Club were unable to use own stadium
16 May ~ It could be a pub quiz question: which team played at seven home grounds in a single season? The answer is Gateshead FC, from the Conference National, who recently completed what their chairman described as "the season from Hell" following a bright start which included a 4-1 home win over eventual champions Mansfield Town. During the summer the International Stadium pitch had been expensively relaid but, as an unusually long and wet winter descended on Tyneside, it became clear the surface couldn't cope with heavy rain.
Three December home games were postponed and, although the New Year's Day clash with Barrow went ahead, the pitch was a quagmire which contributed to the visitors' winning goal, when the ball stuck in penalty-area mud. As temperatures dropped further and the rain poured down, five more home games were called off and Gateshead did not play again until the end of January, when a team short on match fitness lost 3-2 in an FA Trophy tie at Barrow, a "home" game switched to Holker Street after three postponements on Tyneside.
By mid-February Gateshead had lost five in a row, lay one place above the relegation zone and were still unable to stage a home game, with obvious cash flow implications. After yet another postponement the club revealed plans to stage seven of their remaining home fixtures at Hartlepool's Victoria Park, 30 miles down the coast. Where dates clashed with scheduled Hartlepool matches, they arranged additional "home" venues at York, Blyth, Carlisle and Middlesbrough. The seventh and final ground of the "tour" was Boston's York Street, over 150 miles from Tyneside, requiring the long-suffering Heed Army to set off at 2pm for a midweek "home" game.
Most fans stoically accepted that the situation was outside the club's control and season ticket holders benefited from free travel on supporters' coaches, a typically generous gesture underwritten by popular chairman Graham Wood. Nevertheless, attendances were reduced to 300 or less.
On the field, the club's new home at Victoria Park, while offering excellent facilities, did not prove a lucky venue with one win, three draws and three defeats. The highlight was a remarkable comeback against fellow strugglers Southport as Gateshead, 2-0 after 90 minutes, scored two superb goals in injury time to snatch an unlikely point. In contrast, Gateshead were unbeaten at their other five "home" grounds, the including a 5-1 demolition of Luton Town at Carlisle.
A draw in the penultimate match against Stockport County, who snatched a 94th-minute equaliser, took the season down to the wire and left Gateshead needing a point against already-relegated Ebbsfleet at Middlesbrough on the final day to ensure safety, while Stockport had to win at title-chasing Kidderminster. The situation was given added edge by the fact that County were managed by ex-Heed boss Ian Bogie, who had been sacked in mid-season.
In the event, Gateshead secured a 2-0 win and, with Stockport losing heavily amid crowd disturbances at Aggborough, there were emotional scenes on the final whistle. The 500 Gateshead fans in the Riverside Stadium saluted their team and tearful chairman Wood. For a club deprived of their normal home ground from January onwards and faced with a fixture pile-up that left them playing five games in ten days at one point, survival was a heroic achievement.
The club's problems fostered a great sense of shared commitment among players, officials and supporters, with many of the latter proudly wearing a limited edition "Heed Army Great North Tour" T-shirt. Nor will anyone quickly forget the generosity of those other clubs in the area who allowed the use of their facilities. The finishing touch came from the record played by the PA announcer at half-time during that final match – 500 miles by the Proclaimers. Gateshead covered 500 miles (and more) during their nomadic half-season away from their ground but, in the end, they made it home safely. John Bourn