I was there on the exact day that Darlington Football Club began itʼs cruelly slow and painful slide into the black hole of extinction. Over the last thirteen years, the Darlo fans must have felt as if itʼs beloved club had been gradually destroyed, like a live pig being excruciatingly spit roasted to a mere block of black charcoal.
The arrival of convicted safecracker turned multi-millionaire businessman, George Reynolds, was supposed to be the dawn of a bright new era. I was the twenty-one year old goalkeeper for The Quakers and like everyone else, I was initially caught up in the whirlwind of promises to build a spanking new stadium and bring us Premier League football within five years. I say “initially” because for me, the cracks presented themselves rather early in his reign. Of course, I couldnʼt foresee the agonising years the club has since endured but I could sense something just didnʼt add up.
Ultimately, I was proved right. It was all supposed to be so different. The club had been struggling to pay our wages for the previous 5 months and the insecurity of the clubʼs finances had all but put pay to any chance of promotion we had given ourselves earlier in the season.
We were halfway through the 1998/99 season and we were flying high at the top of what is now League Two. An away day at Brentford would see us involved in a first versus second top of the table clash. We were flying. That is until our manager, David Hodgson, came to the back of our bus as we were travelling south and delivered the news that our wages wouldnʼt be in our bank accounts that day as was expected.
“Ayr f****** United?” I thought. “What happened to Charlton and Bolton?”
Suddenly, talk of promotion was sharply replaced by worried conversations of missed mortgage repayments and our focus was shifted from the game. We might as well just have turned the bus round and headed back home. We lost 3-0. Luckily for me I was a young lad still living at home and my mother had gratefully deferred my monthly board I gave her for my upkeep. But for those with families it was unsettling to say the least. We slid down to the mediocrity of a mid-table finish but towards the end of the season, the financial situation at the club worsened. The club was in trouble and with no new investors forthcoming. The state affairs was such that unless we could sell a player or perhaps two, the club was going under and nobody would get paid.
Thatʼs when I was summoned to the managerʼs office. Iʼd had a pretty good year and with me being a young keeper with potential, there was interest in me from two championship clubs. David Hodgson explained the extremity of the clubʼs plight and an offer of £75,000 plus add ons was accepted from Ayr Utd, whoʼd had an injection of funds from somewhere.
“Ayr f****** United?” I thought. “What happened to Charlton and Bolton?” I asked. He explained the Ayr United bid was the biggest bid with the cash up front and if I didnʼt go, the club had no idea where they would find the money to dish out salaries. What could I do? Without showing any disrespect to Ayr United, I had no desire to join them whatsoever. None at all. But there would be serious repercussions for the club if I didnʼt and I knew by the tone of the gafferʼs voice I didnʼt really have much of a choice. I either stay and possibly not get paid along with everyone else or agree to be transferred against my will. I was screwed both ways.
Rumours rumbled on of unpaid bills but George was always there to rebuff them as nonsense.
The manager was right though, I didnʼt have any choice and without the perspective of a more mature man, I drove back home with the resignation of a death row prisoner running through me. Later that night, the phone rang. I hadnʼt changed my mind, I still didnʼt want to go. The Scooby Doo-like coward in me thought about hiding in a wardrobe and ignoring the call but I decided against it and picked up the phone. As expected it was my manager but the words coming from the phone werenʼt the daggers of disappointment I thought theyʼd be. A saviour had come forward in the Donald Trump-haired form of George Reynolds. He driving to meet Reynolds at his Witton Hall mansion and my departure was now put on ice, at least for the time being, anyway. So, in he swept and we were saved. Iʼd been saved too, from a move I didnʼt care for. And now, the club were going places and I wanted to be part of it. I thought the offers that the club were receiving for me mustʼve meant I was doing well so I went to see the new owner and asked if the club didnʼt have to sell now, and more importantly, didnʼt want to, then perhaps they should offer me a contract that would eward me for my performances. I was greeted with a curt “No” and sent packing. David Hodgson, my manager, a man I trust implicitly, consoled me fact that nobody would be getting “unnecessary” new contracts. It seemed George wanted success but wasnʼt prepared to pay what it takes to get it. To me or anyone else for that matter. If we were going places, it was on the Mega Bus not British Airways First Class. Rumours rumbled on of unpaid bills but George was always there to rebuff them as nonsense.
Fast forward three months and I was again summoned to the managerʼs office with news that bids had come in for me. Three bids of around £300,000 each, in fact. The choice put to me was that two clubs wanted me as a young number two and the other, Aberdeen, were looking for a number one. My initial reaction was to ask if the chairman would offer me an improved contract to try and keep me but again, he wouldnʼt. It seemed they wanted, or more appropriately, needed the cash. The manager gave me his honest opinion and advised me to accept the offer from Aberdeen. This was despite the fact I could have expected to earn double the amount in salary from the other two clubs. Aberdeen were giving me the best chance of playing every week and thatʼs the only thing that mattered to me, not the money. So, off I went on the next flight to the oil capital of Britain and the deal was done.
Well, almost. Just as I was walking out for my first training session, the secretary of Aberdeenʼs chairmen, Stewart Milne, approached me with a mobile phone and handed it to me. A female voice said, “Itʼs George. Heʼd like to talk to you.”. There wasnʼt even a “Hello.” or any other kind of greeting. He simply said this: “Have you ever heard the story about the monkey who saw a peanut at the bottom of the milk bottle and put his hand in to grab hold of it? What he didnʼt realise was that he couldnʼt get his hand out of the bottle unless he let go of the nut.”
If you don't waive your right to that money I'll pull the plug on the whole deal and let you rot in the reserves...
I was confused. My head was already swirling with the prospect of facing Celtic live on TV the next day. What on earth was he going on about? “You have a clause in your contract that states you receive 15% of any transfer fee the club receives for you ( about £45,000 in this case ). If you don't waive your right to that money Iʼll pull the plug on the whole deal and bring you back here and let you rot in the reserves.
Youʼre under twenty four years old so if anyone tried to sign you, itʼd go to a tribunal. Letʼs see who wants you then!”. One minute I was stood there, feeling a million dollars decked out in my spanking new training kit my new club had just given me, chomping at the bit to get started, the next I felt like a punctured balloon.
As I saw it, this was my big break. A chance to take the step up to the next level. Itʼs not like my contract with Aberdeen was of the sort that might set me up for life but I really thought it was the start of something big for me. I tried to explain that I wasnʼt some jumped up little footballer who had demanded to leave his club and that this money would have been a Godsend to someone who had come from the same area in Sunderland that he did. But nothing. Not even a word of negotiation came from his side. Heʼd even made the Aberdeen chairman swear he wouldnʼt try and compensate me in any way by adjusting the figures in my contract. I just couldnʼt understand it. I was earning peanuts at Darlington. They had signed me on a free transfer and the club was making a good profit but he was adamant that he wasnʼt giving me a penny of the deal.
The way he put it, that clause in my contract wasnʼt worth the paper it was written on. He had predicted exactly what Iʼd do though, thatʼs how the power lay with him. He knew how much the move meant to me and took total advantage. As a blackmailer he held all of the cards but the whole situation barely registered with me.
I signed a form, waiving my right to any of the transfer fee and signed my contract with Aberdeen
Until my daughter came along, football was the be all and end all of my life. Quite literally, nothing else mattered. I was going to play in front of a near full house against the mighty Celtic that Sunday instead of Halifax Town in front of two thousand people and not even the prospect of losing any amount of money was going to stop me.
“George” I said. “I donʼt care about money as much as you obviously do, you can f******* keep the money. I just want to play football and in any case, I wouldnʼt want to come back and f****** work for you again.” I signed a form, waiving my right to any of the transfer fee and signed my contract with Aberdeen.
I was surprisingly calm until after training when I got back to my hotel when I realised my monthʼs wages owed from Darlington hadnʼt been put in my account and I was penniless. I had to go cap in hand to Aberdeen and ask for an advance on my wages, which they kindly obliged. I find it funny now that my first big move was in the bag but I was making my debut against Celtic whilst actually being overdrawn by £200. It wasnʼt exactly the kind of financial situation Iʼd had in mind when Iʼd imagined that big move coming.
There's still the odd time when I sit and contemplate how that money might have helped me back then. It would've been more satisfying if I thought the money had gone someway towards the survival of the club that gave me the kind of help money can't buy. Instead, I can't help thinking it probably ended up in the same place that the £500,000 cash in the boot of his car was heading for, before he was collared by the police.
In retrospect, my suspicions and feeling of ill-ease proved to be right and I made the right decision to leave. Regretfully, the whole saga totally soured my time at Darlington which is a huge disappointment in my life. For if it wasnʼt for Darlington Football Club, I wouldnʼt have had a career at all. And for that, I will always be indebted to the club and all itʼs fans.
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