Saying goodbye to Darren Eales, man of the Atlanta United people

Darren Eales’ final pregame tailgate for an Atlanta United home match was a celebration of his seven-plus years in charge of the MLS club.

Not only was it his 50th birthday Saturday, so he got smashed with cake by the 17s, but he also got doused with celebratory champagne. A photo was taken of Eales with members of the group’s four main supporters clubs. People wore T-shirts with “We’ll miss you Darren” on the front. Eales’ last day in the club’s Marietta offices will be Monday. On Aug. 22, he will become Newcastle’s CEO, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for a person who earned the job based upon his success turning an expansion franchise into a benchmark franchise in just a few years.

Winning three trophies is obviously the most important measure of success, but Eales’ gregariousness and interaction with the team’s supporters turned an unknown executive when his hiring was announced in 2014 into a beloved figure among most.

Here are a few of their stories (in their words):

Credit: Jason Wilhelmsen

Credit: Jason Wilhelmsen

Jason Wilhelmsen: I won a raffle to watch the Colorado Rapids match in Mr. (Arthur) Blank’s suite at Bobby Dodd in July of 2017. Mr. Blank did not attend that match, but Darren Eales was there. I was a little concerned because my twin boys were only 9 years old and I didn’t know what to expect in terms of the environment in the suite. Long story short, Darren was incredibly kind to my family that day. Despite entertaining several people from a large Georgia employer (I assumed to discuss a potential corporate sponsorship), Mr. Eales spent a lot of time talking to my family and engaging with my boys.

We shared stories about raising twin boys, family soccer experiences at Brown and he answered any questions we had about his time at Tottenham and what it was like starting up an entirely new MLS franchise. He was approachable, genuine, humble and funny. After an amazing experience that day, my wife and I kept talking about how it was more like watching a game with an old friend than the president of a professional sports team whom we’d just met.

After the season, I wrote Mr. Eales a letter to thank him for everything he did to bring Atlanta United to our city. I wanted him to know how much my family appreciated what he, Mr. Blank and everyone involved with the team did to create such an incredible experience for my family, not just that one day, but as newly minted and devoted United fans. To my surprise, Mr. Eales took the time to write back with a heartfelt and personal response. And, he included autographed pictures of my boys’ favorite players – you can tell by the smiles in the attached picture what that meant to my kids.

This team has brought my family so much joy, and Darren Eales was a huge part of creating those feelings and family experiences from the product on the pitch to the culture of the entire club. I can’t imagine any other sports team executive pulling off the Trainy McTrainface and American Family Insurance Cup banner reveal videos the way he did. My family will miss having him lead our favorite team, but we’re thankful that he was the person Mr. Blank selected to build this team for our family and our city. And we wish him the best at NUFC.

Thank you Darren Eagles, er, I mean Mr. Eales!

Credit: Gary Paterson

Credit: Gary Paterson

Gary Paterson: I’m a Scotsman who moved to Atlanta in 2015 and immediately signed up as a Founding member for me and my then-8-year-old son.

We used to speak with Darren at each tailgate (mainly I was trying to get him to send his kids to my school – Atlanta International School)

Unfortunately, the family had to return to the U.K. in late 2017. I am a member of FootieMob and had agreed that if Atlanta made the playoffs in 2018 I would fly back out for a home game. So I flew out for the conference semifinal, where I again met Darren at the tailgate and he asked where I had been. I told him about being back in the U.K. for my wife’s work, and we were talking about our chances in the game, and I reminded him I’d never seen Atlanta lose in the Benz. He said that if we made the final he would expect me to be there. I pointed out that I’d spent my savings flying out for the semi and that my wife would kill me if I spent any more of our money flying back out again.

He said that if we made the final, as I was the lucky charm, he would pay to fly me back out for it. We shook on it, and my friend Jeremy Martinez got this great picture of it.

Credit: Esteban Carrera

Credit: Esteban Carrera

Esteban Carrera: My wife and I were at the ATL United vs. Inter Miami game on 6/19/22, when we won 2-0. We were in the Delta Club section and took pictures with our president outside the locker room after the game! We called out his name and were so surprised when he actually walked toward us to take a picture and to even sign my jersey! I am including a picture my wife and I took with him.

Credit: Chris Kenny

Credit: Chris Kenny

Chris Kenny: We were at Hippo Hop. It was the day of the MLS Cup, and he was there with his two kids. I was there with my son, and we were repping for ATL given the day (we have season tix since Day 1). My wife and I moved here from Chicago 8.5 years ago. My wife smartly decided we needed ‘our team’ that we share – I’m a Bears fan and she’s a Packers fan. ... At that point not many people knew who Darren was. He was charming, engaged and clearly working on a player recruitment or acquisition. I felt his passion for the team including the fan experience. He’s exactly who you see on social media with his fun, whimsical persona in the many gags he plays. He will be missed. He has left an indelible mark on Atlanta and our family. Vamos Atlanta and vamos Darren!

Credit: Nick Tewell

Credit: Nick Tewell

Nick Tewell: In 2019, we played the Open Cup quarterfinal at KSU. My dad had made a 3-foot-tall head of Frank de Boer, and it had a picture of him smiling. Darren walked over to us and said “that picture of Frank smiling is incredible, because I can’t get him to do that!” We had a good laugh and took some pictures.

Credit: Evan Rosen

Credit: Evan Rosen

Evan Rosen: I saw Darren all over town – several times at the Starbucks in Colony Square and the Goldbergs off Northside Parkway. He was always friendly and often inquired about my thoughts on the team. Great guy and I wish him well.

-

Credit: Jay Huntley

Credit: Jay Huntley

Jay Huntley: (Met him in October 2015) at Emory’s Goizueta Business School’s Hispanic Heritage Month Case Competition. Darren showed up two years before the team even started to engage with students. He was always sincere, thoughtful, passionate and caring for this community. We are really losing a good one with his departure.

Credit: JR Francis

Credit: JR Francis

J.R. Francis: Nov. 30, 2014, Darren was first “introduced to the fans” at Fado. I was lucky enough to be the first one he walked up to and shook my hand. Arthur came with him, which was a wonderful surprise. Darren was genuinely excited to meet each and every fan who was there. Took unlimited photos, signed everything put in front of him and seemed to really enjoy his time. We all mentioned to one another how amazing it was that he seemed like a real, genuine, fan of the game, of us, and of the experience.

Later that year he came and met me at Meehan’s in Vinings to have a one-on-one to learn more. We discussed soccer, fandom and our hopes for the team. He asked tons of questions about Atlanta and how the team could best engage. He knew everything there was about soccer but wanted to genuinely understand the unique relationship the new squad could have with the city and its people.

An anecdote I had been using during the ATLwantsMLS years that I shared with him that day ended up one of his talking points in interviews for years. How Atlanta is full of transplants that brought their hometown NFL, MLB and NBA fandom with them. But hardly anyone kept their MLS team, and would absolutely embrace an Atlanta team, if they just had an option in a sport where they didn’t already have a team. It’s a huge reason Atlanta United is so popular, and he saw that right away.

I remember being excited when he said in that meeting that he was building a team that he would rather see lose 4-5 than win 1-0. That’s the type of exciting soccer this city, and I, would love.

He always remembered me when he would wander the Gulch, even when it had been months or even a year since he last saw me. With somewhere near a million fans in total, to have that much connection with each individual is incredible.

Atlanta will miss him even more than the team. He is a true ATLien.

For more content about Atlanta United

Follow me on Twitter @DougRobersonAJC

On Facebook at Atlanta United News Now

On Instagram at DouglasDavidRoberson

Atlanta United coverage on The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Southern Fried Soccer podcast can be found

Apple - https://apple.co/3ISD6Ve

Spotify - https://spoti.fi/3L8TN0C

Google podcasts - https://bit.ly/32KlZW3

If you are listening to us for the first time, please follow us on Apple, Spotify or wherever you get your podcast ... and if you like what you hear, please give us a good rating so we can grow the show.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has a special offer for Atlanta United supporters and listeners to this podcast. If you subscribe today, you will not only get unlimited digital access to the AJC and the Sunday paper for $2.30 a week but we are also throwing in a special limited-edition Atlanta United and Atlanta Journal-Constitution scarf. So sign up now at subscribe.ajc.com/utdscarf.

Atlanta United’s 2022 MLS schedule

Feb. 27 Atlanta United 3, Sporting KC 1

March 5 Colorado 3, Atlanta United 0

March 13 Atlanta United 2, Charlotte 1

March 19 Atlanta United 3, Montreal 3

April 2 Atlanta United 1, D.C. United 0

April 10 Charlotte 1, Atlanta United 0

April 16 Atlanta United 0, Cincinnati 0

April 24 Miami 2, Atlanta United 1

April 30 Montreal 2, Atlanta United 1

May 7 Atlanta United 4, Chicago 1

May 15 Atlanta United 2, New England 2

May 21 Atlanta United 2, Nashville 2

May 28 Columbus 2, Atlanta United 1

June 19 Atlanta United 2, Miami 0

June 25 Toronto 2, Atlanta United 1

June 30 New York Red Bulls 2, Atlanta United 1

July 3 Atlanta United 2, NYCFC 2

July 9 Austin 3, Atlanta United 0

July 13 Atlanta United 2, Real Salt Lake 1

July 17 Atlanta United 1, Orlando 1

July 24 L.A. Galaxy 2, Atlanta United 0

July 30 Atlanta United 0, Chicago 0

Aug. 6 Atlanta United 2, Seattle 1

Aug. 13 at Cincinnati, 7:30 p.m. BSSO/BSSE

Aug. 17 vs. New York Red Bulls, 7:30 p.m., BSSO/BSSE

Aug. 21 at Columbus, 5:30 p.m., FS1

Aug. 28 vs. D.C. United, 4 p.m., UNIV

Aug. 31 at Philadelphia, 7 p.m., FS1

Sept. 4 at Portland, 5:30 p.m., FOX

Sept. 10 vs. Toronto, 7:30 p.m., BSSO/BSSE

Sept. 14 at Orlando, 6 p.m., BSSO/BSSE

Sept. 17 vs. Philadelphia, 3:30 p.m., UniMas

Oct. 1 at New England, 1 p.m., UniMas

Oct. 9 vs. NYCFC, TBD, BSSO/BSSE