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Fans watch on in constant fear of what the shadowy figure off the pitch will do next, that this latest step forward will quickly turn into two steps back, all the while having their patience and tolerance eroded until a once proud legion of fans is reduced to a gang of pessimists that just like their beloved team has lost all semblance of ambition.
I’m talking, of course, about Gateshead FC.
Look at their league position and you’d think everything is peachy at Gateshead FC, but in reality it’s anything but. The club is dying, being consumed from the inside like a creature with a parasitic worm.
In terms of position they fly the flag for North East non-league, but come the end of the season there’s a very real prospect there will be no hand on the south side of the Tyne Bridge to wave it.
The new owners
The troubles began in April last year, when then-chairman Richard Bennett decided to sell the club.
What followed was months of drawn-out negotiations, including a deal that fell through, before finally the club was sold just before the start of the 2018/19 season to Hong Kong-based businessman Ranjan Varghese.
The ownership structure that was put in place was Vargese was owner and director of the club, while local businessman Michael Williams would manage day-to-day operations on his behalf. These were the only two named men in the deal.
At last for Heed fans, there was optimism. Due to the uncertain summer the squad had been cleaned out, but they’d retained manager Steve Watson and a few key players, and with his funding secure Watson began bolstering his squad with whatever he could lay his hands on at the eleventh hour.
hen the season began Gateshead were understandably favourites to go down, but not for the first time they came roaring out of the traps and took everyone by surprise, taking out Maidenhead 0-3 on opening day and coming from behind to beat highly-fancied Salford not long after.
This was when the first cracks started to show, however. Fans quickly learned there was a third new member of the management team: Joseph Cala.
His name is familiar to Portsmouth and Morecambe fans for having a hand in their financial wores, and he immediately set off alarm bells by sacking the entire team of long-serving turnstile volunteers not long after he arrived.
His reason for doing so was on grounds of finances not adding up.
While a lot of fans were perturbed, it was one incident that was difficult to prove was an act of malice, and with Cala himself stepping in to run the turnstiles in their absence all seemed workable.
The results kept coming, romping past Chesterfield at the Proact Stadium and stealing three points away at high-flying Barrow, and somehow this low budget team of kids was in the playoff places.
Then, in December, the next snag: the club finally confessed they were under transfer embargo for overspending on the initial budget, something they had categorically denied until the local press started reporting on it.
The club insisted it was just a technicality of the takeover in the summer and would be swiftly resolved by mid-January.
At the time of writing, the club is still under embargo.
The downward slide
In January was when the wheels well and truly came off. Steve Watson, the unifying glue in this chaotic time, left to take the vacant York City position, resigning as opposed to being bought out of his contract.
It was out of the blue, with no real rumours until the day he left. With the ending of several key loans on January 1st with no way to replace them and the departure of the manager, Gateshead were down to the bare bones. The U19 team coach Ben Clark became manager and centre-half Mike Williamson became assistant coach.
The circus continued: striker Scott Boden was sold to Chesterfield at the end of January, bringing Gateshead’s list of strikers down to one, but even with the generated capital the club narrowly avoided a winding-up petition from the Treasury, again something the club kept quiet.
Yet somehow they kept picking up results, taking a point away at Salford and snatching a late victory at Dover.
The ownership even won back some favour with fans by holding a talk in session where no questions were left off the table, giving some clarification on who was involved at the club, their roles and future development plans.
They unveiled a new management structure, with longtime director and servant of the club for 20 years, Mike Coulson, being promoted to Director of Football Operations, placing a man known and trusted at Gateshead FC in charge of the club’s development.
These plans quickly went awry: Mike Coulson resigned at the start of February, barely a fortnight into his new position.
The idea that he could be retiring was quickly rubbished, as a few weeks later he joined local rivals Blyth Spartans in a supporting role. He was the face of Gateshead FC off the pitch, so to see him voluntarily depart shocked and disgusted a lot of fans.
Fingers were immediately pointed at Joseph Cala, whom Mike was alleged to share a difficult working relationship with, with further evidence coming in the form of his departing statement which included no thanks directed at the board.
Finally came breaking point: 27th February 2019. Despite a bare-bones squad with few experienced pros, it was announced that Fraser Kerr had been sold to local rivals Hartlepool United.
This hit Gateshead fans harder than anything before it. Losing directors was tolerable even if it hurt – the new owners had insisted they had a plan, and vast changes rarely occur without treading on a few toes.
Losing Fraser was a whole different beast though. When the first signs of trouble emerged in the summer, Fraser was the first to declare he wanted to stay.
He was one of only three holdovers from last year’s squad, and beloved for his tough, hard-working mentality.
For all that went on off the field, fans rallied behind the team and especially their beloved quartet of Watson, Tinkler, Kerr and Barrow who refused to abandon the club in its time of need. In the space of two months, Gateshead’s list of heroes has been slashed in half.
The fallout from the Kerr transfer doesn’t end there.
The same day fellow beloved player Scott Barrow publicly stated that the club had shopped him around behind his back despite him having no wish to leave, and the next day manager Ben Clark gave an interview saying that he did not authorise the Kerr transfer and only found out about it a few hours before.
Both of these stories were published in the Hartlepool Mail, with contributions from Blyth and Hartlepool-supporting journalists Mark Carruthers and Ross Gregory.
The fact that Gateshead’s local newspaper, the Evening Chronicle, has absolutely nothing on this story is a grim symbol of the local community’s treatment of their local non-league side.
The club responded by issuing a statement two days later from Dr. Varghese. In it he said the club was confident of getting the embargo lifted soon, a statement repeated since late December, and that fans should get behind the team.
Unsurprisingly, fan reaction was sceptical and overwhelmingly negative, especially in the face of rumours that players and staff had not been paid and the departure of goalkeeper Mark Foden to Blyth that reduced Gateshead’s list of full-time playing staff to 13.
To see all of this happen at a crucial time with the team still in contention but lacking players is a sign to a lot of fans that the club is being milked for what few pennies they can generate.
The horde of loyal staff and volunteers who had run the club for the last decade had, for one reason or another, dissipated.
The only remaining off-field staff independent of the ownership are Dom Scurr, the Press Officer, and Alisha Henry, a recent recruit acting as a community liaison. An office staff of four has been reduced to one: Joseph Cala.
Officially working as a Finance Advisor, he spends the majority of match days working the turnstiles.
Notably since his arrival, the club has stopped issuing numbered tickets to patrons, and the turnstiles contain no method of counting how many go through them.
While Gateshead’s crowds have never been spectacular, this may explain why crowds have dipped even as form has improved, and multiple fans have noted that the announced crowds always seem to be smaller than the heads they count in the stand.
Internet fan groups have generally refrained from adopting official stances throughout this saga, trying to act as a broad church and promoting a ‘get behind the team, not the board’ mentality.
In the wake of the Kerr transfer, however, every group associated with the club has declared it is no longer supportive of the board and is encouraging fans to voice their discontent and protest.
Gateshead’s fan base is small, and while disagreements have always abounded a love and dedication for Gateshead FC is at the heart of all their interests, so to see that loyalty finally fracture is a damning statement on what has gone on.
Gateshead are currently the second-longest serving member of the National League.
Though ridiculed for their small fan base and athletics stadium, they have proudly defied expectation for many years, delivering killer blows to bigger clubs like Grimsby, Wrexham and Luton, and even coming within a whisker of the Football League in 2014.
Now there is a feeling on Tyneside that these halcyon days are coming to an end. The ongoing transfer embargo and the fire sale of players suggest that the club’s finances are far from secure, assuming the money generated is even going into the club’s coffers.
The ownership is nowhere to be found: Varghese has only appeared once at the club while Williams – the most visible and most trusted member of the ownership – has retreated away from direct involvement. All that is left is Cala, the real owner of Gateshead FC.
The Heed will survive the season, though whether there will be a 2019/20 for them to contest is a question fans can’t and don’t want to answer.