'It hurts, it still hurts' 'It felt like we were an after-thought' - The ex-Newcastle United man making a big impact at Gateshead after injury woe and the hardest two years of his career
Battered, bloodied and bruised, the sight of Owen Bailey walking off the International Stadium pitch following Gateshead’s recent win against Guiseley summed up why he is already seen as a key player for the National League North club.
A performance of grit, endeavour and strength was key to the Heed’s triumph in a display that left him with a severely bruised and cut right eye after one of many brave challenges.
The performance led player-manager Mike Williamson to hail Bailey as “a true warrior” and, as any true warrior would be, the former Newcastle United Under-23s captain is ready to battle to move on from the hardest two years of his fledgling career.
He is ready to prove people wrong, to scrap his way back up the football pyramid and to fight to make a name for himself on the south bank of the Tyne.
Bailey had been a stalwart of the Magpies academy sides for over a decade but an 18-month injury nightmare and his eventual release from the club earlier this summer marked a new low for the Geordie youngster.
He told The Echo: “It has been the worst time of my life.
“To be injured for so long with such a serious injury, and then to be released after giving everything for the club for 15 years, it hurts, it still hurts.
“If anything, it has made me stronger, it’s made me even more determined to prove people wrong and to show what I can do and what I could have been.
“I don’t want to hammer individuals at the club because the likes of Steve Harper, Peter Ramage and Chris Hogg helped me so much.
“They helped me when I was at the club, they helped me try and find a club.
“But I felt a bit left in the lurch for the last two years.”
It was United legend Peter Beardsley that handed Bailey his Under-23s debut when he came on as a substitute to join a Magpies side containing Sean Longstaff and Freddie Woodman in a 3-1 home defeat against Derby County in January 2016.
Four further appearances were racked up that season and he became a more regular feature of the second string squad over the following years.
Comfortable in defence or midfield, Bailey was handed the captain’s armband during the 2018/19 season and was part of the Magpies side that reached the last 16 of the Checkatrade Trophy before a defeat at Sunderland.
The chaos that followed the departure of former United boss Rafa Benitez in the summer of 2019 and the delayed arrival of his successor Steve Bruce handed Bailey an unexpected chance to catch the eye in the club’s senior setup.
With Under-23s coaches Neil Redfearn and Ben Dawson in temporary charge, the young Geordie was one of a number of youngsters named in the senior squad for the Asia Trophy.
Bailey appeared in the second-half of the 4-0 defeat against Wolves and was an unnamed substitute for a 1-0 win against West Ham United three days later.
That proved to be his fleeting dalliance with the senior set-up and disaster followed as a lateral meniscus injury ruled him out of action for just over 18 months.
After making a brief comeback towards the end of last season and scoring a late winner in his first post-injury appearance at Norwich City, Bailey was officially released by his boyhood club in June.
His last two years have been a source of frustration as a promising moment descended into a nightmare.
“The season with the Checkatrade Trophy run was my best at the club and I felt I was a big part of what went on,” he explained.
“I got my chance in China, yes, it’s only a 30-minute substitute appearance, but I felt I did well.
“I realised quickly that would be my lot, the new manager came in and wanted to look at the senior players, not the youngsters.
“It felt like we were an after-thought - but I can understand that because there was a lot to sort with the first-team.
“I wanted to go out on loan, there was interest, solid interest, but no offer.
“Then the injury hit and that was that.”
His release sparked interest in the Football League and in Scotland’s top two tiers.
By his own admission, Gateshead, or a move into non-league football, was not on his radar - but the International Stadium has become a home for former Magpies youngsters over the last three seasons.
Led by former United centre-back Mike Williamson, and with ex-Academy defender Louis Storey taking up a role as player-coach, the Heed squad has nine players with links on the other side of the Tyne.
Bailey’s addition took that figure into double figures and he has quickly realised the switch into non-league football with Gateshead was “the perfect move” for him.
“I don’t mind saying I was not thinking of a move into non-league when I was released and taking to clubs - but Gateshead was a no-brainer in the end.
“I was talking to a few clubs in Scotland and in the Football League, I had been to Doncaster Rovers and there was other offers of trials and going into training.
“Louis Storey (Gateshead player-coach) is someone I have known all my life and he let me know that Mike (Williamson) was keen to look at me.
“I trained and played against Hartlepool, Mike was happy with me and the club offered me something.
“The club is full of lads I have played with or against over a number of years and there is a squad full of young, hardworking players.
“It all happened so quickly, but it’s the perfect move for me.”
Bailey has made a promising start to life in the National League North and has appeared in all five of their opening fixtures.
A first defeat of the season came on Tuesday night with a 2-1 reverse at Leamington - but despite that negative, Bailey has been impressed with his new manager and believes the Heed squad can fight for a return to non-league’s top tier this season.
“Mike has been brilliant for me and the squad so far,” he said.
“He gets across just how deep he wants us to dig for the team and for the club as a whole.
“They way he wants to play and the attitude he wants us to show is a big thing for him.
“For me, I want to play every week, I have a lot to give the club and I want to show that to the manager.
“We have a good blend of young players and experience and we are all driving it together.
“Promotion is the target and we want to be up there fighting.”
With a “true warrior” like Bailey in their ranks, it looks like the Heed are up for that battle.