Gateshead fans and players retain more than A Little Respect as play-off dream dies at Harrogate
The away end of the CNG Stadium could have provided the scene for many different scenarios for Gateshead supporters.
Before a troubled season got underway, it seemed likely that the Heed Army would be conducting the last rites on a near-certain relegation at the home of Harrogate Town.
At one stage in the campaign, it could have been the scene of mass celebration as Ben Clark’s side continued their push for an unlikely National League play-off place.
Instead, it witnessed one final display of support and defiance, tinged with an element of concern of what lies in wait for the club.
Over 300 supporters made their way to Yorkshire, some in fancy dress, some in club colours, others opting for clothing befitting the sun and blue skies that provided a scenic backdrop to the game.
“Wa’ Gateshead”, “Big Ben Clark m’lord” and “Whose club? Our club” reverberated around the away stand as the players made their way on to the pitch as if to signify the need to support and protest in equal measures.
That has been a constant theme throughout a season that many Heed supporters regard as a successful one on the pitch, but the doubts are all too obvious.
“The players have been fabulous, as have the coaching staff and those behind the scenes,” explained Gateshead support Lee Calder.
“With everything happening off the pitch, you have to fear for the future of the club.
“Are we going to fold? Are we going to go through a takeover? Nobody really knows, but we are proud of what the lads have achieved this season.”
The Gateshead players should be low on energy and lethargic after defying the odds and making fools of the experts that predicted an embarrassing relegation.
But despite their weariness, this Heed squad take the game to Harrogate and control possession in the opening stages.
The youngsters have flourished during a season of off-field turmoil that has consisted of a transfer embargo, key players leaving the club, a dispute over unpaid wages and an ongoing investigation into the club’s controversial financial advisor Joseph Cala.
Long-time supporter Jon Goodwin said: “We came into the season and everyone thought we would struggle.
“We had a squad made largely of unknowns and young players, but it became apparent after the home win against Salford City in the first week of the season that something might be brewing.
“The ups and downs haven’t helped, and there is a tragedy in there because losing the likes of Luke Armstrong, Fraser Kerr and Scott Boden, then being under the embargo meant we couldn’t replace them.
“The squad that started the season, or even at Christmas, would have been in the play-offs already.
“But to be where we are right now has been unthinkable. They have done us proud.”
Bob Clancy, a Heed supporter of over five decades, has travelled around the country from his Peterborough home to follow his club.
“Let’s hope they can get something sorted out; it all seems quite obvious what needs to be done," he said.
“I have spoken to some at the club, including Joseph Cala, but he has been smug with me and just ignored any questions I asked him.
“It has ruined the club, but we hope that we can battle on.”
The fans certainly battle on. The Heed Army break into their version of Erasure’s late-1980s hit “A Little Respect” – with high-pitched tones challenging and amusing the senses in equal measures.
Word spreads that former Rochdale chairman and would-be owner Chris Dunphy is attending a Gateshead game for the second time inside four days.
A bid remains on the table – but his attempts to push a deal forward have been frustrated by a lack of communication from the club’s current owner Dr Ranjan Varghese and Cala himself.
There is a genuine fear that the club’s future in in doubt.
Supporter Roy Best said:: “As long as certain gentlemen are not with us next season; I can see a bright future for the club. If they are, I am not sure the club will be around.
“If they are here, still in charge, I don’t see many coming back and putting money in their pockets.
“There is only one option, if they want to leave with any honour, they have to go.”
The game is poised as half-time approaches, but it is the hosts that strike first as the lively Jordan Thewlis breaks in on goal, rounds Heed keeper Aynsley Pears and taps into the empty net.
The goal draws a furious response out of the travelling faithful and the linesman stood yards in front of them is the target of their ire after missing what seemed on obvious offside decision.
Half-time gives the official a welcome break and gives the Heed supporters a chance to reflect on their team.
“They are the most hard-working side I have seen here,” admits Dan Bell, a Heed fan that has clocked up the miles following the club home and away throughout the season.
“I have never been prouder of a Gateshead team, even the one that got to Wembley in the play-off final.
“That was a great achievement, but this, with everything going on, we are still here and still going strong. It’s nothing short of a miracle.”
Clark is without question a legend for the travelling faithful and his appearance from the dugout is met with a chant of “Ben Clark’s black and white army”.
Best goes a few steps further with his assessment of the man in charge of his club’s fortunes.“Legend isn’t good enough,” he says. “Three letters describe him – G, O, D.
“He has brought a level of professionalism and commitment as a player and as a manager. The supporters feed off his enthusiasm and attitude.
“He is a Heed legend and I think we feel more comfortable with him at the club.
“If we can keep him in charge, get the takeover sorted and keep this group of players, we can challenge for promotion.”
That will have to be next season. A second-half strike from Mark Beck condemns Gateshead to a 2-0 defeat and the full-time whistle brings down the curtain on the Heed’s challenge for a play-off place.
Clark and his battle-weary players make their way towards the away end and are met with appreciation, warmth and gratitude. The defeat has hurt him, but the supporters still draw praise from the man they have come to love.
“The lads are ready for the end of the season I think,” said for the former Hartlepool United and Sunderland defender.
“But the supporters have been magnificent, they have been up and down the country and have supported us throughout it all.
“It hasn’t been easy for them this season, but they’ve never stopped singing.
“It doesn’t surprise me, nothing about them surprises me. They are first-class and hopefully they will get what they want in the future.”
The play-off battle has been lost, but a bigger battle, for the future of Gateshead Football Club, looks set to rumble on into the summer.