KEITH McNALL admits he was as surprised as anyone to see his Gateshead claim a second Northern Premier League title in four years.
The Tyneside club, who spent 30 years in the Football League, had just been relegated from the Gola League but kicked off their campaign with just one defeat from their first ten matches.
A mid-season slump, however, saw the Heed lose their only two home games of the campaign against Macclesfield and Workington.
And they suffered another major blow when chairman and manager Ray Wilkie, who lead them to NPL honours in 1982-83, quit to take over at Barrow just before the title run-in.
But under former Leeds United and Newcastle midfielder Terry Hibbitt they responded in magnificent style, losing just three of their last 17 games to take them clear of Morecambe, Gainsborough Trinity and Burton Albion in the chasing pack.
And back-to-back victories in their final two matches, inside 24 hours, at Oswestry Town and Rhyl saw them pip second-place Marine to the title by two points.
McNall was top scorer that season with 23 of the 85 goals that Gateshead had scored and says that it was the momentum gained at the start of the season which saw them through.
“I don’t think much was expected of us,” the striker admitted. “Morecambe, Marine and, I think, South Liverpool were the teams who were fancied from what I can remember.
“We started really well, and the great morale we had in the team got us through a lot of games. Once we got the momentum we just carried on winning.
“We had a smashing run in the league but I think going out of the FA Cup and the FA Trophy pretty early helped us.
“We had a blip every now and again but managed to keep it going and we managed to pip Marine to the title.”
McNall was to later follow Wilkie to Barrow, but insists the departure of his former boss didn’t really affect the club until the start of the next campaign given the spirit and confidence in the camp that he had helped instill.
“It was a blow when Ray left,”?McNall added. “He was by far and away the most astute manager that I have ever played for. He was a great character.
“Ray was very knowledgeable and very thrifty and would get you to play for almost nothing. We would go to him for a rise and come out having accepted less money. He was that type of bloke, he was very persuasive.
“A lovely fellow and a smashing manager. We struggled the season after he left.
“Terry Hibbitt came in and Dave Parnaby probably helped out. But we had built up so much momentum that we just kept on going and got over that.
“I think if that had happened right at the start of the season, we may not have won the league and been promoted because he was such a key part of that success.”
Their revival in the second half of the season had left Gateshead needing to take four points from their final two games at Oswestry Town on Friday night and Rhyl the following day to take the title.
“We went down and stopped for the weekend,” McNall recalled. “I think we won 1-0 at Oswestry and then beat Rhyl 3-2 the following afternoon.
“On paper they were two potentially tricky games. I think we were three up at half-time against Rhyl but then got tired in the second half and let them get a couple of goals.
“I remember that we had a smashing night coming back, it was a proper party atmosphere. It was a good end to the season.”
1. Paul Doolan: He lives in Durham and is training as a plumber, continues to work in the local area.
2. Paul O’Hagan: Lives in Newcastle and has worked repairing photocopiers for Rank Xerox in the north-east.
3. Dave Mitchinson: He worked as a sales rep in Newcastle-upon-Tyne before losing a battle with cancer in November 1991.
4. Simon Smith: He became a specialist goalkeeping coach and is currently working for the Football Association as a coach and scout.
5. Dave Parnaby: A PE teacher for 22 years, he has managed Gateshead and England Under-15s and is now at Middlesbrough where his son Stuart plays.
6. Mick Fagan: Lives in Newcastle-upon-Tyne and worked in a family market garden business for many years.
7. Derek Bell: He went onto manage Gateshead and was also director of football and chairman. Worked at City of Newcastle housing department and now works as a carer in Westerhope.
8. Peter Davies: A former electrical technician for the NCB, he now runs CPS Electrical in Sunderland with his brother.
FRONT ROW FROM LEFT TO RIGHT
9. Steve Higgins: He lives in Whickham, Gateshead and worked as a lorry driver before opening his own trophy business.
10. Barrie Wardrobe: After working in insurance and then mortgages, he has now progressed to owning his own estate agency business in Westerhope, Newcastle-upon-Tyne.
11. Bobby Hulse: He is now living in Low Fell, Gateshead and had steel recovery and demolition businesses before becoming a successful property developer.
12. Peter Hampson: Peter is a senior lecturer and programmer in Business Analysis Systems and Supply Chain Management at Northumbria University’s Newcastle business school.
13. Justin Robson: The brother of former England captain Bryan, he lives in Chester-le-Street. He has managed Whitehill and ran two card shops for 14 years but for the last six has worked in traffic management.
14. Keith McNall: He lives in Low Fell, Gateshead and after spending 31 years working in financial services for Northern Rock, now works as a postman.
15. Martin Henderson: He has settled on Tyneside where he worked in the insurance industry and is now driving for a living.
16. Barrie Stimpson: He has managed Lancaster City and Garstang before undertaking a coaching role at Lancaster. He lives in Morecombe working in the manufacturing industry.
Tagged Gateshead FC