AS he looks back on his time in charge of Darlington, Raj Singh concedes there are things he would have done differently. As he looks ahead to what comes next in his role as Hartlepool United chairman, he is satisfied that lessons have been learned.

Prior to Singh’s arrival at Darlington, a period of financial mismanagement, including the construction of a 30,000 seater stadium, left the Quakers in a perilous position.

Singh was left to take the reins from George Houghton following his departure, just a few months after getting involved in November 2008 as a shareholder and vice-chairman with the intention of learning the ropes of running a football club. 

Singh took full control in August 2009 and following further years of financial decline, he placed the club back into administration, culminating in their expulsion from the league they were inhabiting and subsequent reformation as a new fan-owned outfit. It’s been an extreme learning curve for the 56-year-old businessman.

“I’ve learnt the harsh lessons from my time at Darlington” Singh said.

“I got thrown in at the deep end without really having anything around me at the club and I was new to football at the time as well so really not having the contacts to get the right people in place.

The Northern Echo: Ex-Darlington chairman Raj Singh

“The other thing I’ve learnt is don’t go for big reputations. It’s a case of who’s the most knowledgeable at that level and who’s got the most contacts at that level.

“Dave’s (Challinor) appointment fits into that bracket and that’s been a great success so these are the things I’ve learnt. Hartlepool as a football club have benefitted from it.”

Singh’s takeover of Pools saw them saved from the brink of extinction in 2018. Some would think it was a bold move back into football, but it’s one that has paid off.

Under the management of Challinor, Pools orchestrated promotion back to League Two after a dramatic play-off final win against Torquay United, ending their four-year hiatus from the Football League.

Some may have seen Singh’s input into Pools as a redemption mission given a reputation that followed his time with the Quakers. The local businessman feels he’s been unfairly judged for his time at Darlington.

He said: “I can’t emphasise that point enough, that there was definitely a lack of understanding and a lack of knowledge of the facts from the fans’ point of view.

“As we’ve all seen before in football, a misunderstanding breaks out and it just snowballs from there and it just becomes a totally different story.

“It was a lot to do with the circumstances of what the world was at the time with the banking crisis. I went at the wrong time in 2008. I was thrown in at the deep end when the club went into administration three months later. I put £1.2m in and three months later, it’s gone into administration.

“I’ve often thought about it. That was probably my chance to walk away and cut my losses at £1.2m and not try to take over the football club, but being a football fan, I actually thought we can make it work, which in hindsight was a mistake.

“In fact, all the Darlington fans probably would have had sympathy for me if I’d walked away the first time around and wrote off the £1.2m. I think those are the things that people don’t understand.

“I could argue that when I took over, they weren’t two great years but it was another two years that the club would have gone pop before then and you won the only trophy in your history so the fans need to look at things like that as well and cut me a bit of slack as opposed to looking at things negatively.”

The Northern Echo: Hartlepool vs Solihull Raj Singh   Pictures: MARK FLETCHER / SHUTTER PRESS

The club was saved from liquidation through the efforts of fans’ groups, who cobbled together enough money to take control.

Plenty of people wanted answers at the time. Singh was the focus for a lot of blame for not overseeing a sale of the club and fans were out for blood, while he admits he felt castigated by a number of senior public figures and politicians, including Darlington’s MP at the time, Jenny Chapman.

He added: “She’d done absolutely nothing to save the club and she had no involvement in taking over the club. It just suited her at the time to get a few people behind her to give the impression that she had the club at heart. 

“She’d tweeted something against my takeover about Hartlepool fans needing to be careful what they wish for, or words to that effect. There was just no need for that. 

“I’ve kept my mouth shut for three-and-a-half years. But Hartlepool fans wished to get back in the league and they’ve got it now.”

Chapman gave this response to the Northern Echo: “Alongside a team of dedicated fans, I worked day in day out with Harvey Madden, the administrator, to support the club through a difficult period. 

“I passionately believe that Darlington needs a football club and thanks to the dedication of the fans, they still have one.”

Singh feels while there were interested parties in taking over at the time, it was all vacuous.

He added: “What people don’t realise is when anything is so close, when it goes to the edge or in Darlington’s case when we were in administration, you’ve got loads of parties with loads of different agendas and different motives trying to take over. Most of them not having a penny to their name but they just want to see a bit of free publicity for them.

“They’re never really interested in taking over the club. I can say, hand on heart, I’ve never been that type of person. I think if you look back at my takeover at Hartlepool, it was kept really hush hush for six or seven months until we definitely knew we were in there to show our hand.

“With the takeover at Darlington, it was different people pulling in different ways and obviously I was public enemy number one at the time so it was easy for the fans just to blame everything on me. 

“I’d made sure I tried to make ends meet and tried to make the club work, but the fact is that there was just nobody coming in there that had any money.

“We had different fans’ groups trying to pull different ways and we ended up in one big mess.”

The Northern Echo: Raj Singh arrives at Victoria PArk

In 2017, Darlington finished their National League North season in the play-off places only to be told they couldn’t compete in the games due to the standard of their ground.

It was around that time that Singh was presented an opportunity to get involved with the club again. The records show that he was serious about being an investor at the club again and righting some perceived wrongs of the past.

“Martin Gray approached me to get involved again so I had a couple of meetings with the guys there,” he said. “I actually paid an unconditional £10,000 at that time as my way of saying I want to get involved. That was my way of saying I’m genuine, I’m not here just for the free publicity. For one reason or the other, the story broke out and all hell broke loose on social media and I just walked away.

“I’m not prepared to take abuse and pay money week in week out. That’s where I decided against it but I think if you look back on the records, there was £10,000 paid just as a gesture. I knew full well I’d have to wave bye to that ten grand and I did.

“For Hartlepool, it wasn’t as bad but it was similar. If you look back at Hartlepool, they were pretty close to the edge.

They didn’t have any money to pay for the players wages. The fans raised £80,000 which is absolutely fantastic to save the club.

“People don’t know this but I actually paid some money towards putting one of the matches on, even before we took over the club, which could have been in a black hole.

“We done it because we wanted to take over and we didn’t want it to go into administration. I’ve learned a lot of things there with Pools."