On a rare weekend when Tyneside's sporting focus was not on football Harry Pearson saw Gateshead take on Cambridge United
It's the Saturday of the Junior Great North Run. At Newcastle Central Station the usual hordes of stag and hen-nighters in identikit Abercrombie & Fitch T-shirts, nurse's uniforms and pink cowboy hats with signs saying "sperm donor needed" have been temporarily displaced by mobs of enthusiastic tots in running gear, herded together by harassed adult helpers. ("Emma, man, if you drink any more of that pop before you set off you're gonna throw up, I'm telling you.")
Down on the quayside crowds are gathering to watch Mo Farah and Hannah England compete in the Great North City Games. Newcastle United are away at Aston Villa. Sunderland don't play until tomorrow. For a rare, brief moment on Tyneside football isn't the centre of sporting focus.
Ironically on a day when athletics is dominating the back pages of the local papers, the one place where football is commanding all attention is at the region's premier track and field venue, Gateshead International Stadium, where Gateshead are playing Cambridge United. The visitors' fall from grace is so recent it almost seems compulsory to preface their name with the words "former Football League side" and follow it with a reference to Dion Dublin or John Taylor.
Gateshead are a former Football League side too, though that was so long ago and the club has been disbanded and re-formed so often since that nobody feels much of an urge to remind you of it, or talk of the Callender brothers. (Though there does remain a lingering bitterness among those old enough to remember about the way Gateshead's re-election appeal was batted aside in 1960 to make way for Peterborough.)
Besides, the Tynesiders are looking to the future. They only just avoided relegation last season, but have gone off on the B of bang in the Conference this term, losing just one game in nine, sitting in second place behind Wrexham and holding out the promise of returning the number of League clubs in the north-east back to five for the first time since the full effects of George Reynolds' lunacy took their inevitable toll on Darlington.
Gateshead have a wealthy but realistic owner, Graham Wood, a shrewd full-time manager in Ian Bogie, who played alongside Paul Gascoigne in Newcastle's FA Youth Cup-winning side of 1985, and have spent comparatively heavily over the summer to secure the services of burly Stevenage striker Yemi Odubade and full-back Sam Rents from Crawley.
As helicopters hover over the Tyne, small knots of Heed fans wearing the club's original claret and blue shirt saunter from the Metro station towards the floodlights through the Playmobil-neat-and-tidy St James' Village estate. A group of visitors from the south-east, meanwhile, do their bit for regional stereotyping by chanting "What a waste of income tax/we paid for your house". Some local urchins in Henleys hoodies do the same in return by hanging around outside Asda, begging passing adults to buy them fags and cider.
The last time I was at Gateshead International Stadium I was watching Asafa Powell and Phillips Idowu compete in a Diamond League meeting. I've only seen football here once before. That was over a decade ago, when Gateshead were in the Northern Premier League and fewer than 200 supporters occupied the 12,000-capacity ground.
The atmosphere was so muted you could hear the substitutes' studs clattering as they warmed up on the athletics track. It was a dispiriting experience and I squeeze through the turnstile today with no great expectation for the afternoon.
Gateshead Stadium has been redeveloped over the years, but nothing much has been done to make football's role here look anything more than an afterthought. The "dugouts" are on wheels, the technical areas are matting, the electric scoreboard is the sort that normally shows the lap times in the 1500m. There's a shot put circle behind one goal.
A misplaced cross could end up in the steeplechase water jump and the 50 or so away fans are housed in a stand on the other side of the stadium which, thanks to the pitch and the 16 lanes of running track that lie between them and us, means even their most enthusiastic singing registers only as a distant, incoherent murmur.
On the positive side, there are some attractive floral hanging baskets and flower beds near the long jump pit, and I arrive early enough to get a plum seat in the stand, high up and level with the half-way line. It's the sort of position usually occupied by the pressbox. This being an athletics stadium, however, the hacks are actually housed 40 yards or so to my right – giving them a perfect view of the finish line, but not such a great one of the far goal.
By kick-off there are 900 fans in the ground, and an enthusiastic bunch of youngsters in one corner are making a sufficient racket to disperse some of my peevishness. It disappears completely once the game has kicked off, because it's cracking more or less from the opening minute with Gateshead's controlled attacking play counterbalanced by the sort of haphazard defending that means every Cambridge break seems to end with a shot on target.
Danny Naisbitt in the Cambridge goal pulls off a couple of simple saves from the speedy and muscular Odubade and Micky Cummins, before, with 17 minutes gone, a sweeping cross-field ball from the U's centre-forward Michael Gash finds Ashley Carew in acres of space on the right. The Cambridge No 10 speeds through on goal unchallenged and chips the ball over Paul Farman, who fails to get a hand to it despite wearing the biggest gloves since the retirement of Sepp Maier. The red-kitted Farman does better moments later, saving at the near post from Luke Berry, and is in a good position when the marauding Carew whips in a deep cross that Peter Winn heads narrowly over.
Briefly the home side look in danger of being overwhelmed as the ball pings around their penalty area, but they gradually regain some composure and, with top-scorer Jon Shaw leading the line well, begin to create chances again. Naisbitt pulls off a smart save and then, as Heed press forward on the half-hour, Tom Shaw trips Obudabe just outside the penalty area. Rents lines up to strike the ball. "They only bought this lad to take free-kicks," a father in front of me advises his son. "Watch this sail in the top corner."
Rents confounds parental wisdom, however, by choosing to square the kick to Josh Gillies instead. The young midfielder takes a touch to control the ball, but it's heavy and the crowd is already beginning to rumble with discontent – "What a bloody waste" – when Gillies stretches out a left foot to slap a shot goalwards. It doesn't seem particularly powerful or menacing, but it bamboozles Naisbitt, who stands motionless as the ball skips past him and into the net.
The equaliser prompts a rash of Gateshead attacks. Odubade – one of those players who seems to be nursing a hamstring injury whenever he doesn't have the ball – comes closest to adding a second, lashing a shot narrowly over after a jiggling run. As the half-time whistle blows the PA announcer brings news that Wrexham are surprisingly trailing at home to York City. As it stands the Tynesiders are top of the table.
Sadly, the second half fails to produce the excitement of the first. Odubade is moved inside, leaving Eddie Odhiambo – who had combined well with him in the opening period – isolated when he receives the ball wide on the right. Bogie has clearly had a word during the interval too, and the Heed defence – in which the red-haired James Curtis is commanding – is a lot less sloppy. The home side spend much of the 45 minutes camped in the visitors' half. But, despite lots of possession and a frenzied five-minute spell in which they win half-a-dozen corners, they fail to create a single clear-cut chance.
Indeed, the biggest outbreak of cheering in the Tyne and Wear Stand greets the news that Leon Best has equalised for Newcastle. "Feed the Best and he will score," the supporters behind me chant. They may – as they proclaimed earlier – be Gateshead till they die, but they still have loyalty to the Premier League giants across the river. Cambridge, with Rory McAuley outstanding, defend resolutely, as they have done all season. This will be their fifth game without defeat. Gateshead also have reason to feel happy with a draw. Wrexham have been unexpectedly hammered by York City. "We are top of the league," the Heed fans chant as they file out after the final whistle.
Inside a home that still seems temporary despite their having played in it for over 30 years, Gateshead have worked hard to establish their own identity. Yet they still seem rootless compared to other local non-League bigwigs Blyth Spartans or Whitley Bay. The owner's plans to move them to a purpose-built stadium with room for 7,000 fans will surely help with that.
Given the grandiloquence of some local chairmen of the past, Woods – who as a boy watched Heed when they played west of here at Redheugh Park, attracting five-figure crowds for Cup ties against Bolton and Spurs – is refreshingly modest in his aims. No proclamations promising Champions League football in ten years for him. Instead he sees Gateshead playing lower-division football, with maybe a derby against Hartlepool as an annual highlight. On today's evidence that seems eminently achievable.
From WSC 297 November 2011