Gateshead: From brink of National League play-offs to possible oblivion?

Gateshead's International Stadium
Gateshead's International Stadium has been the scene of much unhappiness off the field this season

Most teams would be sipping cocktails on the beach in quiet satisfaction, having posted a ninth-placed finish and been on the cusp of the play-offs with the lowest budget in the division.

But not Gateshead.

Even before the club had completed their 46-game National League campaign, things were starting to unravel.

With just one contracted player on the books, the owners announcing plans to move to a new home and fans plotting to form a new club, Gateshead's future remains uncertain.

'I was sacked by text'

Alisha Henry
Alisha Henry was working as general manager at Gateshead, but was let go at the end of the season

The final game of the season, Saturday's 2-0 defeat by Barrow, was the end of an era at Gateshead.

Boss Ben Clark and his players applauded the fans - it proved to be an emotional goodbye, with the squad all out of contract this summer.

Until the end of June when his deal expires, Scott Barrow remains the only player contracted to the club, while off-field members of staff were also released, including the football management team.

At one stage, midfielder JJ O'Donnell was out of contract as a player but still employed as kitman before the club also severed those ties.

"The game felt like a funeral," former general manager Alisha Henry told BBC Newcastle. "The players came off the pitch crying, it was such an anti-climax to such a terrific season on the pitch.

"I had a missed call on my phone from Hong Kong, and I texted the owner [Dr Ranjan Varghese] saying 'did you try to ring me?'

"He said 'yes', I said 'was it important?' and he said 'a little bit'.

"He then proceeded to tell me my services were not needed. My reply was that this was a really unprofessional way of doing things and I'll be seeking advice.

"The whole season has been erratic. You don't know what's happening day to day."

Ben Clark
Ben Clark was sacked by Gateshead at the end of the season after a ninth-place finish

Varghese determined to fight on

Amid the chaos, owner Varghese, advisor Joe Cala and board members Trevor Clark and Nigel Harrop are planning to continue running the club into next season.

Varghese completed his takeover in July 2018 and, under the terms of his deal, maintained that he was required to lodge a £200,000 bond with the National League as an insurance against financial issues.

The first cracks in the ranks began to emerge when it was revealed The Heed were under a transfer embargo in December, and then boss Steve Watson left in January, dropping down a division to move to York City.

This preceded a string of off-the-field events which were in stark contrast to the on-field performance:

  • Players Fraser Kerr and Scott Boden were sold in March, against the wishes of boss Clark, and general manager Mike Coulson also departed.
  • Varghese put Gateshead up for sale, claiming he would sell the club for £1 once the season had been completed and his £200,000 bond was reimbursed.
  • Gateshead were evicted from their office space at the International Stadium, following unpaid debt to Gateshead Council. They were still allowed to play games there.
  • Varghese also said an agreement in principle had been completed with ex-Rochdale chairman Chris Dunphy.
  • Players threatened to strike after player wages for March were not paid, which was aborted once payment was received later than scheduled.

In a statement, Varghese has outlined his aims for the club's future, despite his unpopularity with fans, as shown by supporter protests and their decision to set up a new breakaway side.

"Over the past 10 months, we have had to make some very tough decisions that weren't always popular and weren't made lightly, but they were crucial to ensuring the club's survival," the statement read.

"These past few days in particular have been very difficult as we have said goodbye to several people who have played their own part in last season's success.

"But our sport has always been a fluid business with personnel moving in, sometimes during the season and, especially in our case in the fifth tier of the football pyramid, at the end of the annual campaign.

"On a regular basis, we read about football clubs facing uncertain futures due to mounting seven-figure debts and this is why, from the outset, I insisted on a plan to ultimately ensure that our operational costs never exceeded revenue.

"I am pleased to report that, going forward, we are close to being able to reveal that we will be able to roll out an operational budget for next season that meets this criteria."

Gateshead players celebrate a goal
The entire Gateshead squad is out of contract, bar Scott Barrow's deal which expires in June

One of the first challenges for the Gateshead ownership group would be to recruit a new squad, given the mass exodus of players.

There is also the concern about where the club might relocate to, after the issues in the relationship with the council this term.

"In order to deliver this strategy we will be committed to developing local talent and taking exciting young prospects on loan from our English Football League and Premier League neighbours," the statement said.

"I firmly believe we will deliver an attractive and successful brand of football with young, talented and local players hungry to grab their opportunity to prove themselves at the start of their professional careers.

"It has become more and more apparent to fans, players, officials, staff and sponsors that the International Stadium is not ideal and we have been working hard behind the scenes to identify an appropriate venue that could become our new home."

Breakaway club - Gateshead MkII?

Fans group 'Gateshead Soul' have already done their bit to help the situation, paying to feed players for their away trips and making donations.

With all hopes of a sale seemingly quashed, the fans have taken steps towards creating their own club, with a fundraising mission.

It would be a case of following in the footsteps of other groups, such as those at AFC Wimbledon, Chester, AFC Telford United and fellow north-east club Darlington, in establishing a fan-led proposition on the back of off-field issues.

"As previously mentioned, our only option as a group of fans that will ensure football survives in Gateshead under the Gateshead name is to form a new club together," the group's statement reads.

"During Saturday's match, we received an overwhelming reaction from fans which supported the need of a new club being created; this was before the situation became even more urgent when Gateshead FC dispensed of all of its players and staff.

"Establishing a new club will be a tough project, however with the full backing of the community we will make this work."

The aim of the new group is to accrue £50,000 through crowdfunding, similar to the way other groups such as at Hartlepool have sought investment.

"Gateshead Soul has raised and will continue to raise money that would help fund a new club which will allow fans to be part owners," they continued. "Anyone who becomes a member of Gateshead Soul will play a huge part of a new fan-run club - our club.

"A number of key stakeholders in the community have already offered their support which would allow things to develop very quickly. Gateshead Council backs the people of Gateshead and to that aim they see the fans as the people of Gateshead.

"New clubs will be considered for step seven of the non-league pyramid [the 11th tier of English football], but can get special dispensation to start as high as step five [the ninth tier] in Northern League Division One.

"We would look to have a competitive budget which can be achieved through various income streams and sponsorship."