Following the death of George Reynolds, PETER BARRON reflects on the trials and tribulations of being The Northern Echo's editor during  his infamous reign as owner of Darlington Football Club...


WHEN I look back on my 17 years as editor of The Northern Echo, I often find myself wondering: “Did all that really happen?” Never more so than when I’m reminded of my dealings with George Reynolds.

A lot of words, local and national, have been written about George since his death was announced last week. Some have been warm and generous in tribute, others cold in condemnation.

That’s because he was a man who polarised opinions: a bizarre and explosive mix of the good, the bad, and an often very ugly way of going about his business.

They say you should speak as you find. Undeniably, there are those who found him to be kind, generous and entertaining; those who saluted his self-belief, determination, and achievements in business that took him from poverty, to becoming a petty crook, safe-cracker, and then a multi-millionaire chipboard magnate.

However, there is also no hiding from the fact that many knew him as a criminal who resorted to bullying and harassment when he didn’t get his own way.

Yes, he had his admirers, but there is no shortage of people in the North-East who had bad, and often frightening, experiences with him, both personally and professionally.

In my case, we were on collision course from the moment he became the chairman of Darlington Football Club in 1999 (the year I became editor). He cleared The Quakers’ £5m debts, and built a 25,000-seater stadium on the edge of town, with a wild promise of Premier League football to come.

The initial good news story about the club being saved – when, frankly, no one else was willing to take the risk – made for positive headlines. But we all knew deep down they were never going to last.

George was a man with a huge ego and a desperate craving for affection and credibility.

When the football honeymoon was over, the results on the pitch took a dive, and controversies flared over his plans for the development of the stadium site, he didn’t find the headlines so palatable.

George soon came to view The Northern Echo – and just about everyone else – as the enemy.

He picked fights with members of the community who opposed his plans, along with journalists whose names appeared on less than favourable reports on the news or sports pages.

His daily calls to the newsroom became more and more abusive and threatening. Deputy Editor, Chris Lloyd, a gentle soul who couldn’t fight his way out of a paper bag, endured one memorable tirade, in which George screamed: “I’ll wrestle you, in the marketplace, stripped to the ******* waist – we’ll sell tickets for ******* charity.”

Believe me, it's not a sight worth contemplating for too long.

AS editor, I was an obvious target, though there were comedy moments too.

There was the time Darlington manager, David Hodgson, called to ask me to pop in to see him at the stadium on my way to work. By that time, the relationship between chairman George and myself had reached rock bottom, so I suggested it might not be the best idea ever.

“It's OK, he's in London on business,” David insisted.

So there I was, in the manager’s office, when I looked through the window to see a black Range Rover pulling up and George getting out.

“You said he was in bloody London!” I protested.

“I thought he was – don't worry, get under here,” said David, pointing under the desk. Fortunately, George was no better at playing hide and seek than he was at running a football club.

I held my breath, on all fours, as he popped his head round the door for a brief chat with 'Hodgy' before getting in the lift, and I was able to make my escape.

IN one call to me, George declared: “If you’re going to write headlines about me, I’ll write headlines about you.”

The next day, he erected a huge billboard outside the stadium, and posted weekly 'headlines' in enormous letters. They included SACK BARRON, BARRON IS A LIAR (complete with a picture of Pinnochio), and his carefully considered coup de grace, BARRON IS GAY. 

It’s a strange feeling, driving to work past a football stadium, and not knowing what's coming next.

THE acrimony continued to boil over as the club’s fortunes spiralled towards ruin, and George resorted to turning up on journalists' doorsteps with chilling words of warning to be careful what we wrote.

The final straw came when my wife and I had returned from a family holiday with our four young children. While we were unpacking the car, one of the kids came out of the house to announce: “George Reynolds has been!”

Unaware that we were away, George had paid a number of visits to the house, shouting obscenities through the letterbox and leaving a series of signed calling cards on the doormat, with messages such as “Let’s see how your kids cope” and “Your wife will have a nervous breakdown.” I don’t care what anyone says – that’s not funny.

A neighbour had filmed it all from a bedroom window, and the calling cards were handed over to Darlington police. They chose not to prosecute, with an inspector explaining: “You’re a journalist – it’s part of the territory, isn’t it?” I disagreed, and pointed out that my wife and children weren’t journalists, but the police were unmoved.

To be fair, the cops did go on to put an alarm system connected to my home telephone, with a direct line to them, so my wife could call if George paid one of his visits. It once went off by accident, leading to an officer calling to check if everyone was alright.

IN the end,Sports Editor Nick Loughlin took a a call early one evening from a retired County Durham police officer.

The officer was on holiday, sitting on a beach in Spain, but word had reached him that George had been arrested with £500,000 – withdrawn from the Co-op bank, in Shildon – in the boot of his car. You really couldn't make it up.

The Durham Police press office was initially unable to confirm that the tip-off was true but enticingly suggested: “Ring back tonight at 9pm and we might have something for you.”

I almost dislocated my shoulder, punching the air, when they read out a statement at 9pm that night, confirming the exclusive story that was to lead to the Darlington FC chairman being jailed for tax evasion and money laundering.

So, there it is, or at least a snapshot of it. Speak as you find? I can’t pretend that I found George Reynolds to be anything other than pretty obnoxious, though I completely accept he was a remarkable character, with a colourful life story that could easily be turned into gritty comedy drama with sinister twists.

Did it all really happen 20 years ago? It really did – and it was utterly surreal.