The history of the Darlington Arena – the Northern Echo Arena, to give its current title – has not been one of the happiest stories in north-east sport. Built as a monument to the vaulting ambition of George Reynolds, it was intended to herald a new era for Darlington FC as the club moved away from its much-loved Feethams home in 2004 and embarked on a future marked by promotions, glory and the establishment of a powerhouse to rival the region’s traditional top clubs.
Colourful plans, colourful guy. From previous convictions for safe-cracking to plans to take Darlo into the Premier League, nobody could ever accuse of Reynolds of being a shrinking violet. The braggadocio, like the much-hyped signing of former Newcastle star Tino Asprilla, never worked out. The team failed to achieve lift-off, Reynolds himself was ultimately lifted – in 2005, shortly after selling up at Darlo, he was jailed for tax evasion – and financial crisis followed. A beacon of optimism became a white elephant. Out of town, remote and unloved, the arena was too expensive for the club. Demotion to the Conference, financial crisis and finally the collapse of the Quakers followed. By 2012, Darlo were reformed as Darlington 1883, playing in the Northern League and ground-sharing at Bishop Auckland as a proud old club battled for survival as a supporter-owned establishment.
Which left a large stadium falling out of use. Covenants with the planning authorities restricted what could be done there; 25,000 seats made it one of the biggest stadiums in the lower leagues but poor access roads meant a fixed capacity of 10,000. Enter Darlington Mowden Park, a venerable rugby club formed in 1945. They bought the ground and surrounding land with a view to creating the largest rugby-specific venue in the country outside of Twickenham.
Mowden have enjoyed greater success here, even though their crowds struggle to reach four figures and tend to be dwarfed by their surroundings. The team has climbed up to National League 1, and in the 2015-16 season they did battle against some other famous old rugby names including Richmond, Blackheath and Rosslyn Park. They also welcomed the All Blacks, who used the venue as a training base during the 2015 Rugby World Cup.
The arena resembles a mini version of Middlesbrough’s Riverside or Sunderland’s Stadium of Light, both of which were built a few years earlier. It’s comfortable, if a little lacking in character, but unlike its more illustrious neighbours there hasn’t yet been a chance for any team to really establish themselves and stamp any kind of identity on the ground. Given time, Mowden might achieve that; Darlington, now planning a return to their home town at Blackwell Meadows, will not be back.
The second game of the season saw Mowden playing newly-promoted Henley Hawks. The hosts were expected to win, especially after kicking off the campaign with a victory at Cinderford. Henley had other ideas. Quickly spotting weakness in the home pack, the Hawks swooped for three unanswered pushover tries in the first half, leaving Park with too much to do. The second half was a big improvement for the home team as they demonstrated some running rugby to run in five tries but came up short in a 28-30 loss.
Mowden ultimately finished in a comfortable mid-table spot; Henley were relegated. For Park, maintaining this level – and aiming higher – is vital if the club is to deliver on its ambitious vision of building a big club in the region to rival Newcastle Falcons. On-field success is the surest way to grow attendances – 741 saw the Henley game – and turn the arena into a genuine asset for the team. But after claiming one victim in its short life, the Darlington Arena is at least back in regular use … and hopefully integrated into a more secure long-term plan than before.
Darlington Arena, Darlington, England
RFU National League 1, Sep. 15 2015
Darlington Mowden Park 28 Henley Hawks 30