Why Gateshead are the talk of the Tyne
Local, loyal, likeable... and loaded. In many ways self-made Geordie millionaire Graham Wood would have been the perfect choice of owner by many disaffected Newcastle United fans fed up of life under Mike Ashley.
But, sadly for Magpies supporters, Wood is already following his dream of bringing back the glory days to another famous name in north-east football. He is chairman of Gateshead, who play just a couple of miles away from St James' Park but on the opposite bank of the Tyne.
I spoke to Wood last week and could not help but be impressed by his ambition and his genuine love for his club, not to mention his pragmatic approach to improving Gateshead on and off the pitch or his willingness to spend his own money to see those plans come to fruition.
And you would not begrudge him bringing success back to 'The Heed' either; as I found out, he has had a long enough wait.
The Blue Square Premier side's FA Cup first-round tie with Brentford on Saturday is the latest chapter in a story that, for the lifelong fan turned generous benefactor, began as a boy in the 1950s when he followed his hometown team in the old Third Division North and the newly formed Division Four.
Wood was there too when the Tynesiders controversially lost their Football League status in 1960 - something that still rankles with him, although you would never in a million years describe him as resentful. Still, almost 50 years on from his childhood disappointment, he is determined to lead the club back to where he feels they belong and is willing to help bankroll them to do so.
Gateshead's planned new Prince Consort Road Stadium
I should explain that, technically, the current Gateshead FC are not the side Wood watched from the terraces of their former Redheugh Park home. Persistent financial problems mean the club is in its third incarnation since a half-century or so ago when the old Gateshead AFC could attract up to 20,000 fans for League football - when AFC collapsed in 1973, Gateshead Town and Gateshead United quickly came and went before FC were formed in 1977.
These days, Gateshead's attendances at the International Stadium struggle to break into four figures but Wood's presence means money is no longer an issue and, after only three years at the club, his vision is already taking shape. Back-to-back promotions mean they are only one level off regaining that Football League place he covets.
Saturday is an important milestone too - it will be the first time the club has hosted a League side in a competitive match in the 32 and a half years since it was reborn.
"Can we win? We will give it a go, but the real aim is to be playing these sort of clubs on a regular basis," Wood, who made his fortune making central heating boilers and owned companies in Sheffield and Massachusetts, told me.
Not that Wood, a former vice-chairman of Sunderland who still has a soft spot for the Black Cats - another reason why Newcastle were never going to be his club of choice - would say no to a Cup run. He can recall only too well the days when Gateshead had a good go at winning the famous old trophy.
In 1953, Gateshead beat Liverpool, Hull City and Plymouth before losing out to a late Nat Lofthouse header in their quarter-final at home to Bolton - with Wanderers going on to contest the famous 'Matthews final' against Blackpool at Wembley that year. Wood explained: "I was only nine years old, so I didn't get to that one - I just remember my mother queuing up at Gateshead Town Hall to buy my dad's ticket. But I went to the third-round tie against Tottenham in 1955 and I can recall that quite clearly. There were close to 19,000 fans there, the second biggest crowd we ever had - unfortunately we lost 2-0."
There are more painful memories for Wood from the seasons that followed; most notably when Gateshead failed to win re-election to the Football League after finishing third-bottom of Division Four five years later. Back then, with no automatic promotion from non-League, the rest of the League voted on the fate of the bottom four and whether any of them would be replaced. On that occasion, Gateshead lost out and the spot was taken by Peterborough.
"It still hurts - it was really most unfair," added Wood. "Gateshead had been in the League since 1930 and had only applied for re-election once before. Southport were one of the other teams and it was something like the seventh time they had reapplied, and the third year running. From a results point of view it didn't make sense and you can hardly argue that there was a geographical issue either because the team that finished bottom were Hartlepool. I don't really know why it was that Gateshead didn't find favour but, having said that, Peterborough were going great guns in the Midland League. They very much deserved it but conversely we very much didn't deserve to being thrown out."
Gateshead International Stadium is better known as an athletics venue
Thanks to Wood, Gateshead are a long way down the road to righting that particular wrong - and he is keen to finish the job. Under highly rated manager Ian Bogie, a former team-mate of Paul Gascoigne in Newcastle United's 1985 FA Youth Cup-winning team, they are still finding their feet in the Blue Square Premier but unveiled plans last week for a new 9,000-capacity stadium and will go full-time for the 2010/11 campaign - neither of which will come cheap - and Wood has pledged to make local talent a part of the club's future too.
"You could call it all an indulgence on my part but it is also great to do something for the town as well," stated Wood. "To me personally, it is my greatest ambition to get the club back into the League. So far as the town is concerned, I think it has been a little bit indifferent towards the club since our Football League days, or not long after that. We need to rekindle the interest.
"I think the turning point was when we went to the International Stadium in the early 1970s. It's not a football ground, it's an athletics track - and it has never attracted the crowds. To get back into the Football League it was a prerequisite for us to get ourselves a purpose-built stadium. The total population of the Tyne and Wear region is something like 2.5m so our support base is plenty big enough, even with Newcastle and Sunderland on the doorstep. Given the right environment, and obviously the right performances on the field, we can recreate the attendances of the 1950s, which averaged around the 10,000 mark.
"So far as the junior sides go, we've now got something like 16 teams of boys and girls from age six upwards, right up to under-18s. We are going to set up a reserve team too so you can envisage, in theory at least, someone coming in as a six-year-old and working their way right through to the first team - that will certainly help strengthen our links with the community."
It's impressive stuff, and this would be no kingdom built on sand either, as Wood intends the revamped club to be a lasting legacy. It leads me to my final question - how far does he dream Gateshead can go, and what would be a realistic achievement? Typically, he does not let fantasy cloud his judgement.
"I'd like to think that in this case they are not two separate things," Wood told me. "The dream would be first and foremost to get Gateshead back into the League and I think it would be possible to get as high as League One. Beyond that it would be unrealistic. You might get the odd season where you could get up to the Championship but I don't think staying there is sustainable - not in my lifetime anyway."
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