How to follow up an enjoyable first groundhopping trip to Hartlepool United?
The obvious answer is to go to Hartlepool’s traditional rival, Darlington, right?
Ok, maybe not so obvious but that’s the path I chose.
It’s pretty much impossible to visit Darlington’s current ground without scratching your head and wondering “what the hell happened here?” So, let’s first take a look at Darlington FC’s recent history, including the period they were no longer Darlington FC!
Darlington – George Reynolds’ Dream
The first thing to realise about Darlington is that it’s a very different club these days to the one that shot for the stars when George Reynolds became the chairman back in 1999.
George was, shall we say, a ‘colourful character’ with a criminal background who, according to Wikipedia, claimed his personal wealth was in excess of £275m and he was ranked 112 in the Sunday Times rich list in 2000.
He famously stated that he would take Darlington into the Premier League and immediately set about having a new stadium built. The new 25,000-seater stadium was finished in 2003 at a cost of £20 million and was named the Reynolds Arena, after George himself.
This meant leaving their traditional ground, Feethams, and taking a step into the world of their dreaming chairman and of course, it all went wrong from there.
Darlington – The Dream Becomes a Nightmare
With George Reynolds in charge, there was always a chance that he could bring problems with him and unfortunately for Darlington, that’s exactly what happened.
His big dreams and promises made him very popular with Darlo fans initially, but that popularity soon disappeared as the results and progress never came.
In 2004 he was arrested by Durham police, amazingly with £500,000 in his car boot at the time of the arrest. He was charged with money laundering but denied those charges and instead admitted tax evasion, for which he was sentenced to three years’ imprisonment.
George Reynolds died on 12th April 2021 and the Northern Echo editor wrote this non too flattering article about the experiences he had personally had with the former Darlington FC owner.
For a more detailed and less personal look into the life of George Reynolds, I would recommend this article, also from the Northern Echo, printed the day after his death.
Darlington – The Decline, Demise and Rise
The following information is taken directly from Wikipedia and you can click the link here to read the full history of the club.
- Darlington moved to the all-seater, 25,000-capacity Darlington Arena in 2003. The cost of the stadium was a major factor in driving the club into administration in 2003, 2009, and 2012. As the fan-owned club was unable to agree to a Creditors Voluntary Agreement (CVA) it was expelled from the Football Association (FA). A new club was immediately formed and moved to Blackwell Meadows stadium but the FA ruled that, as a new club, it must have a different playing name from the expelled club. The name chosen was Darlington 1883, and that club was placed in the Northern League Division One, the ninth tier of English football, for the 2012–13 season. They won three promotions in four seasons before the FA approved their request to change to the traditional Darlington FC name.
Darlington Mowden Park Rugby Club now own the Darlington Arena after buying it for a mere £2 million. Meanwhile, the football club is playing at Blackwell Meadows in the Vanarama National League North, and this is where my trip to see the new/old club comes in.
Darlington – Pre-Game
Clutching our print at home tickets bought online (£14.00 each), we took a bus (£6.00) into Durham to catch the train (£13.30 with a Two Together railcard) and the wife and I arrived in Darlington around three hours before kick-off.
We made our way to The Pennyweight pub, which is in the town’s market square, for lunch and a pint or two. A very nice meal was promptly put before us and I would definitely recommend the place to anyone visiting the area.
We then made our way to the ground, which was a walk of around 1.3 miles.
At this point, I should probably point out the weather of the day.
Foggy, very cold and generally miserable, is how I would sum it up and by the time we got to Blackwell Meadows via South Park (not the one where they kill Kenny!), we were ready to find a place to warm up.
A point of interest about South Park, is that it contains an aviary and I couldn’t help but wonder, as someone who owns an African Grey parrot, how the tropical birds managed to stay healthy in such cold conditions? Maybe someone can help me out with that question?
Luckily, there is a large club built into the side of the ground and we managed to get fifteen minutes of relief before braving the weather once more as kick-off approached.
Darlington – The Game
The game itself, as I always say, is a bonus for a groundhopper. If it’s a good game, then so much the better but if it isn’t, then it doesn’t matter too much. The aim of groundhopping is to ‘collect’ the ground itself and tick it off your ground map.
Therefore, I wasn’t too bothered by the fact that this wasn’t the greatest of games.
Two pretty evenly matched teams on the day, seemed to be dominated by the defences and it looked very much like it could be a 0-0 stalemate for the vast majority of the game.
However, substitute Marcus Dinanga came off the bench to head in a left-wing cross which eventually gave Kidderminster Harriers three points with a goal that came three minutes into added time at the end of the game.
The reaction of the Harriers fans, players and coaching staff said it all. They were joyous, and they knew it was a big three points to take back down to Worcestershire, as they look to gain promotion to the Vanarama National League.
The home fans, on the other hand, dejectedly started to make their way to the exits and not many remained when the final whistle blew and the Harriers players came to the sideline to celebrate with their fans.
The full report of the game can be read here courtesy of the Express & Star, which serves the West Midlands area.
I then went off to find my wife, who had sneaked back into the club to escape the foggy cold (and probably polish off another pint) and we started back into Darlington town centre – via the main road and avoiding the park this time – for the dessert after the main course… an escape room!
Darlington – Stadium Gallery
Attendance – 1,348
Entrance Fee – £14.00
Programme – £2.50
Darlington – Match Highlights and Personal Video
Darlington – After the Game
After making the long walk back into the town centre, we made our way to Darlington Cluedini for our very first attempt at an escape room.
We chose the detective scenario, Sleuth – mainly because it was the only one available for the time period we would be there. The blurb below is taken directly from their website and is the intro to the mission.
- For over half a century, security services around the globe have turned to Sleuth HQ to help bring the world’s most elusive criminals to justice. Never have our services been in such high demand and the time has now come to expand our organisation and recruit a new team of elite detectives.
You are about to undergo a job interview like no other, one in which your powers of deduction, teamwork and problem solving will be put to the ultimate test. Have you got what it takes? Can your team uncover the clues and solve the crime before time runs out? Will you be our next recruits?
The clock is ticking Detectives… you have 1 hour.
One hour you say? Difficulty level 4/5 you say? Piece of cake… not!
I won’t go into details of what lay ahead because that would spoil it for anyone who wants to have a go themselves but without the helping voice that comes from the guys running the operation, we wouldn’t have completed the mission within an hour.
They provide you with helpful hints when needed, as opposed to telling you what to do and considering there can be up to eight people in a team, these tips are probably less needful when there are more people to collect all the clues and solve the puzzles. At least, I like to think that’s the case…
Still, even with the help, we were pretty chuffed with ourselves at completing the puzzle with less than a minute remaining… phew!
Again, I would recommend an escape room to anyone who hasn’t (voluntarily!) tried one. It cost us £48 to take part and while that isn’t cheap, it was good fun and a healthy teamwork exercise for a married couple or workmates, friends etc.
If you get the chance, do it!
Our pride intact, we donned our thick woollies and once again plunged into the Arctic wilderness previously known as Darlington and headed off to catch our train home.
One point of note on the journey home was the police waiting for the train to come into Darlington train station. As we got onto the train, there had clearly been quite a major fight on there and a man got up off the floor in front of us with a mask of blood on his face. I hope he was ok.
It seemed from the general chatter on board, that an argument that started in York had made its way this far north and culminated in a blood splatter decoration on our seats.
Wouldn’t it be wonderful if people could just get along?