Inside Gateshead's pre-season planning as ex-Newcastle United defender Mike Williamson opens up on two-year spell in charge
Not a lot has changed since former Newcastle United defender Mike Williamson sat in his office two years ago preparing for his first season as player-manager of National League North club Gateshead.
A white board still adorns the wall with a list of his players, their preferred positions and possible transfer targets ahead of the new campaign.
An as yet empty National League North fixture list sits to its right - although that will be neatly filled on Wednesday when the National League release their fixtures as the ups and downs of the upcoming campaign loom large.
Williamson is not alone, with assistant manager Ian Watson, physio Chris Bell and newly signed player-coach Louis Storey diligently planning training sessions ahead of Tuesday’s opening pre-season friendly at Hebburn Town.
The only absence from the Echo’s visit in July 2019 are the tones of Ed Sheeran via an MP3 player – thankfully you may say – as the only voice filling the air is Storey asking questions of an upcoming session.
Nothing has changed, but in some sense, everything has changed.
Two years ago, with the season just days away, Williamson and Watson were still hurriedly putting together a Gateshead squad capable of challenging in non-league’s second tier.
That season was curtailed as Covid-19 began to wreak havoc with the non-league scene and continued to do so with the following campaign.
The pandemic caused severe disruption of pre-season planning 12 months ago and once again, Williamson endured a difficult preparation for his second season in the dugout.
But this year is different.
Although naturally laid back, Williamson exudes an even more relaxed nature as he assesses where his squad currently lie ahead of the big kick-off.
“It has been frustrating, nothing usual has occurred during the time we have been here over the last two years,” explained the former Magpies centre-back.
“Nothing has been straightforward but hopefully we will get a full season this time around.
“No two days have been the same, but we have learnt on the job and that has been an interesting way of doing things.
“The more we are here, the more we learn and the more settled we become as a club.
“The process is getting better and better, and we feel like we are in a good position on and off the field.”
His calmness is based on the impressive transfer business that has seen his ranks boosted throughout the last six weeks.
Former Heed favourite Robbie Tinkler has returned to the club, Williamson’s former Newcastle United team-mate Adam Campbell and Carlisle United forward Cedwyn Scott have been brought in to boost their attacking talent.
Sunderland youngster Ryan Wombwell and newly appointed player-coach Louis Storey will also boost the options available.
A goalkeeper and a left-back are still on the agenda and targets have been identified as Williamson looks to finalise his squad ahead of the season.
But with the majority of business now complete, Williamson is now relishing being able to work with his newly enhanced squad throughout pre-season.
“We have a small squad, and we are still looking,” he explained.
“We weren’t desperate to get our business done early, but when the quality of player we have brought in became available, we wanted to get those deals over the line as soon as possible.
“That means the more work we can do in pre-season, the more we can be settled ahead by day one of the season.
“We want to improve all over the pitch, but we feel as if the lads we have brought in speak for themselves.
“We feel better prepared, we feel better equipped and the aim is to hit the ground running this season.”
A crop of young players will form part of Williamson’s squad with the club’s newly expanded academy continuing to provide a useful resource for the Heed boss.
Goalkeeper Adam Cameron, defender Ryan Bolton and forward Nelson Ogbewe have all been handed professional contracts – although the latter will spend time on loan at Northern Premier League newcomers Hebburn Town throughout the season.
Academy midfielder Connor Pani has also become a part of first-team training over the last two weeks – and Williamson is clear in his stance that more young prospects can follow the path taken by former academy graduates Jon Mellish, Tom White and current Heed defender Elliott Forbes.
He said: “Since we have come in, the board have worked relentlessly into building the academy and expanding it.
“We now want as many players as possible coming through to push our first-team players and we have graduates that have come through and gone on to have fantastic careers.
“We want more of that and the academy will continue to form a big part of what we do as a club and as a management team.”
A competitive pre-season schedule gets underway on Tuesday night when Williamson takes his squad to Hebburn Town.
That game is quickly followed by two more local away fixtures at Birtley Town and Dunston UTS, before the Heed host Blackburn Rovers, Hartlepool United and Newcastle United.
Preparations for the new campaign will be rounded off on Saturday 7th August with a trip to South Shields.
Then all eyes turn towards the new National League North season and Williamson is prepared to lay down a challenge to his squad as they look to return to non-league’s top tier at the third attempt.
“We will sit down with the lads and discuss our approach, our mentality, our blueprint, our aims and our targets for the season and they will have their input.
“It’s such a diverse league in terms of the size of clubs, part and full-time clubs and budgets – but that doesn’t always decide the outcome.
“We have to go and make sure we focus on ourselves and finding that consistency we need to be successful in a very challenge division.
“But we are in a good place on and off the pitch, we now need to make the most of that.”