Chris Sykes kicks off a series of articles examining football's worst owners, starting with the reign of former Darlington owner George Reynolds

George Reynolds. A former safe cracker turned kitchen furniture salesman, this North Eastern businessmen appeared to be Darlington FC’s saviour when he took over the ailing 4th tier club in 1999. Wiping out their debts, promising Premier League football and a brand new stadium to boot, “Uncle George” strode onto the scene with a freshness that injected hope and optimism into the club. Alas, in less than half a decade, the dream brutally turned into a nightmare.

Aiming for English football’s top division, Reynolds financed a number of big name signings. The likes of Marco Gabbiadini and Neil Heaney all arrived, and had a positive impact early on as Darlington reached the Division 4 play off final in 2000, losing 1-0 to Peterborough on a miserable wet Wembley night.

That was as high as Darlington reached under Reynolds. By the time of the new season, frustrated by the club’s lack of activity in the transfer market, despite Reynolds’ supposed millions, David Hodgson left and was replaced by former player Gary Bennett. Bennett was one of 5 managers employed by Reynolds, the last of which was David Hodgson, brought back towards the end of Reynolds’ tenure.

By 2001, things were turning very sour indeed. An air of negativity began to engulf the club. Attention grabbing bids for Paul Gascoigne and Tino Asprilla came to nothing, with the latter being paraded in front of fans only to disappear to the Middle East instead of signing a contract with the Quakers.

Players were leaving, fans were frustrated and Reynolds was growing increasingly paranoid as his Premiership dream started to be exposed as nothing but a hopeless and unrealistic fantasy.

And in funding the club and development of a new stadium, the cash started drying up. Things boiled up to a head at a truly extraordinary fans forum in the early part of 2002. Reynolds’ wife Susan ranted at fans, bemoaning the negative attention she and her extravagant husband received. Unbelievably, she then accused the club’s players of not only blackmailing George, but of also throwing matches, a claim immediately retracted by the Reynolds’s spokesman seconds later.

By now the darker side of Reynolds’ operating methods was emerging. Fans and journalists who dared dissent or criticise Reynolds were banned from the ground, prompting more fans protests inside the ground, to which Reynolds responded by banning even more fans. In the most appalling episode of the increasingly ugly saga, a 16 year old fanzine editor was not only banned but also compared to a Nazi by Reynolds.  

Perpetually thin skinned, Reynolds would arrange for dissenting fans and journalists to be visited and threatened at home late at night. This was more like an oppressive dictatorship rather than a small North Eastern football club.

Still, there was always Reynolds’ masterpiece, a brand new 25,000 seater stadium, egotistically named the Reynolds Arena, to replace the increasingly dilapidated Feethams. Fans would flock, Reynolds thought, to this new shiny stadium, and with this increased revenue stream, he would fund an all-conquering side, capable of storming into the upper echelons of the Football League.

One flaw in that plan, Darlington FC doesn’t have 25,000 fans. The magnificent stadium, which wouldn’t look out of place in the Premier League, is now nothing more than a millstone around the club’s neck, slowly suffocating the life out of Darlington FC. A 25,000 seater stadium in the 4th tier of English football is absurd. The club, now in the Blue Square Premier, struggles to fill 10% of the ground’s capacity. The renamed Darlington Arena, stands as a white elephant, the legacy of an egotist who promised the world and delivered nothing more than a hamlet.

By 2003, the club was in dire straits and on the verge of an almighty collapse. Reynolds had blown his fortune on a flamboyant lifestyle and on his stadium and now the club was living well beyond its means. The money had run out and Darlington sank into administration with debts of more than £20 million pounds, obscene for a 4th division club. Off the pitch matters were crippling the team on the pitch, as Darlington were now fighting a relegation battle and seemingly destined for non league.

Darlington FC was only saved when a consortium of 3 businessmen, from whom Reynolds borrowed £4 million to build the stadium, stepped in to protect their investment. The club, now managed again by David Hodgson, miraculously stayed up and emerged from the reign of Reynolds bruised, battered, but still standing.

In 2004, Reynolds, by now firmly out of the Darlington FC picture, was arrested for tax evasion and jailed the following year. His legacy still lives on though, in the shape of the grotesquely oversized stadium he had built as a shrine to himself.

Still, at least Darlington were in calmer waters, stabilised by their new owners and steadily rebuilding their pummelled reputation. That was until another man named George took over…

Part 2 of the Darlington FC saga is coming soon…