5,000-6,000 fans coming into Darlington, I think you would just about break even. But that’s double what we’re getting now. We had less than 3,000 against Rochdale, and it’ll never work on gates like that.”

Crucially, though, Darlington have never enjoyed crowds of 5,000-agame either – except when Reynolds slashed prices at Feethams – and any financial model premised on attendances of more than 3,000 looks doomed in the current climate.


Ask any Darlington supporter what has gone wrong in the last decade, and it’s a fair bet that the move from Feethams to George Reynolds’ white elephant of an arena would be close to the top of the list.

The ground is unpopular – empty, soulless and situated in an out-of-town location that is difficult to get to by public transport or on foot.

Problems surrounding the purchase of tickets and refreshments have plagued the Arena since its opening, and many lapsed supporters have pledged never to set foot in the ground.

That has clearly affected attendances, and the problems created by the dwindling gate receipts have been exacerbated by the size of the ground Darlington inhabit.

Because the Arena is bigger than any other ground in League Two, the resultant overheads and fixed costs are also much greater than those incurred by the club’s rivals.

“It’s like having a hotel with 1,000 bedrooms, and only having 100 people coming in every day,” said Houghton.

“Eventually, the cost of looking after those 1,000 bedrooms means the whole thing will go down.”

Houghton, not Darlington, owns the Arena, and a prospective buyer will have to decide whether to continue playing at the ground, or whether to seek less salubrious accommodation elsewhere.


If the crowds are not big enough to sustain a viable football club at the Arena, why not attempt to bring in alternative funds?

Houghton, in conjunction with former vice-chairman Raj Singh, did exactly that and, two years ago, submitted a planning application for a major development scheme on land adjoining the Arena that would have included a 100-bedroom hotel, offices, café, pub and training academy featuring 13 pitches.

“It was crucial that Darlington Council got their planning sorted out,” said Houghton. “There was going to be a hotel, cafe, everything. And the most important thing was going to be the Academy of Sport.

That would have brought revenue into the club, and it needs that because it has nothing else.”

Houghton had hoped to begin building in summer 2007, but delays in the planning procedure meant permission was not granted until last April.

As a result, last July’s successful Elton John concert represents the only major non-football event to have brought in muchneeded revenue during Houghton’s reign.

Given the fact that football revenues have fallen consistently during that period, one concert was never going to be sufficient to keep the club solvent.


Had planning permission been granted immediately, Houghton and Singh are confident they could have secured bank loans of up to £1m in order to fund their planned development.

As it was, by the time the council gave the go-ahead, the global financial system was in meltdown and banks were reluctant to lend for major capital expenditure.

That situation has not changed – if anything, it has worsened since last April – and Houghton has been forced to shelve his development plans because of a lack of investors.

“The timing would have been fantastic last year if I had got the okay,” said Houghton. “But now it’s not. Hoteliers don’t want to invest – nobody wants to invest any more because the banks wont give them any money. It’s a chain of events.”

It is possible that the plans could be revisited in the future, but with Houghton retaining ownership of both the ground and the adjacent land earmarked for development, it will be of negligible benefit to a potential purchaser.

If Houghton cannot make things work with planning permission in place, how can someone else improve the situation without owning the land that is crucial to future development opportunities?


As well as racking up debts in the last three years, Darlington have also been wrestling with debts inherited from previous regimes.

Houghton claims to have been saddled with a £350,000 debt that related to a system of funding previous purchases. Crucially, he claims it came with an interest rate of 25 per cent attached.

The former chairman also had his fingers burned as a result of his association with Balfour Webnet, the previous sponsors of the Arena. They were paid £250,000-a-year for a range of services, and were expected to produce annual revenues for the football club. “They owed money to the company, but went in to liquidation,” said Houghton. That money, which had been accounted for, had to be found elsewhere.


Darlington are not the only club suffering at the moment. Luton, Bournemouth and Rotherham all remain in administration having called in the receivers last summer, while other League One and League Two clubs are rumoured to be close to collapse.

While the leading Premier League clubs continue to make huge amounts of money, life in the lower reaches of the Football League is considerably less lucrative.

In an average season, Darlington receive around £250,000 from the Football League, a paltry sum in comparison to the revenue generated by the 92 English league clubs collectively.

“There’s a real problem in Leagues One and Two,” said Houghton. “A lot of chairmen are struggling with their own businesses, and they can no longer put the money in.

“The Football League really has to look into this because, if they don’t, there’ll be no leagues left.

We get £250,000 a year from the Football League – it doesn’t even pay for the water rates. That’s definitely part of the problem.”

Unfortunately, it is hard to see how the situation will change, unless Premier League clubs are compelled to hand over a larger proportion of their television revenue to clubs lower down the Football League. And with turkeys unlikely to vote for Christmas, that would almost certainly require intervention from the Government, something that is extremely unlikely to occur.