With football facing increasing financial peril, we journey north to Darlington to examine what it's really like when the club you love is on life support...

The background

The divide between rich and poor grows larger by the day. Look at the front of a national newspaper and you'll see an "Everyone's broke and unemployed SADFACE" story alongside "Ooh, look, Rihanna's on holiday again!"

The same applies to football. For every wealthy Man City, PSG, FC Anzhi Makhachkala and Chelsea, there's a cash-strapped Portsmouth, Rangers, Coventry and Crystal Palace.

Darlington FC falls on the wrong side of the being-totally-broke tracks. The club is currently in administration and faces the very real threat of extinction. This may seem unsurprising - they're a middling Conference National side and we're in the worst recession since the Great Depression - but there is a lot more to this club than meets the eye.

Darlington Wembley
Happier times

They've been to Wembley three times in the last 15 years - more than many Premier League clubs - and lifted the FA Trophy there less than 12 months ago after snatching victory in the last minute of extra-time. They hit the headlines in 2002 for their audacious attempts to sign superstars Paul Gascoigne and Faustino Asprilla, and call a 25,000 all-seater stadium 'home'.

But, less than three months ago, they had played a tearful "last game" and locked the stadium doors for the final time.

Darlington FC

The people

Jason Lees, General Manager

Back in January, the door was locked, we'd just been told it was finished, and we were all ready to walk out the door and turn the lights off. That was it. But then they [the Darlington Rescue Group] were banging on that window, I let them in and they said "You can't let the club die, I've got fifty grand here in a suitcase". That gave us a stay of execution for another couple of weeks. Where they got the money from... I don't want to know.

I've been here about six months. I was brought in because the commercial side of the business was starting to fail. They brought me here to try and revive it, to try and turn it around. Unfortunately, just as we were starting to get somewhere, the chairman decided enough was enough, pulled out and plunged us into this. So we've just had to try and do the best we can and try to keep the club alive.

I've never had to deal with anything like this before. I was 24 years in the Royal Navy and this is basically my first job since leaving the forces. I'm now running as general manager, food and beverage manager, bar manager, events manager - I had six people in before, I've now got just me.

Jason Lees Darlington

I'm a Newcastle fan, but I don't want to go anywhere. It doesn't matter who comes in and offers me a job, I want to stay here. There's something about the club, I don't know whether it's the fans and the passion they've got, or whatever it is, but something about it gets under your skin. Everybody who works here loves the club. It's a fantastic place to be. I love working here. If I can work here for the next 20 years, I'll be happy.

I was so close to signing a massive act for July this year, which would have been a sell-out concert - 29,000 people, stood to make us half a million quid clear profit - for this club it's a lot of money. If you can do one or two of them a season, you can forget about everything else. We were going to have Michael Buble, which would have been massive for us. He's an A-Class artist; he can play Wembley or any of the massive venues. We had to cancel it, unfortunately, because the money up front was all coming from the old chairman - as soon as he left, we no longer had the money to fund bringing him in, so we had to cancel it. But we're looking at other ideas, with promoters renting the stadium off us, and us taking a share of profits. Somebody like Rod Stewart, maybe, or One Direction - people like that. We could get 14,000 people in at no risk and at some profit to us. It gets us on the circuit and we can eventually get the bigger acts, once we've got some money behind us.

Jason Lees

We need to get a core amount of fans - 3,000 home fans for every game next season. That's the magic number. If we can get 3,000 fans, we're sorted. It's not a lot of people.

At the moment, the standard attendance is 1,600 - 1,700. The last two games, with all the press and attention there's been, we've had 5,000 and 6,000, which is brilliant. If we can hold on to some of those, the club keeps its head above water. 3,000 people for 23 home games, keeps our head above water, with all our outgoings, no matter what happens on the other side of things. There's so much less pressure, then. That would get proper staff back in again.

The fans are out there, they've proved that - 9,000 went to Wembley last season and we've had five and six thousand the last couple of games.

There's so many people working behind the scenes to make it work, that, actually, if it doesn't work, it'll be a travesty. The amount of work that's going in, it'll be soul-destroying if it doesn't work.

FHM eye
The saddest moment of the day, despite a 1-0 defeat which plunged the team deeper into a relegation dogfight, came a minute from full-time when the day's attendance was announced - a disheartening 2,002.

Karen Glencross, Interim board member

Karen Glencross

We all thought the game at Barrow was going to be our last ever game. We didn't have any money at all. The local newspaper were paying for a bus to take the players to the game, but there was no money to give them a pre-match meal. Scott, who runs the message board, put an article up, hoping to raise £150 to give the players a meal - we ended up raising seven grand!

I've known the guys involved in the Rescue Group for the last few years, and I saw two of them on the terraces at Barrow. I was in tears like everybody else was and I went over to them and said "We just can't let this die. We can't let it go".

I was invited to a meeting the following week - a fundraising meeting, because we had no money. It was becoming apparent that we needed some money pretty quickly to save the club. We went to Middlesbrough the next Saturday and raised nearly £6,000 from a bucket collection.

The group was put into place to try and broker a deal - to find somebody to buy the club and take it on. I don't think it was ever the intention that the Rescue Group would actually become owners of the football club.

It became abundantly clear that there was nobody going to come and buy it, and the last resort was for the Rescue Group to put a package together to try and buy it themselves, which is where we are now.

Darlington Dolphin Centre
They've been selling shares in the club at the local leisure centre for £100 each

We haven't bought it yet. We have an exclusivity agreement with the administrator. The administrator is still in charge of the club; we don't own the club; we haven't got the keys to the door as yet. The end of April is the deadline for us to buy it; if we haven't raised £500,000 by then, then that's it.

If the worst happened, I'd be absolutely gutted, to be honest. I certainly wouldn't want to be involved in a phoenix club. I want to save this club that we've got; I don't want to start again. I don't think a lot of people have actually realised what we'd be missing if this club wasn't here anymore. There's 129 years of history - that's a lot, and there's so many memories. There's people that I've known for 25 years, only through football.

We've raised over £300,000 so far, but we need to get to £500,000 to buy the club, and then another £250,000 to make it stable for next season.

A lot of the players left in early-late January when they weren't getting paid, which they were well within their right to do. They never broke their contract - it was the club that broke their contract.

One of the things we did - which in hindsight was probably the wrong thing to do - was to register all of the youth team players. Because we did that, the Conference deemed that we had enough fit players to fulfil our fixtures.

Even though these kids are only 16 and 17, they're expected to play twice a week. It must be scary for them. Even though we're in Non League, it's still a competitive league, and they do get knocked around a bit because some of them are only small. You're not developed at 16; you've still got a lot of growing to do. I just hope it doesn't harm them in the long term - that's the danger.

FHM eye
At the game we attended, against fellow Blue Square Premier strugglers Stockport County, 18-year-old Rob Ramshaw was sent off conceding a penalty for what turned out to be the only goal. He trudged off the field to a standing ovation from every home fan.

Craig Liddle, Manager

Craig Liddle Darlington

If I'm being honest, it's been an impossible job. The amount of hours I've had to work... limited resources... limited finances... but the one thing that has kept me going is my passion for the club and the players. I joined in 1998, so I've been here an awfully long time. I captained the club; I was captain when we moved to this stadium. So I've obviously got a strong bond with this club and its supporters, which has developed over the years, so it's very sad for me to see the club in the state it's in.

There is a danger of overexposing young players. I've lost two for today's game. It's mainly fatigue injuries. They're playing at a level that really they're not ready to play at yet, but they've been absolutely incredible. I don't think I could have possibly managed the way they have when I was 18 - I don't think I was physically or mentally ready to come in and play in this environment - so the lads deserve a lot of credit and an awful lot of respect.

It's virtually impossible to sign new players; you saw today that we only had four subs.

If the worst happened, it would be devastating. It's unimaginable. I've been here since 1998, but there are people who have been part of this club a lot longer than I have. It would be taking a large part of their life away.

FHM eye
As you would expect, the empathy of non-Darlington fans doesn't extend to the pitch. Several choruses of "You're going bust in the morning" echoed around the 90% empty stadium and provided the soundtrack to a tense first half.

Eric Caygill, lifelong fan

Eric Caygill

I'm 75 now, and I was first brought down here when I was three. I've seen 96 managers come and go. The club's always been a massive part of my life; when my Mam died the players were [coffin] bearers.

I'm surprised by the amount of money that's been made. For a town of, what, 100,000 people? It's a hell of an achievement.

The club means a hell of a lot to people; I think that's been shown by the volume of people that are actually putting in money.

I went into the community centre last week, where they were selling shares. There were two lads in front of me with Newcastle United shirts on. I asked them what they were doing and this lad says they both want to buy shares. They bought two shares each, which I thought was a lot of money for students. As they walked out the door, the first lad pulled a piece of paper out of his pocked and set fire to it. "That's my bloody season ticket," he said. "We've got an idiot for a Chairman and I'm not going back there till he puts our club right; until he puts the name back on the ground."

This could be made a bloody successful club, if they do it right. It may take two or three years, but I honestly think it can be. I honestly think, done the right way, there's a big opening here. If the board that's currently elected is carrying on the right way, leave them be. Don't start chopping and changing; if they're doing alright, let them carry on.

Darlington Ron Greener Lounge
The stadium oozes money throughout

The previous three [chairmen], since we've moved here - that's been the problem. It's been a one-man-band trying to run it on their own, but it's far too big for that.

I think the FA, throughout football, are bloody lacking. There's nobody strong enough to stand up. At the top, they're all there for one reason: empire building. They're building their own lives with the help of our clubs.

James Charlton (16) and Harry Voles (14), fans and volunteers

Darlo scarves

James: Sadly, it's a bit quieter today than the last couple of games, because there's been fewer stories about whether we're going to survive or not. I'm pretty confident we'll survive, we just need to keep people coming. I mean, if everybody who has bought shares comes, we'll have a crowd over 3,000 every time.

Harry: The club means everything to me. Saturdays wouldn't exist if Darlo went down.

Steven Hamilton, car park attendant

Steven Hamilton Darlington

I have another job but it's in Somerset - it's a hell of a drive down there. I always make sure that my hours down there don't clash with Darlo games.

The club means a hell of a lot, absolutely loads. When I first heard they were going into administration, I thought, "No, this is the end here", but they've done quite well to stay alive and be where they are now. It's been 129 years of absolutely brilliant football, and for them to just disappear...

I've bought my shares in the club.

The past two chairmans we've had... the first one [George Houghton], mind my language but he was a complete nobhead. Then Raj Singh came in and said he wasn't going to put the club into administration, at all, whatsoever, and then he did. Then he said "I'll leave; I don't want the club", but then he comes back and said he wants every single penny back. He's not gonna get it - he's put too much into the club. The club can't exactly get all that money together, especailly in the time he wants it.

To be honest with you, I blame George Reynolds, 'coz if we didn't build it [the new stadium], we wouldn't be in this situation.

If the club died, I wouldn't support another club. I wouldn't exactly go "Oh, Darlo doesn't exist, I'll just go and support Stockport or summit". It's pointless - know what I mean?

FHM eye
The only time the Darlington Arena has ever been full in its nine-year history was for an Elton John concert in 2008.

Steve Green, fan and volunteer

Steve Green

I've been a fan since I was four years old. I said I'd help out whenever they need me, and on Tuesday I got an email asking if I'd be willing to come down [to the Dolphin Centre] and help sell shares.

There's always money being thrown into the club, and if you've only got two or three-thousand supporters then you're repeatedly asking them for more and more money. Eventually, people become reluctant to give.

On this occasion, I think there was a feeling that there was no way back. I thought people might just say we've not learnt from the previous occasions, when a lot of people in the community put money into the club, the club's gone into administration and they've lost that money.

At the old stadium, tickets were £5 a game, the stadium held five or six thousand, and it was full every game. A lot of people were used to the ground being so convenient to get to. It was right in the middle of town, so if they were shopping or in the pub, they could just pop to the ground for the game. It's a good ten-minute drive away from the town centre now.

Scott Thornberry, Editor of Darlo Uncovered and stadium announcer

Scott Thornberry

My dad used to bring me when I was young, so I've grown up with it. Once you have a football club, you can't pick and choose; you've got to take the rough with the smooth - unfortunately for me, it's been a lot of rough.

We've had people come in and say they're interested in buying the club, but they've disappeared, so it's going to have to be a community club. I think that's the way a lot of lower league clubs will have to go, because there's not these people out there - these rich benefactors, if you like - who are looking to lose money. I'll be honest: if I had a couple of million, I probably wouldn't plough it into a football club. Although, having said that, I'm not sure I could resist!

I think that's the problem: you get businessmen come into clubs, and they know what they're doing, because they've made money, but as soon as they get into a football club, sense goes out the window and you end up in these positions.

If you only get a 1,900 crowd in, you've got to live within your means. But then you've got other clubs in the division that are getting millions ploughed into them - like Crawley Town and Fleetwood Town - and you can't compete with them, 'coz they're not living within their means. Ideally, every club would just live with the money they get through the turnstiles, and then you don't have a problem. But you're always trying to compete and thinking "Ooh, if I just spend another £100,000, we might get back into the [Football] League".

Darlington Arena
This is as busy as it gets

It'll have to be a sustainable model. If we get relegated and have to go part-time, then so be it. As fans we come in, and yes, we want success, we want promotion, but we don't want it at the cost of the club's future. We'd all love to be in the Championship or the Premier League, but if that means we go bust every couple of years, don't do it.

The end

Clubs like Darlington will continue battling to survive with the support of their devoted fans and local communities, but the wider problem needs to be addressed. The 'fit-and-proper-person test' - brought in to prevent corrupt or untrustworthy businessmen from gaining control of football clubs - has done little to protect them, only disqualifying three individuals since its inception in 2004.

A businessman will only fail the test if they are involved with another Football League Club, are filing for bankruptcy, or have already led two or more clubs into insolvency.

Each of the three recorded instances of disqualification came far too late to help the club in question: Dennis Coleman was disqualified as director of Rotherham United after they twice went into administration; Chester City owner Stephen Vaughan was legally disqualified from being director of a company due to VAT fraud as owner of Widnes Vikings Rugby Club (he reacted by transferring ownership of Chester City to his son); and Rangers owner Craig White was disqualified in March, roughly a month after the club's disastrous financial plight became public knowledge.

In the current scenario, anyone with enough money - or enough big talk and bigger promises - can take control of a football club, and with it the livelihoods of hundreds or thousands of people, not to mention the emotions and lifelong dedication of millions of fans, and do whatever they want with it.

Darlington Arena

More needs to be done to control not only who can own a football club, but what those owners can do with it. Formerly prosperous clubs are being led into potentially terminal situations by the whims and excesses of individuals who can pull the plug whenever the going gets too tough.

Football clubs aren't just businesses; they mean too much to too many for that to be the case. With increased visibility and greater regulation of spending, along with enforced rules regarding expenditure versus revenue, football may have a chance of a healthy future - and we, as fans, should insist on that.

Let us know what you think: email rob.mcgarr@fhm.com

Thanks to everyone at Darlington Football Club. If you'd like to help the club, call 0871 855 1883 for tickets or make a donation here.