To the untrained eye, National League side Gateshead appeared to have had a relatively successful season. A club with one of the smallest budgets in that league had secured a ninth-place finish, narrowly missing out on a place in the promotion playoffs for a place in the Football League. A final day 2-0 win over Barrow should have been the backdrop to an end of season celebration; players and fans thanking each other for punching above their weight.
But you don’t have to scratch beneath the surface to realise this was a season with no happy ending. The final day lap of appreciation was no joyous celebration. Rather, it was a funereal occasion, with tears on and off the pitch and a real feeling that this was the end of the road. The end of football in Gateshead. Just how had it come to this?
By any rationale, this was a remarkable season for all the wrong reasons. It had begun with new ownership, the Hong Kong-based Indian businessman Rangan Varghese who was aided by his associate Joseph Cala. Their takeover had been completed in July 2018, but any hopes of a bright new dawn for Gateshead were short-lived. It soon became apparent that things were not being run as they should.
The fine form on the pitch had been masking the increasing turmoil off it. Payments were being missed, rent defaulted on, trust wearing thin. By December 2018, it was revealed that the club was under a transfer embargo. Soon after, the manager, former Newcastle player Steve Watson, left to manage York, dropping down a division to do so.
The new boss, former long-serving player Ben Clark, was then immediately undermined when two key players were sold against his wishes. That was followed by general manager Mike Coulson departing, leaving a void in the club’s leadership. Varghese then announced that he would sell the club at the end of the season for £1, on the condition that the £200,000 bond he claimed to have paid to the National League was reimbursed.
More financial difficulties came to light when Gateshead Council evicted the club from the International Stadium, the athletics stadium that Gateshead leased, but for which it had been neglecting to make payment. Thankfully, though, they were still able to play out the season there, although they were unable to use any of the offices or training facilities. Indeed, there was every chance they would be homeless the following season.
The players were the next to suffer the financial fallout when their March wages went unpaid, leading to a strike threat which was only avoided when a late emergency payment was made. There was also the small matter of an HMRC winding-up order. As the season came to a close, the players, management and staff were released or fired. What remained was a rudderless organisation with only one registered player, no management, no stadium, and seemingly no hope.
There is a long and turbulent history of football in Gateshead. The current club, Gateshead FC, has been in existence since 1977, playing in and around the top tier of non-league football through most of that time. This club was a reincarnation of Gateshead United, which had been based in nearby South Shields for much of its existence, before moving to Gateshead in 1974.
Just three years later that club was gone, much like its predecessor Gateshead AFC, which, as the original club in the Tyneside Borough, had enjoyed more than four decades in the Football League. Originally elected to the professional ranks in 1919, they were voted out of the league in 1960 and replaced by Peterborough United – the first occasion they’d had to seek re-election since 1937. Demotion was a long drawn out death knell, with the club eventually folding in 1973.
The current incarnation came close to restoring Football League status to Gateshead when they reached the promotion playoff final in 2014, only to narrowly lose to Cambridge United. Since then, Gateshead have remained in the National League, continuing to outperform clubs of greater resource without quite repeating the near-miss with promotion of five years ago. Until now that is.
The National League handed down their verdict and Gateshead faced the prospect of demotion down two divisions to the Northern League; the revoking of a National League licence making a drop to the National League North impossible, pending an appeal. The investigations had found “multiple breaches” of the league’s membership regulations, with the list of offences including failing to obtain security of tenure over its ground, defaulting on football creditors and breaching league rules with regards loans and financial reporting.
It all signified a club being led off a cliff by its ownership, the very people supposedly entrusted with delivering actions in the best interests of the club, and by extension the community in which it sits.
Amidst the turmoil created and inflicted on the club by those in charge, like a lone sprouting flower from the ashes of disaster, there was a growing movement aiming to save Gateshead. As is often the case when the ownership seems hell-bent on destroying a club, it is a supporter-led initiative which fights to save the club they love.
In this case, the supporters’ group bore the name of this battle for Gateshead’s soul. Gateshead FC Soul grew during the closing months of last season out of the desire to challenge those in charge of their club, to do something about the dire situation. Its’ voice and stature developed as each new reality emerged during that dark period.
Primarily to provide a voice and focal point for the club’s supporters, Gateshead Soul blossomed into a movement that took the fight to the ownership. In March, they began demonstrations against the owners, and for a time they seemed poised to be the founders of a new Gateshead club should the one they were fighting to save ultimately demise.
A small group such as this could’ve been shouting against the tide when put up against the monied ownership, but there are countless examples of such movements having a significant impact. Inspired as such, Gateshead Soul took the fight directly to Varghese and Cala. “We have the football club at our heart and nobody wants you at Gateshead any longer,” read a statement, not mincing its words, directed at the owners. “The players, staff, fans, National League and Football Association have all made that abundantly clear. It is in everyone’s best interest, including your own, to leave.”
While the players went unpaid during those closing months, Gateshead Soul contributed in other ways too: assisting with costs for away trips, providing pre-match meals for the players, making other donations to support the staff and players. But it was the push to keep Gateshead’s tribulations in the local news which served to garner more support, as well as retain a level of pressure on Varghese and Cala.
As the dissension gained momentum, Cala agreed to meet with Soul’s leadership. Cala, effectively running the show for Varghese, confirmed the hopes to sell the club for £1, but made a variety of claims and arguments intended to persuade his and Varghese’s detractors that they would ultimately act in the club’s best interests. As with most other pronouncements from Cala, though, these were just the hollow words of a persistent liar, or as Gateshead Soul have described him, a “professional con-man”.
As hopes of ridding the club of its owners appeared remote, the group took steps towards creating their own club with a fundraising drive, garnering the support of some local businessmen. Ultimately that would prove unnecessary. The club looked for a time to have been sold to Neil Pinkerton, a southern-based Gateshead supporter, ahead of a rival bid from local businessman Trevor Clark. Varghese, however, failed to sign a share transfer form to complete the transaction.
Once the National League imposed their sanctions at the end of the season, the increasingly perilous situation saw Pinkerton and Clark combine their efforts to lead a supporter-based consortium, born out of Gateshead Soul, to finally bring an end to Varghese’s ownership.
Funds had been raised from the businessmen and through Go Fund Me campaigns receiving donations from across the region and country. An appeal was immediately lodged against demotion to the Northern League, which would ultimately lead to a lesser sanction. Gateshead would still be demoted, but their National League licence was reinstated, meaning they would play the 2019/20 season in the National League North.
For Gateshead Soul it wasn’t the perfect result, but it was a close second. The fans of Gateshead get to keep their club. It was the start of something new.
Gateshead will remain a full-time professional club, which crucially gives them the chance to bring in players looking to progress their careers. The first team is now under the leadership of former Newcastle defender Mike Williamson as a player-manager, who had also played for the club during the traumatic preceding season.
Despite their demotion, optimism abounds once more. Bernard McWilliams, chairman of Gateshead Soul, told the Sunderland Echo: “This is a fresh start for Gateshead to get behind its club and build a stronger, more sustainable club that can make the town proud.”
Gateshead Council confirmed that the club have agreed a ten-year lease on the International Stadium, and plans are in place to clear the debts. Former general manager Alisha Henry – by all accounts a relentless driving force in the battle to keep the club going – has been reinstated as the first of a number of new directors.
Demotion also means the club get to square off against some new local rivals, the National League North featuring clashes with Blyth Spartans (led by another Newcastle old boy Lee Clark), York City (led by former Newcastle player and Gateshead manager Steve Watson), Darlington and Spennymoor.
The catastrophic ownership of Varghese and Cala may have only been limited to one horrific season, but its impact on the club was almost fatal. Instead, it has been the spark behind a fan movement which saved the club and that now has a voice in its running.
Gateshead FC may be starting this new season a division lower than the previous one, but this new dawn is one to be proud of. The club will remain in the town, retain its place in the local community, and most important of all, keep its very soul.
By Aidan Williams @yad_williams