Mike Coulson opens up on why he quit Gateshead, Joseph Cala, Richard Bennett and off-field controversies
Gateshead stalwart Mike Coulson has opened up on the events surrounding his shock departure from the club, the takeover by Dr Ranjan Varghese and the presence of Joseph Cala.
It is just over a month since Coulson ended nearly three decades of service at the International Stadium, in a move that caused shockwaves around the club’s support.
However, he insists that his departure had to happen, and he believes that the conduct of the current owners of the club left him with no other option.
In an exclusive interview with the Echo, he said: “It wasn’t an easy decision to leave, it wasn’t something I did lightly, but it was something I felt I had to do.
“ I left the club because the current incumbents are working to a very different moral compass to the one I have.”
Hong Kong-based businessman Dr Ranjan Varghese completed a surprise takeover of the National League club in the summer, buying the club from previous owners Richard and Julie Bennett just over a month after an initial bid for the club fell through.
Coulson revealed that he believes that the initial bidder was Joseph Cala – the Italian American businessman that is currently acting as the Heed’s chief financial advisor, and someone he insisted is now the actual owner of the club.
Cala told the Echo last week that he was not the owner, nor had he failed in a bid to buy Gateshead, but Coulson - who worked alongside Cala at the club before his departure - said all the decisions were being made by the man who had failed in bids to buy Portsmouth and Morecambe previously.
Coulson said: “What held up the sale during the summer was that the original purchaser failed the Football Association’s Owners and Directors test – and that was Joseph Cala.
“Ranjan Varghese then appeared on the scene with Michael Williams as the English director and Joseph Cala was put forward as Ranjan’s personal financial advisor.
“Because of his failure under FA rules, he isn’t able to take any official position or have any influence in the running of Gateshead Football Club.
“In my opinion, it is Joseph Cala that owns the club, and Ranjan is just a front for it.
"I have never dealt with Ranjan with the club, it has always just been polite conversation. Cala is making every single decision with regards to players, transport, day-to-day decisions."
“I was very concerned about Joseph’s involvement – so much so that I contacted Mike Tattersall, the chief executive at the National League.
“I aired my concerns and he put me in touch with David Newton, who works within the integrity department at the Football Association. He in turn put me in touch with an integrity investigator.
“As we speak, they are attempting to investigate Cala’s involvement at the club.”
It's not just Cala who comes under criticism from Coulson, with ex-chairman Bennett also in the firing line for not doing any homework into any potential owners.
“He couldn’t wait to get out of the club, he couldn’t get out quick enough," added Coulson, who served the club for more than 20 years as well as having a stint with the supports associations.
“He did absolutely no due-diligence of the person or people taking over the club and he has acted very irresponsibly.
“The majority of the blame for what is happening now lies at his door.
“He advertised it as debt-free, it wasn’t debt-free. There was over £100,000 debt when he walked away and the fact that he advertised the club as debt-free really wound up people that were owed money by the club.
“The club were threatened with some pretty unpleasant things by understandably angry creditors.”
In response, Richard Bennett said: “I am not entirely sure what Mr Coulson is looking to achieve here.
“However, as General Manager, he wasn’t actually involved in the sale of the club.
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“I have previously gone on record stating the process we conducted and that both FA and League approval were obtained before the transaction could be concluded.”
By the time that 2018 turned into 2019, Gateshead were right in the midst of a National League play-off battle that nobody had predicted.
However, the departure of manager Steve Watson - frustrated by an ongoing transfer embargo and a lack of investment - to York City saw things quickly start to unravel off the pitch as Heed legend Ben Clark continued to produce superb results on it as the new manager.
Within weeks, Clark was thrust into a situation that would ultimately lead to Coulson bringing an end to over two decades of service at the club.
National League rivals Chesterfield had made an approach for Heed striker and top-goalscorer Scott Boden and the 29-year-old made it clear that he wanted to return to his former club.
The bid caused a difference in opinion between key figures at the International Stadium. Clark, Coulson and Operations Director Michael Williams insisted that Boden should stay, given the paper-thin nature of the Heed squad.
Owner Varghese and Cala wanted the player sold and a truce was found, but one that would be short-lived.
“The club were going to sell Boden to Chesterfield,” explained Coulson. “I objected, as did Ben Clark and Michael Williams.
“We sat down with the owner and Joseph Cala and we voiced our concerns.
“It was agreed at a meeting that, until the embargo was lifted, Boden would stay with the club. Then, when we could bring in a replacement, he could leave.
“That was how it was left on the Tuesday. On the Wednesday morning I came into work to find an email with transfer papers from Chesterfield.
“I phoned them to see what had happened and they told me Joseph Cala had called them on the Tuesday night to ask them to take Boden quickly.
“That was the tipping-point for leaving. I wasn’t prepared to work with people that I can’t trust.”
Coulson has taken up a role on the board at National League North club Blyth Spartans since leaving the International Stadium.
His experience and know-how will be vital to the Croft Park club and will be a miss to Gateshead, even if the club should come under new ownership following Friday’s announcement that it was up for sale.
A return to his former club, the club he became synonymous with over two decades, is very unlikely and Coulson believes that “irreparable damage” has been caused over the last few months.
He added: “I can’t ever see there being a situation at Gateshead where I would go back to be honest.
“I think there has been so much damage done to the club over the past few months and some of it is irreparable.
“The reputation of the club has been slaughtered by this whole situation.
“Joseph Cala runs the turnstiles and he runs them badly. Gatemen that had been at the club for 20 years were told they were no longer required.
“It was a disgrace, an absolute disgrace and the way it happened cast aspersions on their character.
“They were completely false because you would never find a more honest group of guys.
“It was an utter disgrace how things happened.”