Memories of a bewildering day
It's ten years since we became a fan-owned club, and we're looking back at the astonishing events of early 2012 thanks to the In The Dying Seconds book.
Steve Weeks - “Harvey, you can’t do that!”
When Mark Meynell contacted me after the first Gateshead game on Boxing Day, my first thoughts were that I didn’t think the club’s situation was as serious as the one I inherited when I became chairman of the club in 1994. We had a real crisis on our hands then, but as it proved, this one would be much more serious.
We knew that we would have to act quickly and after we played Gateshead at home on New Year’s Day we arranged to go and see Raj to establish what the situation was. Our first objective was to try and get him to change his mind and at that point he said he said he would try and help. He also said that he wished that we had contacted him sooner, because he liked what we had to say. But in turn we asked him that if we had contacted him a month or so previous, would he have listened to us then? Raj spoke a lot about the problems he faced at the club, particularly regarding the covenant.
We wanted him to continue funding the club until the end of the season in order to give us some time to put a consortium together and to formulate a business plan, but Raj said that he didn’t want to sustain losses any more; in response, we said that if we whipped up the enthusiasm amongst the fans and the town, then he might not sustain any. However, the following day, January 3rd, the club was formally put into administration and all that went out of the window, and it became a different scenario.
We got on OK with Raj all the way through the rest of the season. We had lots of conversations, some of them at the Blackwell Grange Hotel and other places.
Mark and I never had the intention of taking over the club. We just wanted to buy some time, in order to bring in somebody to take the club on. We had different ideas – for example, one was to encourage six people to put £50,000 each into the club, or twelve people to put £25,000 each into the club.
Just a few days after the Barrow game, we had our first meeting with Harvey Madden in Yarm. Five of us went to his office, but as soon as Harvey walked into the room, he walked back out again, because he felt uncomfortable facing as many as five people and preferred two. So only Mark and I spoke to him for a couple of hours – and then when I got back to my car later on there was a £60 parking ticket on the windscreen! At that meeting on January 10th, Harvey told us what he was looking for in terms of keeping the club going.
Several potential buyers came on the scene, some were genuinely interested, others were just time wasters. David Hodgson worked very hard to bring people to the table.
As time moved on, so much happened. I would log on to my computer and literally there would be hundreds of e mails from various people waiting for me. It was incredible, non stop all day. My mobile phone bills were enormous. One was £780 over my normal monthly usage. I explained what was happening to Vodafone and they put me on a different tariff, but after that I still paid more than £100 than normal.
I phoned people all over Europe, in France, Germany and Italy, who had all expressed an interest in taking the club on. I didn’t know when I spoke to them how serious they were about it. I had regular conversations with a chap in Italy, but nothing really materialised.
After our meeting with Harvey in Yarm, I received a call from him in which he promised that he would tell me when he was going to pull the plug, taking into account that he was also receiving enquiries from potential purchasers. It was soon after that when Philip Scott and Graham Sizer, the owners of the Arena, came on board the Rescue Group, as well as Ian Peacock and the Supporters’ Club through Karen Glencross.
We had a setback when the home game after Barrow on January 14th was postponed, because that day we’d hoped for a big enough attendance to bring in enough money to keep the club going for the foreseeable future. So the pressure was on to raise the money to satisfy Harvey’s requirements as soon as possible and the Rescue Group started work on that amongst ourselves.
On Wednesday January 18th, my phone never stopped as I tried to raise the money to save the club and meet Harvey’s deadline. I stayed at home, desperately trying to contact the managing director of a certain company. He had told Mark and me that their investors had agreed to put up the £50,000 needed to get Harvey to give us more time, but more importantly give the administrator confidence that there were buyers out there. Mark was on his way to Atlanta on a business trip and we were in constant contact with each other as well as both of us speaking to the company that had promised to put the £50,000 up. The previous night I had been assured that they were travelling to Darlington on the morning of the 18th to meet me and Harvey. But they didn’t contact me, so we were in a race against time to raise £50,000 by other means.
At 11 o’clock I went to the Blackwell Grange to meet the others and ensure that if we had to, we could transfer the money - we had raised £55,000 by then - to the administrator’s bank account. Scott and Sizer, the Trust, Supporters’ Club and various fans had all put money in. We were also in touch with MP Jenny Chapman and Pete Barron, the editor of the Northern Echo.
But at lunchtime, panic! I received a phone call out of the blue from someone down at the club, saying that Harvey was about to pull the plug and had started a meeting of the manager and players.
Straight away, I managed to get hold of Harvey and told him that he couldn’t do that, we’d raised the money that he wanted, and we had evidence of that to prove it. I understand at that point he’d already told Craig Liddle and the players that he had closed the club.
So as I raced down to the club to see Harvey, on the car radio BBC Tees was saying that Harvey had closed the club – the players had tweeted from inside the meeting. It was absolute chaos outside the club reception. There were TV vans and radio cars in the club car park and there was a throng of reporters who had heard what was going on in the meeting and were looking for interviews with people leaving the club.
I parked my car, walked up to the main entrance, somebody let me in and I couldn’t help but notice several people in reception all looking shell-shocked and long in the face because they’d been told that the club was finished.
Together with Karen Glencross, we met Harvey and I said something along the lines of “You can’t do this!” and told him that we’d raised the money, could transfer it into his account within an hour and that he couldn’t put the club into liquidation. I told him about the passion that I knew existed for the football club - over a thousand fans had turned up at Barrow, remember - and that we deserved a chance to prove it.
Harvey, to his credit, thought for a second and told me to wait until he’d made a phone call to his lawyers in Leeds, and by the understanding manner in which he said that, I knew at that very moment that we would be OK.
I also invited him to a meeting at the secret location – which everyone guessed was the Blackwell Grange Hotel – to listen to what we had to say as a group about running the club for the rest of the season.
When I left the club, here were Shaun and Doug holding interviews with TV and radio and at that point, I didn’t know about their dramatic entrance brandishing the briefcase. I nudged Doug, asked him what was going on and told him that Harvey and I had done the deal.
Harvey then went outside and spoke to the press, and said that he was going to meet us later that afternoon. So now it was a mad rush of everyone getting the money together that they’d pledged and putting it into Harvey’s account.
We all gathered back in the war room where I filled the rest of the group in about my conversation with Harvey. When Harvey arrived, he confirmed that the £55,000 had been received and that he would reverse his original decision and delay putting the club into administration until the end of January. He explained to us that he was responsible for any further costs incurred and that he needed to be convinced that we could raise the amount of money needed to see the club survive until the end of the season.
As you can imagine everyone was on a high and emotions were running deep. The fact of the matter was though that we had two weeks to show the administrator that the Rescue Group could indeed get the town rallied around the club and support it.
We informed him that we hoped to form an alliance between the Rescue Group, Supporters Club and the Trust, and that between us we would help raise the profile of the club, raise funds, increase the attendances, and more importantly find a buyer for the club. We agreed to work with Harvey and keep him in touch at all times as to progress with our ideas. This was very important to him so that he could see we were active in everything we promised. He made it quite clear that nothing less than 100% commitment from us would do. At the end of the meeting I asked him if we could meet manager Craig Liddle to explain our plans and apologise for leaving everything until the last minute.
We were very much aware of the stressed and emotional state Craig must have been in, because after all, in the space of a turbulent few minutes, he had been told that the club was folding, and then miraculously had been saved.
Doug, Shaun, Karen and I met him in the players’ lounge at the Arena. To say the meeting was emotional would be an understatement. We outlined our plans to him and promised 100 per cent commitment to him and the team. One of his biggest problems was convincing some of his players to return, such as Aaron Brown, who had told everyone that he had quit the club and had gone home to Bristol.
It was surreal that just three hours earlier Craig and the rest of the playing squad had been told the club was finished. Like all Darlo fans I was impressed by Craig as a player and I was even more impressed after meeting the man who was now our manager.
When we returned to the main entrance I was met by my daughter Joanna and my granddaughter Josie. It was Josie’s fifth birthday that day, so obviously I will never forget the date of that eventful day. She could not understand why her granddad had not been to see her to wish her a happy birthday and asked her mum to take her to see me, but after a cuddle and an apology I was soon forgiven.
We all returned to our cars and as I sat in my car listening to BBC Tees analysing the day’s events I just started to sob. It is impossible to put into words how I felt that day. Maybe it was relief, because the pressure and the tension had been unbearable.
When I returned home to my wife Anne there were more tears, but I was also very much aware that the battle was only just beginning.
But exactly what sort of battle, we didn’t know. People expected us to know what to do, but there was no real plan until we were a fortnight into it.
I decided to try and relax in front of the TV. I put the BBC Look North news on and here were Shaun and Doug running up to the club, holding up a briefcase shouting; “We’ve got the money!” So that’s what had happened while I was inside the club talking to Harvey!
Peter Barron, the editor of the Northern Echo, told me that somebody should make a film out of the day and that his part should be played by George Clooney. I’ve never, ever, experienced a day like it and nor am I likely to again. And I suspect a few
thousand others were thinking the same.