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Tuesday, 29 July 2014

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Ex-Carlisle Utd ace can’t even afford to drive to training

Talk in the Darlington dressing-room was once of Wembley and winning promotion, now Marc Bridge-Wilkinson and his team-mates have worried conversations about missed mortgage payments and struggles to pay their bills.

Carlisle action photo
Marc Bridge-Wilkinson

These are desperate days for the former Carlisle United midfielder who is caught up in Darlington’s desperate battle for survival.

He is waiting with bated breath to see if tomorrow marks the eagerly-awaited moment he receives his first pay packet in four months as he hasn’t been paid a penny of his salary since the end of October.

Before players’ wages dried up completely, Bridge-Wilkinson and his colleagues were asked to take savage pay cuts – the first sign all was not well at the troubled club, which was plunged into administration in January for the third time in nine years amid spiralling debts.

Even if a cheque does drop onto the doormat of his Huddersfield home this week, it won’t be back-dated – instead he expects to receive only a percentage of the last two weeks’ pay.

For those who think all footballers enjoy a champagne lifestyle, drive baby Bentleys and live in sprawling mansions, then think again.

The game is anything but a gravy train to 32-year-old Bridge-Wilkinson, who has punched a massive hole into his hard-earned savings as he was forced to dip into them to cover his mortgage, bills and basic living costs while Darlington’s plight continues.

He has a wife, Helen, and four-year-old daughter Millie to support and, only two weeks before the Quakers imploded, he found out he is to become a dad for a second time this summer.

With wages not in the bank and jobs on a knife-edge, he doesn’t go into training every day so he can save on petrol costs. He trains with his team-mates in Durham only on a Friday so they can work on team shape ahead of the weekend’s game and trains alone for the rest of the time rather than commute each day from Yorkshire.

“It has been a worrying time, but we’re doing OK as a family,” said Bridge-Wilkinson, who made more than 100 appearances in two spells at Carlisle before joining Darlington in January 2011.

“I’m lucky in that I’ve got savings that we’ve been living off and family and friends have been helping out.

“Even some of the Darlington fans clubbed together to raise money for the players, which was very generous of them.

“But I was never on Premier League wages so it’s not as if I have a bottomless bank account.

“I’ve never been one of those lads who thinks I’m too big to go out and get a job. I’ll get a job in an office or do whatever it takes if the worst comes to the worst. I’m not above that and that has been my attitude all the way along.

“This whole scenario has been the toughest time of my career. Port Vale went into administration when I was there, but there were never any issues about being paid as we came out of the other end with a new owner.

“The situation at Darlington has been much worse. It doesn’t feel real at times and all the lads are hoping for the day when we can look back and laugh at this.

“You can’t go from the end of October to the end of the season with no money. We’ve tried to be as loyal as we can. We’ve been going out and playing for nothing for months even though we’ve bills to pay and families to support.

“The administrator came to meet us and said they would pay us 75 per cent of our wages, so we should be paid at the end of February and be paid throughout March and April.

“Hopefully if the club comes out of administration then we would get all our money back. If it doesn’t and the club folds, we won’t get a penny. At least now we have the promise of some money coming in. It’s a big weight off everybody’s mind and hopefully now we can focus on football.”

The classy midfielder is one of four former Carlisle players caught up in the turmoil, along with right-back Paul Arnison, midfielder Adam Rundle and striker Ryan Bowman.

They have just witnessed the first chink of light in some dark days at Darlington.

The first round of the desperate battle to save the Blue Square Bet Premier club has been won after administrators told them they had until April 30 to raise £750,000 to come out of administration.

The company, made up of die-hard fans and local business people, launched to buy the football club and prevent it going to the wall has raised more than £250,000 in just five days.

The campaign has now moved into its second phase and a second batch of shares will be released in the hope of raising a further £250,000 to go towards paying off the club’s remaining creditors.

If that target is reached, a third batch of shares would be released to generate another £250,000 which would be used to give the club a sustainable future.

Administration followed months of upheaval at the Arena, as the optimism of May’s FA Trophy success evaporated following a run of six games without a win in September.

Manager Mark Cooper paid the price for the slump when he was sacked in October, while former chairman Raj Singh called for players to take a pay cut.

Bridge-Wilkinson recalled: “The ex-chairman started making noises that people would have to take pay cuts, so we became aware that something was amiss.

“We were taken into a meeting individually and the chairman told us what he was willing to pay us.

“I was asked to take a 25 per cent cut on my basic wage, plus everything else on the rest of my contract.

“At a future meeting, I said it wasn’t a fair way of doing things and the percentage of the pay cut should be across the board.

“At the end of November, everybody got paid 75 per cent of their wage and myself and Chris Taylor weren’t paid a penny.

“I imagine that was because we were older pros who stood up for ourselves. I told him I thought it was wrong and I still believe that to this day. Whether he reacted to that, I don’t know but he decided not to pay two of us.”

Singh ended up quitting the crisis-hit club after two years at the helm and placing it in the hands of the administrators.

With all the trauma, strife and lack of guarantees he will get his money, Bridge-Wilkinson could have been forgiven for doing the same.

No one would have blamed him, but professionalism, dedication and a determination to get what’s due to him stopped him walking away.

The former Derby County, Port Vale and Bradford City midfielder said: “When I was a teenager growing up, I would have ripped my right arm off to play football. I’ve had a great opportunity in life that other people would have loved.

“I’ve been lucky enough to be in professional football for 16 years, and I don’t take that for granted.

“The fact I’ve not been paid is frustrating, but I made a commitment to sign for Darlington and hopefully I can be part of the group of players that keeps the club going in the future.

“The bigger picture is that you want the club to survive but you have to look after yourself and your family. It’s a balancing act.”

Going into administration saw the Quakers handed a 10-point deduction by the Football Conference, which has left them just above the drop zone on goal difference, and in the grip of a transfer embargo.

It means Bridge-Wilkinson, his team-mates and caretaker manager Craig Liddle are fighting battles on all fronts – to escape relegation and keep the club afloat.

He said: “Our team includes eight players under the age of 20. Older heads like myself are trying to keep the younger lads going. We had five youth team players in the side last Tuesday night at Mansfield.

“They’re a good bunch but the sheer fact that five are in the team at once is difficult because they are all trying to learn the game. They’re having to adapt as quickly and as best they can.

“At the start, playing games was a way of boosting morale and it brought players together. About eight pros moved on, but the bond between the rest of the players because strong.

“The desire to win is just as strong but when you’re not getting paid, it feels like banging your head against a wall.

“Things aren’t ideal but we’re trying to make the most of it. Our only hope is that we stay up and the club survives.”

To buy shares in Darlington, go to www.buydarlo.org.

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