Exclusive: Gateshead chairman Neil Pinkerton wants to make supporters 'proud'
Neil Pinkerton arrived at a sunny International Stadium on Saturday afternoon carrying two heavy bags bursting at the seams with football kit.
The new Gateshead chairman is also carrying something even more important these days – the destiny of the club he has supported since he was a boy.
Pinkerton was surrounded by a whole host of Heed hopefuls, who were anxiously awaiting the arrival of the kits ahead of a set of trial matches being hosted by the National League North club.
If only delivering the dreams of the Heed Army was so easy.
Pinkerton escapes to the peaceful tranquillity of the Mick Thornton suite – placed deep inside the International Stadium, a world away from the buzz of the trialists and the hubbub caused by a schools athletic meeting taking place.
He sits, relaxed, and surrounded by memories of Gateshead’s FA Cup runs, promotions and their visit to Wembley in the National League play-off final in 2014.
Hard times have fallen on the club, largely down to the actions of previous owner Dr Ranjan Varghese and his controversial financial advisor Joseph Cala.
A new beginning has arrived after much negotiation and we sit on the one-month anniversary of the agreement of a takeover deal with a supporter-led consortium.
Pinkerton led the charge and will now be at the head of the club for the forthcoming National League season.
But what emotions have the last four weeks evoked inside him?
“It’s been crazy, hectic, emotional, draining, but extremely exciting,” said the new Heed chairman.
“Most of all, there is immense pride in what we have achieved as a set of supporters and as a community in such a short space of time.
“I never envisaged being chairman of Gateshead Football Club, never in my wildest dreams.
“It’s a massive responsibility because you have fans, long-term friends and you carry the burden of their hopes on your back.
“But I don’t see it as a burden, I see it as an honour.”
The positivity surrounding the club at the moment is a complete contrast to the controversial tenure of previous owner Varghese.
The Hong Kong-based businessman’s time at the International Stadium saw efforts to sign new players squandered by a transfer embargo and the club were kicked out of the International Stadium as Gateshead Council took action over unpaid rent bills.
Players were sold behind manager Ben Clark’s back and the club had a long list of creditors awaiting longstanding payments.
Wages for on and off-field staff were late and the club was taken to the brink of extinction.
“I think we were 72 hours away from losing the club, it was that close,” admitted Pinkerton.
“I think they (Varghese and Cala) know what they were doing, and I don’t think they really cared what happened to the club.
“In my short time in football, I have realised there are two types of people in the game.
“There are those that want to do something and want to help.
“Then there are those that are in it for self-gain – and unfortunately they are in that group.
“It was a very narrow escape and I feel very sorry for the other clubs that were caught up in it.”
After painstaking negotiations, false starts and plenty of speculation, Gateshead’s supporters seized control of their club via a consortium made up of six different parties.
Their primary focus was to get back into their home of over 40 years – the International Stadium.
“There is a ten-year lease agreed on the stadium,” explained a relaxed Pinkerton.
“There was an issue with a clause in there in regard to a termination period but there is an agreement in principle for that to be rectified this week.
“The only issue was that clause and the council had the option to terminate it with 28 days notice.
“That was a big stumbling block with the National League and understandably so.
“This is our home and it has been for over 40 years now.
“Yes, it would be fantastic to have a purpose-built stadium, but this is our home and we have everything we need here.
“We have the college, we have great facilities, we have a training pitch.
“We also have an agreement with a licence to sell alcohol and make money for the club with food kiosk sales – which is a big boost.”
Led by Pinkerton, fellow co-owner Trevor Clark and reinstated general manager Alisha Henry, the club ventured into negotiations with the National League after Gateshead were suspended from the league, fined £3,500 and nine points were deducted from last season’s total.
An appeal was lodged with the league, and after several meetings, it was confirmed that Gateshead would be relegated into the National League North – where they will compete with North East rivals Blyth Spartans, Darlington and Spennymoor Town.
A meeting with a York City side managed by former Heed boss Steve Watson is also on the agenda.
Relegation is far from ideal, but Pinkerton admitted that the punishment could have been even more severe as he called upon the local community to push the club forwards into their new era.
He said “The alternative to the relegation was to be below step five.
“It took me a couple of days to get my head around it, but from a footballing point of view, having those local derbies will bring in four-figure crowds, which is a positive.
“Now we need those crowds on a regular basis and we have to make sure that the product on the pitch is matched by that in the stands.
“We want the supporters to have a club that is a community-based asset that they can be proud of.
“That is what we are now – we truly are community owned and we are there to do what is best for the club and best for the town.”