When I was a teenager, my hometown football—soccer—team was bought by a local businessman who began his career as a safecracker, became friends with Donald Trump, and ended his days broke and in jail. George Reynolds, who died last week, lived an Englishman’s version of the American dream: He got rich, bought a local institution, then went bankrupt.
For a moment, his ownership sparked a kind of giddy hope among the club’s supporters, who were sold promises of the big time. Reynolds, who made his money selling chipboard kitchen worktops, had bought the club, Darlington F.C., on a whim and pledged to take it from a lower English-football division all the way to the top, to compete in the Premier League and the holy grail of European football: the Champions League. To do this, he sold the club’s tiny grounds in the town’s center and built a 30,000-seat stadium on its outskirts, which he named the Reynolds Arena. He would attend games in a knee-length fur coat, rising from his seat to wave to the fans chanting his name.
The dream quickly collapsed. Although a few thousand fans continued to loyally traipse out to the new stadium to support Darlington, they were surrounded by row after row of empty seats. The club was old, and had generations of loyal supporters, but the town was small. Soon enough, both the club and Reynolds folded under the absurdity of it all: The team literally went out of business and had to be started again from scratch. It now plays on grounds it shares with a local rugby club, while its old arena sits empty—a monument to hubris. After the club went bankrupt and was sold off in 2003, Reynolds was stopped by the police with £500,000 in cash in his car and jailed for money laundering and tax evasion.