JAMIE CHANDLER says Gateshead’s Wembley defeat left him and his team-mates “heartbroken”.
Cambridge United beat Gary Mills’ side 2-1 in the Skrill Conference play-off final at Wembley yesterday to return to the Football League after nine years away.
Many of Gateshead’s players – who were backed by more than 7,000 vociferous fans at the national stadium – were overcome with emotion at the final whistle.
And ex-Sunderland midfielder Chandler admitted it was the lowest he has felt in his career.
“It’s hard to put into words how we feel seeing your team-mates and your mates crying on the pitch,” the 25-year-old, from Boldon, said.
“It was heartbreaking. We’re devastated.
“It’s comfortably the lowest (feeling) seeing Cambridge go up those steps.
“It’s going to take a few days to react to it and see the positives of what we’ve done this season.
“It’s a really disappointing day – the lowest of my career.”
While the campaign did not end in a return to the Football League for Gateshead after a 54-year absence, Mills’ team still did their club and the fans proud.
And Chandler says there is a special bond between players and supporters at the International Stadium.
“They’ve been absolutely incredible,” said Chandler. “I was here last season in a relegation fight, and they travelled the length of the country in numbers.
“They really get behind you. It’s been fantastic for them as well. They’ve been a 12th man at times this season.
“As players we can’t thank them enough for the support they’ve given us.
“They didn’t stop singing through the 90 minutes, and it was very emotional seeing them clap us off the pitch.
“There’s a mutual respect there between the players and fans.”
Some players were in tears at the final whistle, but that hurt should – hopefully – drive the club on next season.
The club’s 7,000-strong support – whose ranks were bolstered by Newcastle and Sunderland fans – were loud and proud at the national stadium on a gorgeous spring afternoon.
Gateshead had to withstand some early pressure from Cambridge. Keeper Adam Bartlett made an early stop to deny man of the match Ryan Donaldson.
Cambridge’s Luke Berry should have done better with an early header.
At the other end, ex-Sunderland winger John Oster’s guile created a couple of half-openings, but Richard Money’s outfit looked the more dangerous side.
Captain Ben Clark and James Curtis, Gateshead’s long-time central defensive partnership, had to make a number of late interventions.
Marcus Maddison, already on a yellow card, was fortunate to stay on the pitch after committing a second foul, while team-mate Oster, booked for a foul, was also lucky that referee Peter Bankes did nott see him kick out at Kevin Roberts.
Chandler tested Cambridge keeper Adam Smith with a 27th minute shot.
Liam Hughes broke the deadlock in front of Cambridge’s support in the 51st minute, powerfully heading a right-wing cross from Donaldson past Bartlett, left unprotected by his defence.
For all their possession, Gateshead still could not find a way into the Cambridge box, and Donaldson fired Cambridge further ahead in the 72nd minute with a well-taken free-kick after Clark had brought him down outside the box.
Sub Jack Lester gave Gateshead hope 10 minutes from time after Hatch’s header was pushed towards him by Smith.
The goal set up a dramatic finale, with James Marwood forcing a fine save from Smith. Hatch also put a header wide deep in an extended period of injury time because of an injury to Ian Miller.
It was a fraught, frantic final few minutes, but Gateshead could not force an equaliser. Chandler said: “The first goal probably came at the right time for them. That was hard to take. It was a bit of an uphill task after that, but we had chances, even at the death. It just wasn’t our day.”
GATESHEAD: Bartlett; Baxter, Curtis, Clark, Magnay; Chandler (Lester 69), Turnbull, Oster; Larkin (Hatch 58), Marwood, Maddison (O’Donnell 58). Subs: Walker, Ramshaw. Booked: Maddison, Oster, Clark. Goal: Lester 80
CAMBRIDGE UNITED: Smith, Roberts, Taylor, Coulson, Miller, Donaldson, Champion, Elliott (Cunnington 77), Hughes, Berry (Chadwick 65), Sam-Yorke (Dunk, 46). Subs not used: Bonner, Chambers. Booked: Champion, Cunnington. Goals: Hughes 51, Donaldson 72
Att: 19,613. Referee: Peter Bankes (Merseyside)