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Chris Dunlavy column: Why there should be more love for Gateshead

Gateshead

Picture: The International Stadium home of Gateshead

What have Blackburn Rovers, Preston North End, Huddersfield Town, Reading, Fulham and Middlesbrough got in common?

If you said they will all ply their trade in the Championship next season, well done. That’s half a point.

To win the prize, though, you’d have to add that all six are clubs based in urban areas with a population smaller than Gateshead.

Yet the Tyneside town, birthplace of Paul Gascoigne and Chris Waddle, is more famous for the car park featured in Get Carter than the football team it has housed in various guises since 1930.

Elected out of the Football League in 1960, they have threatened to return only once in the subsequent 59 years. That came in 2014, when a side managed by Gary Mills and funded by local businessman Graham Wood lost to Cambridge in the play-off final.

Wood, who took over in 2006, spent almost £4m hauling Gateshead out of the Northern Premier League, where they had festered for the best part of three decades. Even that put only an extra thousand people on the gate.

Now, after 12 months under the yoke of Hong Kong humbug Ranjan Varghese in which they flirted with financial collapse and were eventually demoted from the National League, the Heed are rebuilding from scratch at Step 2.

So can Trevor Clark and Neil Pinkerton, the figureheads of Gateshead’s new supporter-led board, finally capture the town’s imagination?

It is easy to blame the persistent lack of interest on Newcastle United, whose 52,000-seater home sits less than two miles from the International Stadium. From the cheap seats high in the Leazes end, you can even see the athletics track.

The Mags’ monochrome tentacles stretch far across the River Tyne, with black and white shirts on show everywhere from Durham to Washington.

I grew up in Swalwell, a village on the south bank of the river, and literally nobody at my comprehensive school went to see Gateshead. Why would they when the alternative was watching Les Ferdinand and David Ginola?

Yet even in less halcyon days, the Heed struggled to capitalise. Newcastle have spent the last 12 years under an owner the supporters despise and have twice suffered relegation to the Championship. Neither yielded even a modest rise in attendance. Such are the bonds of loyalty to a long-established club – and that, perhaps, is Gateshead’s primary issue.

Take Wrexham. With a population of 200,000, Gateshead can call on three times more people than the Welsh giants. They should be a bigger club.

But Wrexham has always been Wrexham. They have always played at the Racecourse. From victory over Porto in 1984 to that legendary Mickey Thomas goal against Arsenal, the club can call on 154 years of memories and golden moments, tenderly passed from generation to generation.

Gateshead, by comparison, are rootless and sterile – a hobby rather than an institution. The current club has existed only since 1977 and on two occasions before that was actually based in South Shields.

For most of the sixties, they pottered around the Northern Regional League, a division comprised of Football League reserve sides that was barely ten-strong.

Along the way, they have played at Stanhope Road, Horsley Hill, Redheugh Park and now the International Stadium, a purpose-built athletics facility that has never – despite half a century in residence – felt like anything but a makeshift solution. As a result, nobody has a shred of affection for the place, and you could almost say the same about the club.

To all but a diehard few, supporting Gateshead is like trying to convince yourself a blind date will blossom into romance when, deep down, you know there’s no chemistry. Clark and Pinkerton, two of the few people for whom Gateshead is a genuine passion, must find a way to fan the flames of desire.

A proper football ground would help and, in truth, is the only long-term solution if the Heed want to lock down a lasting fanbase. A happy home is the bedrock of any club’s identity, but especially one without a glittering lineage. Yet Wood, for all his fervour and intent, never managed to get the project off the ground. Neither Clark nor Pinkerton has spoken of taking up the mantle and the council is unlikely to lend a hand. In the short-term, then, Heed are going nowhere.

But those 200,000 people aren’t either. Better yet, dwindling talk of a takeover at St James’ Park and the enforced departure of Rafa Benitez has left Newcastle fans more disillusioned than ever. Almost every regular I know has vowed to stay away until Mike Ashley departs.

If Gateshead can market themselves as a fan-centric club, play attractive football and, crucially, make matchdays fun, this season could represent an unprecedented opportunity to engage with the local community.

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