Recognition and DFC, a brief history

19/01/2012

Graham writes......I am not the biggest football fan in the world. I can't tell you who scored in a league match in 1983 or memorise facts and figures from league tables in years gone by. But I do follow my local team and I do know the importance of football in binding ties together in local communities and its relevance to the image of a town. The fact that Darlington gets a mention on the Final Score results show, that every few weeks TV programmes preview the matches is a symbol of a town's strength and vitality.
That is why, in 2004, I listened to Northern Echo editor Peter Barron when he urged me to help the new chairman of Darlington football Club, Stewart Davies. Peter had received some unjustified complaints from the Chairman about the paper's coverage of the team. He had met him and calmed him down. Peter realised that the club had no structured media relations service and suggested my firm, Recognition PR, get involved to help with communications.

Recognition is a successful PR firm, dealing with well-known people and growing businesses; not just in the North East but all over the UK. One of our best known clients, Duncan Bannatyne, had always warned against getting involved in football. In a memorable phrase he said he would "rather have a sex change than buy a football club." Darlington had just been taken over by an unknown Chairman after the rollercoaster years of George Reynolds. That Recognition could represent a club that serious businesses around the UK regarded as being owned by a 'safecracker' was not something I relished.

However, Stewart Davies was a reasonable man and had only come about owning the club in lieu of a resolving a dispute with George Reynolds; I dubbed him the 'accidental chairman' chairman. He regarded it as his responsibility to stabilise the club and move it into new ownership. I agreed to waive the usual fee structure at Recognition and provide a full time media service, 24 hours a day, for around £1k per month. The normal cost of the hours put in by the three staff involved would have been three or four times that amount, and if other clients knew that this special arrangement was being made they would not have been happy!

Things settled down well. The highly regarded David Hodgson was manager and he worked well with our team. Community initiatives were undertaken and on more than one occasion in under Stewart Davies attendances were between 5000 and 7000; compared to recent crowds these were brilliant. In other initiatives a big screen was bought, the Sunday carvery introduced, conferencing facilities promoted, and youth development and schools outreach enhanced. The new chairman also met the fans and ran a tight ship with excellent cost control.

When the time came for him to sell we entered the reign of George the second; George Houghton, a self-made millionaire who had started his business life trading from a cart on the quayside of the River Tyne as a teenager. He now owns a respected chain of nursing homes, Executive Care Homes. I got to know him and our firm stayed on providing a media service. New management was brought in, including Jon Sotnick, who was never popular with fans and had reservations about David Hodgson's approach. The clash led to David's departure and arrival of Dave Penney from Doncaster. Dave performed well but costs were still the issue; the stadium was too big. George reached an agreement with a long standing business contact of mine Philip Scott, which effectively put up the land and the stadium as security against a cash injection to help the club continue. Around this time George had also sought and achieved planning permission for limited development on land near the stadium; offices and a hotel but, rightly, council covenants remained in place which limited the scope for commercial exploitation of the site at the expense of football or anything which might put the town centre retail market in jeopardy. Philip Scott is a good man. I knew him professionally, we had started our businesses at around the same time in Darlington and instinctively got on. He is a wonderfully confident entrepreneur and has compassion born out of his early career as a trained nurse. He got a bad wrap as the former chief executive of Southern Cross, the firm was successful under his leadership and, while it is true he made millions, he has reinvested a great deal in UK businesses in the care sector. After Southern Cross he chose to stay in Darlington and relocated the HQ of his current company to a site at DTV Airport, creating jobs as a result.

Professionally, it is important to maintain confidences so I'll not go into the behind-the-scenes account of the lead up to the transfer of the club to Raj Singh.

Just before Raj took over Recognition was happy to end our professional relationship with the club. What had started out as a genuine attempt to support the communications between the club and the media had ended up as a massively over-serviced account that cost our firm thousands and ended up with many late-night calls from club officials lurching from crisis to crisis, always wanting words to put the best gloss on things. Nevertheless, I remain of the view that the club's existence is vitally important to the town.

The position under Raj Singh was that DFC became a tenant of Philip's firm, Darlington Arena Ltd, on a peppercorn rent not much more than £10k per year.

At this recent time of crisis for the club the media has called me every day, many think we still act for DFC, others know that my firm acts for Philip Scott's business. On Sunday 8th Jan I made a suggestion to Philip. My wife and I were walking the dog by the River Wear in Durham and I took a call from the Northern Echo. It was obvious time was running out and the administrator of DFC needed cash quickly just to keep the club playing and in the league. I knew from my previous involvement with the club that the Supporters Trust had a large sum of money. I'd given a donation myself, in the bucket collections of 2003. At the time I thought the money would be spent saving the club from the collapse under George Reynolds. I also knew it was a constant source of frustration to David Hodgson and Stewart Davies that the money was never made available. So at this important moment for the club I suggested a match funding arrangement to Philip Scott: £50K from him, if the Trust put in £50K. He isn't a football investor and didn't want to be but this gesture of goodwill could extend the time for talking providing a vital breathing space. The Northern Echo has proved critical at this time for the club. It has been a vital conduit for messages; Philip didn't want to invest in the club but was keen to see it survive, purely out of a sense of community.

The Northern Echo reported the offer and, although it didn't eventually come about with the Trust, the Rescue Group saw the logic and a similar match funding arrangement ended up reprieving the club. Philip has been a great asset at this time of crisis for the club and will be an asset for Darlington. His business, Darlington Arena Ltd, has now gone on the record as saying it will relinquish the stadium in consideration for re-payment of the loans, rather than just at a development premium. Given time this position could really make a difference in the negotiations which will progress between multiple parties.

My next job; to offer some sponsorship for Saturday's match...who to call?



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