Quakers continue plans for Arena return

Darlington were based at the Arena 2003-2012

The Northern Echo Arena. Picture by Andy Futers

Darlington are continuing with plans to return to their former 25,000-capacity home with a friendly planned for later this month, despite fresh uncertainty regarding playing in front of spectators.

On Monday, Quakers announced a temporary return to the Arena from Blackwell Meadows, agreeing a two-year licence and citing safety concerns.

At Blackwell, Quakers would be restricted to a capacity of around 600 to accommodate social distancing, but have 650 season ticket holders and an average attendance of around 1,500.

However, two days after their announcement the Government brought in measures that limits group gatherings to no more than six people.

Clubs at Steps 3-6 can continue welcoming fans in limited numbers, but at the time of writing there has been no updated guidance on whether fans at Step 1 and 2 will be able to attend socially-distanced stadia.

“Are we going to return? It all depends on the national position, what the Government does and local councils do,” said Darlington chief executive David Johnston.

“When I wrote to the National League to request permission to move, we did a risk assessment comparing Blackwell with the Arena, and it just showed that from a health and safety perspective we’re far safer in the Arena.”

The message we’re sending is about safety and people acting responsibly – if we want to watch football then everyone has to abide by the rules.

David Johnston, Darlington chief executive

Having initially planned on using two sides of the all-seater stadium, Darlington are now aiming to use three, and will host a friendly as a test event on Saturday, September 26.

Johnston added: “Because we have the capacity to do so, by further spreading out our fans we’re reducing the risk of infection. We’re making more use of the asset.

“Say we get 1,500 fans – that’s 800 in the main stand, 500 behind one goal plus 200 away fans.

There’ll be one-way systems for the toilets and food and beverage, we’ll even consider putting catering vans outside the ground to increase the circulation space to reduce the chances of infection.

“The message we’re sending is about safety and people acting responsibly – if we want to watch football then everyone has to abide by the rules.”

The Arena was Quakers’ home from 2003 and their first opposition were Kidderminster Harriers who, ironically, will also be the first league visitors in 2020-21.

While focus is on welcoming fans back through the gates, Darlington are also working on streaming games online.

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