OFF-pitch problems, questionable ownership, transfer embargos, bonds, players being sold behind the manager’s back – Gateshead should probably have been relegated from the National League by now.
But, with seven games to go, the small squad with a big heart are in the play-off picture under the guidance of Ben Clark.
On Tuesday night, the good news, as far as on-the-pitch matters go, continued with three Heed youngsters representing England C in the 2-2 draw with Wales C.
Defender Jon Mellish started along with midfielder Greg Olley before the second-half introduction of Tom White, who was called up to the 16-man squad from the contingency list.
White, 21, was on loan at Scarborough Athletic this time last year getting vital games in his battle back from a devastating ACL injury.
Steve Watson, now in charge at York City, handed the Heed scholarship graduate regular football this term and he’s flourished. International recognition on Tuesday the latest proud moment.
“We’ve got a close changing room at Gateshead so I was buzzing for the lads when they got called up,” White says. “Obviously there’s a slight selfish bit where you think, ‘I wish I was called up as well’. So when I did, I was over the moon and couldn’t wait.
“I really enjoyed it. I was still on a high from the late call to getting to the match. To get on was a great experience, I really enjoyed it. We played some good football and I saw a lot of the ball.”
White says he took a lot from his first England C experience.
“It’s a really professional set-up,” he says. “I was really impressed with how organised and focused everything was orientated towards the game. But there was also stuff to do with getting to know each other and team bonding meetings.
“I haven’t really had that before and I found it fascinating actually. It gave us an outlook on how to bring a relatively new group together quite quickly and I think it works.
“You listen to other people’s stories about how they’ve been knocked back in their career and their route to where we are now. I think everybody in that changing room is ambitious, we want to go as high as we can.
“So it was interesting hearing other people’s outlooks, stories and experiences – I think everyone will take something new out of the whole experience.”
There’s little wonder White enjoyed every minute of the time away in what is already a memorable season. The dark days of injury rehab are behind him but there’s no underestimating it was a long road back.
“I’d say it took me about two years to completely recover from,” White says. “I had a good loan spell last year, which helped, and then I owe a lot of thanks to Steve Watson. He gave me my chance and I haven’t really looked back.
“It’s made me not take it for granted. Every time I step out I know what I’ve been through and where I’ve been – even just this time last year.
“There’s moments where you wake up, your knee feels horrendous and you think, ‘Will I even play again?’ It sounds daft because I’ve come back but there are times when you wake up in the morning and think, ‘Is it ever going to be the same?’ You just don’t know and it’s hard to deal with.
“You have to have trust in the physios, trust in the process and the rehab and work hard. You can’t leave anything to chance, don’t regret anything, you just put your head down and do what’s asked of you.”
Attention now turns to the season run-in. Following last Saturday’s 4-2 defeat to Sutton – they were leading 2-0 – a day off yesterday allowed the small squad time to take the load off.
Then a side will return against Braintree looking to continue the promotion push many expected to fizzle out long before now.
It’s been built on a brotherhood inside the changing room, united in adversity by the problems that have swirled around the club with owner Dr Ranjan Varghese and the dubious involvement of Joseph Cala, who has in the past tried to buy Portsmouth and Morecambe.
Heed fans are rightly proud of their management and players and White says they have to keep taking the same approach that has served them so well.
“We’ve got a weekend off and it comes at not a bad time for a small group,” he says. “It’s about getting our feet up, resting, and then we’ve got seven massive games we need to go and attack with no fear really. That’s what we’ve been doing all season; playing with no fear.
“We’ve been unfortunate in the last couple of games so it will be nice to get back to basics, have some good training sessions and hit the ground running when we face Braintree next week.
“It’s a pleasure to be involved. I knew about 70 per cent of the changing room before this season, which helps, and then Ben Clark, the gaffer, and Ian Watson, his assistant, who I can’t speak highly enough of.
“It’s unbelievable the way they are. It’s like we’re all mates, even the coaching staff, and we go out and run through brick walls for each other. We haven’t got the experience some teams have, but we more than match it in work-rate, desire and commitment.”
A Real shame to see Fraser Franks has been forced to retire aged 28 following the discovery of a heart condition.
Franks is an example to all young players. Part of AFC Wimbledon’s promotion to the Football League, he was conscious about lack of game time and dropped to the Conference South with Welling United.
It’s there, as they won the title, he felt he became a proper centre back. Broken nose, being bashed around by experienced centre forwards, it’s where he learnt the gamecraft that would see him become a regular in Paul Fairclough’s England C squad and named captain.
He deservedly moved back into the full-time game with Luton Town, where he played a big role in their Conference title win, before spells with Stevenage and, most recently, Newport County.
It’s not hard to imagine what a tough end to his playing career this will be for Franks, but with a little one on the way in May, he will be aware there is more to life than football.
Fittingly, he scored on his last appearance for the Exiles, soon after captaining them against Manchester City in the FA Cup.
I was always struck by his knowledge of the game and willingness to learn and improve himself. That will see him well in what he decides next. He says he wants to stay in football and used to coach in his Welling days. He’ll be a success whatever he chooses.