YOU can’t beat playing away from home. The buzz, the excitement, the chance to see something new – experiences that forever stick in the mind.
One of these was my first-ever visit to the Reynolds Arena in Darlington. The newly-built stadium looked like the Colosseum in comparison to Feethams, their shabby former home.
On entering the main entrance, smartly-suited women who looked like air hostesses greeted us with smiles before an extremely talkative old chap guided us up the elevator and towards the press area.
But on that occasion, because they had yet to be rented out, we were plonked in a corporate box and readily plied with drinks and food. Forget your traditional football and hand me a prawn sandwich – on that day the experience was one to remember, and the game hadn’t even kicked off.
But the moment that stood out most in my mind came from the friendly old boy. As he was guiding us to our seats he casually dropped in the line: “And it cost £650,000 just to put the carpet in.”
What? Really? That kind of opulence would be enough to make Caligula – the Roman Emperor who created a floating palace, complete with marble floors and full planning – baulk.
But that’s what the Reynolds Arena was, a show of strength by club chairman George Reynolds.
His grandiose plan was to create a 25,000-capacity stadium that would rival north eastern foes Newcastle, Middlesbrough and Sunderland.
If they were big enough places to have Premiership status, then so was Darlo, he said. England internationals here soon, he proclaimed.
But sadly, few agreed, including the people of Darlington.
A total of 4,519 fans (less than 20 per cent of capacity) watched the game. The dug outs were on the far side of the pitch, in front of thousands of red, empty, unused seats. The managers looked ridiculous barking orders in front of their overly-grand backdrop.
On the pitch, United were awful. They lost 3-0.
After being hauled off, Ben Chapman threw his shirt at the bench and staged a sit-in protest by the corner flag. More in-fighting saw Simon Weatherstone and Simon Rusk start scrapping with each other, with Matt Hocking and Tom Bennett following suit later on.
Of course, this was the perfect day for the home fans, but even their cheers could not be heard in a stadium that had all the atmosphere of a stag do at Quadring Fen.
On arrival, I was sold. By full time I wanted a refund. There’s no harm in dreaming big, but blow any balloon up too far and it will pop in your face.
And here we are now, a rescue package the only thing keeping Darlington from the abyss.
And they’re not the only team in trouble. Kettering’s story, although not as grandiose, is one of financial woe right now.
Stories circulating suggest our near neighbours Lincoln City will have a revised (should that be slashed) budget next year.
The thought of any football club folding is a sickening feeling. Years of tradition, hard work, passion, labour and belief (and that’s just off the field) coming to an end due to a bad decision, bad management, a greedy pocket liner or an ego trip is hard to take.
And we have sympathies here in Boston, knowing the Pilgrims’ demise was amost as close as Siamese twins.
In his programme notes ahead of the Nuneaton match 11 days ago, chairman David Newton addressed the recent dip in attendances.
“We have a fantastic fanbase that is not taken for granted,” he wrote. “The finances are stable at this point in time, but if the gates remain at current levels it will be very challenging towards the end of the season and we will need all the help we can get.” He then turned his attentions to the on-pitch performances: “We are in the entertainment business and clearly the performances on the pitch need to improve to encourage the fans back through the turnstiles.”
To summise... Fans vote with their feet. Fans come if they’re entertained. Fans pay your wages. Fans need to be entertained or you won’t be getting paid much longer. Fans and me want you to buck your ideas up.
The Pilgrims are currently going about building a good club the right way. It’s a long, tough journey.
But from small acorns, great oaks grow. You can’t just construct an elaborate oak tree, and expect thousands of squirrels to turn up and call it home.