A LANDMARK legal agreement that could see Darlington Football Club return to its hometown after two years in exile has been signed.
The Quakers have signed a memorandum of understanding with Darlington Rugby Football Club that will set the two teams on the path to sharing the rugby club’s Blackwell Meadows site from next season.
But the football club has warned that it is still facing significant financial challenges and needs to raise thousands of pounds if it is to make it to the end of the season and for the return to Darlington to go ahead.
Martin Jesper, chief executive of the football club, admitted that the club’s finances are “extremely stretched” and that without a “huge” fundraising effort by fans the agreement may not come off.
Darlington FC has spent two years in groundsharing with Bishop Auckland FC at Heritage Park, but the costs associated with that agreement, and a drop in crowd attendances this season, mean that a move back to Darlington is now urgent.
Details of the exact amounts needed and the timescales for the fundraising at Darlington FC are expected to be announced by the club early next week.
Senior figures at both clubs have hailed the agreement as an opportunity to each become more sustainable and to create a hub for team sports that will serve Darlington and the Tees Valley.
Mr Jesper said: “We need money to get to the end of the season because our finances are extremely stretched. In order for this groundsharing vision to happen in September, first the club has to exist. We will be fundraising to keep the club viable.
“The club has survived on the good will of the fans but there are lots of costs associated with being at Bishop Auckland. Without a huge fundraising push next week this may not come off.
“Being back in Darlington will help the off-field side of the football club.”
The memorandum of understanding sets out the terms of future discussions on the practicalities of a groundshare at Blackwell Meadows, which lies off Grange Road, on the outskirts of town.
Tony Stowe, secretary of Darlington Rugby Club, said: “We’ve had a vision to turn this corner of Darlington into a community sports hub.
“Adding the football club to the rugby union and league and amateur football we already have will mean it continues to develop.”
The scheme has won the backing of Darlington Borough Council, which will help with planning and car parking arrangements, and Darlington MP Jenny Chapman.
Ms Chapman said: “I see this as another milestone on what has become a very long journey. It’s a positive step and I’m pleased that the two clubs have a shared vision for sport in Darlington.”
Council leader Bill Dixon said: “It is fantastic that the football club is returning to play in Darlington. In terms of sustainability it’s got to be a win-win for both clubs.”