Durham began 1992 in a state of buoyancy. For a full century, Durham had been a minor county. Now, finally, they were a first-class team. And there was always the sense that Durham were not merely the 18th first-class team, but something more: flag-bearers for the entire north-east, giving a region deprived of professional cricket an identity at last.
Twenty-five years on, the club approaches 2017 in trepidation and despair. They will begin the season demoted to Division Two of the County Championship as punishment for having to receive an ECB bail-out of £3.8 million, and, as if that was not bad enough, they will start on minus 48 points, as well as with points deductions in the other two formats. Chester-le-Street has also lost its status as a Test match venue.
How did it ever come to this?
With hindsight, it was in these heady early days that the roots of Durham's demise can be found. At the start of the county's first-class existence, two decisions were made which, together, would underpin its descent to the brink of insolvency.
The first mistake was the ECB's insistence that Durham develop a Test match ground. At huge expense, Chester-le-Street, which opened in 1995, became not just a beautiful ground, but one able to host Tests. The trouble was that in 13 years of hosting Test cricket, Durham was never able to make the games pay, with the glorious exception of the Ashes Test in 2013. The rest of the time Durham were lumbered with hosting unappetising tourists at an unappealing time of year, the attraction of games further undermined by often being scheduled from Friday to Tuesday, and so effectively denying Durham any chance to sell day four tickets in advance.
The consequences were dire. For all their investment, Durham only earned an average of £300,000 from England matches from 2008 to 2015. The average at other Test grounds was £1 million. "The fundamental problem is that almost since day one the club has not generated sufficient revenue to cover its fixed overheads," says David Harker, Durham's chief executive. "The requirement to have a venue capable of staging international cricket without then earning the required receipts from international cricket is the single biggest cause of the problem." Another county chief executive reflects: "They 'bet the farm' and lost."
The second mistake was Chester-le-Street itself. The town is simply too small to have a first-class ground, let alone a Test one. Only 25,000 people reside in Chester-le-Street, which is easily the smallest of all the centres of population that are the main hosts of the 18 first-class counties. In an age when counties have to increase their non-cricket income, Chester-le-Street lacks the population to do that. The train from Newcastle to Durham is only 11 minutes. For Durham, those 11 minutes might have been the difference between being stable and almost going out of business. "Our out of town situation is certainly a factor, especially for T20," Harker says. When Durham was created, no one appears to have seriously suggested that building the ground in Newcastle would have been preferable. Yet such a ground would be ideally suited not just to packing in T20 crowds on Friday evenings in high-summer, but also - even more importantly - staging corporate events all-year long.
The ECB's demands when elevating Durham and the small population around Chester-le-Street were bad enough. But those two factors alone might not have proved disastrous had it not been for a third obstacle, perhaps the most potent of all. The north-east's dire economic reality has made it harder for Durham to sell tickets to fans for Twenty20 or Test matches, and meant that fans who do come are less willing to indulge in the half-dozen pints that many who go to T20s down south regard as par for the course. Lavish spending from corporates is also harder to find. In 2015, Durham brought in just under £600,000 in gate receipts and membership income from domestic cricket. Other Test grounds earned another £500,000 on top of that; even the first-class counties that don't host internationals earned £200,000 more than Durham.
Better and more innovative marketing could have helped, but only up to a point. Ultimately, Durham's plight should be seen as part of the wider decline in north-east sport, which is itself inextricably linked to crude economics. In the Premier League in 2014/15, Sunderland had the sixth-highest attendance in the Premier League but only had the 15th-highest revenue. Last year, Sunderland finished 17th in the Premier League, yet were still the leading north-east club. Only in two previous seasons in the 128-year history of English league football has the top north-east club finished lower. Never has it been harder for sporting clubs to fight against regional socio-economic deprivation than it is today.
"By 2015 the club had shaved £800,000 off their 2012 wage bill. Their total player remuneration was just over £1.3 million - £200,000 less than the average for all first-class counties"
None of this is to deny that Durham have been partly complicit in their downfall. Bidding for Tests they couldn't afford was foolhardy, even if this error highlights the ECB's original mistake in pushing them to develop a Test ground. Durham were also guilty of negligent planning over player contracts during the run of three Championships titles in six years from 2008. The club was ill-prepared for how to react when England players, including Paul Collingwood, Steve Harmison and Liam Plunkett, lost their central contracts. And, with hindsight, the club made poor decisions to award sizeable long-term contracts to Harmison and Ian Blackwell when they were past their peaks. For these reasons, Durham mislaid their prudence. And so, in 2012, Durham spent over £2 million on salaries. It remains the only time that any county has breached the salary cap.
Among the counties there is no little sympathy for what has happened to Durham, and a belief that the punishments meted out to them fall well beyond reasonable. Even before the ECB bail-out, Durham's £8 million debt was about half the average at other Test match grounds outside London. The difference is that, partly because of their revenue potential from internationals and the underlying land value of the grounds which are located in the city centre, other counties' venues have been able to raise larger amounts from public bodies, in the case of Glamorgan and Warwickshire, or private benefactors, in the case of Hampshire and Yorkshire. While those counties found men - Rod Bransgrove for Hampshire, and Colin Graves for Yorkshire - to bail them out, Durham did not. The only consortium that showed an interest in buying Durham was backed by a man who the ECB privately admitted would not pass their fit and proper person test.
Durham have received further sympathy due to their not-inconsiderable efforts to turn things around. By 2015 the club had shaved £800,000 off their 2012 wage bill. Their total player remuneration was just over £1.3 million - £200,000 less than the average for all first-class counties, and £350,000 less than the average in Division One of the County Championship. Given these constraints, coming fourth in Division One this year was a remarkable achievement; Durham estimate that they would have needed to reduce player salaries by a further £500,000 a year over the past four seasons, rendering fielding a competitive team impossible. Back-office staff costs fell almost £200,000 from 2013 to 2015 when Durham's total spending, just in excess of £400,000, was half that of the other Test match grounds. It is not as if Durham were blasé about the need to rein in spending before the ECB's bailout and sanctions.
The ECB have helped counties before, of course. But, as they stressed in the press release revealing Durham's fate, the financial support given to Durham was "unprecedented". The determination not to be seen as the lender of last resort underpinned the severity of the ECB's sanctions. To chief executives of a slightly conspiratorial bent - though they preferred not to go on the record - such sanctions also highlighted the counties' financial dependence upon the ECB, and served to weaken their opposition to a new eight-team domestic T20 competition, from which the 18 first-class counties would stand to gain about £1.5 million each. "The relegation was certainly avoidable," says one chief executive. "This sanction was particularly bizarre. It was also pre-planned, as rumours have been circling since August. Punishing the players and supporters of Durham for the commercial failure of international cricket seems very wrong."
At this juncture, it seems unlikely that Durham's fate will be the start of a new trend. Most counties are in a far better financial position than five years ago. Even unfashionable counties have innovated - Northants regularly stage concerts, including Elton John; Derbyshire's press box also acts as a university lecture theatre - to ensure their financial viability. The notion that the smallest counties are lumbered with the most debt is also fundamentally untrue. It is actually the Test-staging counties - Durham, Hampshire, Warwickshire and Yorkshire - that are in worse financial positions. Too late for Durham, the ECB has also sanitised the bidding process for international cricket, stopping counties outbidding each other, and sometimes paying far more than they could afford, to stage the most appealing fixtures. The ECB also believes that a new domestic T20 competition would raise extra cash and help shore up the financial positions of the counties.
Still, the underlying irony of Durham's plight remains. Hampshire, who benefit the most from Durham's fate by retaining their Division One status despite finishing in the bottom two, are the most indebted county in the country. Without Rod Bransgrove's financial backing they would face a situation every bit as perilous as Durham's.
As for Durham, the club are confident that the threat to their future has now passed. But years of grim austerity loom and, perversely, in some ways the ECB have made it even harder for Durham to generate funds. Their punishment in T20 cricket, which appears insignificant set against that in the County Championship, threatens to be financially debilitating. Durham need two wins just to eradicate their points deduction; in practice this could see them knocked out of the competition in its early stages, meaning that fans will be less likely to attend knowing that chances of progress to the quarter-finals are remote.
For years Durham were county cricket's feel-good story. Just 22 seasons into their first-class existence, they had already won three Championships titles and the homegrown talent that underpinned the team, and is the county's raison d'être, was at the heart of England's success, too. Now, despite all these achievements, there appears little to feel good about for cricket in the north-east. Ultimately that is just very sad.
This article first appeared in All Out Cricket magazine, which this month features an exclusive interview with Joe Root. To order a year's subscription for just £39.99 - in time for Christmas, if that's your thing, click here .