'Immense pride' - The inside track on an exciting new dawn for Gateshead Ladies from the key people involved
For a number of clubs, the year 2020 won’t be remembered too fondly.
But for Gateshead Football Club, it represented the start of a new dawn.
That is because for the first time during its long and proud history – dating back to as early as 1930 – the club launched its history-making Ladies team.
However, it has been far from plain sailing for the Heed Ladies due to the tiresome impact of Covid-19.
We caught up with chairman Neil Pinkerton, general manager and Ladies striker Alisha Henry and manager Michael Gray to take you through the Ladies’ story so far.
On May 27, 2020, Gateshead FC, whose men’s team compete in National League North – the sixth-tier of English football – announced it was forming its first ladies team ahead of being accepted in Durham FA’s Development Division.
“It is an opportunity to continue with our aims and objectives," Gateshead chairman Neil Pinkerton tells the Echo.
“Our long-term strategy is to have a community focused sports club that can interact on all levels.
“We have the boys affiliation with Gateshead Juniors and the college, so establishing the ladies team is to give something to the community. It’s not for profit.
“It’s all about being inclusive and reaching parts of the community that the football club has not necessarily reached before.
“We want to provide a good service because that’s what we’re there to do and in return, we’d like the community to try and buy into what we’re trying to achieve.”
The decision to set up the team was pushed heavily by general manager Alisha Henry, who balances her time between the office and the football field.
“It’s all just bogged into my job description. I didn’t really get a choice!’
Indeed, Henry is the Ladies’ star striker and currently the league’s top scorer with a remarkable 16 goals in just six games.
Henry reveals: “Working for Gateshead, I’ve still played football but just for different teams. I kept pushing and kept asking if we can get set up a ladies team.
“So, Neil and I sat down, spoke about it, came up with a plan and that’s when Michael (Gray) came on board.
“It’s immense pride to help set it up and then step onto the pitch in a Gateshead shirt for the club I work for - it is a unique experience, although I do get hammered on social media a bit if it goes wrong!
"It pushes me to do my best because the club, as a whole, has been fantastic to me. Every time I step on the pitch, I want to do well for the club. It’s very close to my heart.”
Gray, a local Gateshead lad and former East Durham Belles manager, had no hesitations about joining the journey.
“It’s absolutely massive for me,” a proud Gray admits.
"When the offer came to manage the club’s first-ever ladies team, it was a no-brainer. I didn’t take a massive amount of time to accept it.
“The very first ladies team in the club’s long and proud history - it really is an honour for me and something I look forward to every day.”
A busy summer of recruitment and preparation was put into practice as Gateshead made a huge statement of intent by thrashing Bishop Auckland 11-0 in their first-ever competitive match.
That set the tone for an extraordinary start – sitting top of the table with an unrivaled and unbeaten record of six wins – including 50 goals scored and just three conceded.
Sadly however, that record has been at a standstill since December after Durham FA postponed its grassroots fixtures due to the growing rise in Covid-19 cases.
“When we first formed in July, we knew it was going to be tough because we formed in the middle of a pandemic,” an honest Henry says.
“Even to get six games in is fantastic but it’s been very stop-start. When other teams have been able to play, our games have been cancelled, which obviously couldn’t be helped.
“I think we’ve played one of the lowest amount of games so it has been a frustrating season but it was kind of expected.”
Even it had been somewhat anticipated, it still hasn’t made it any easier for a team still in its infancy.
Gray adds: “It has been really difficult, more so in the sense that we are brand new. I probably only knew three or four of the lasses before I joined the club, so it is trying to learn what everybody is about.
“Obviously the stopping and starting, fitness-wise for the players – it’s not been ideal but all we can do is be ready when the call comes to resume.
“We want to keep all lines open as much as possible. We’re in a WhatsApp group, we’ve got a Facebook group.
"We’re just trying to gee each other up on a weekly basis and make sure everybody is alright.”
Gateshead’s promotion charge had been thrown into tatters. However, communication from Durham FA last month has provided renewed optimism.
Clubs have been asked to vote on whether to resume the season on April 4, handing the Heed Ladies the opportunity to finish what they started.
“I can’t wait to get back to that matchday feeling on a Sunday,” Gray smiles. ”I’m looking forward to seeing everybody and having them train together as a group.
“The excitement of this being the first season and it being such a difficult one - I just can’t wait.
"I’m sat just twiddling my thumbs waiting to get going again! Everybody is just chomping at the bit to get back.”
Henry adds: “I can’t wait to get back out there and keep scoring the goals!
"Across the board, we’ve got some fantastic players. We’ve got some players that have played higher - you learn so much from them.
“It’s just a waiting game now to see we can go back and who we’re playing.”
The men’s National League North campaign was made null and void in February, meaning it won’t return to August at the earliest.
The Ladies could, in essence, single-handedly fly the flag for Gateshead FC over the coming months
“It’s not the same on a Saturday when your own team is not playing,” says Pinkerton, who is currently out the country.
“There is a lot of football on the TV at the moment - it feels like a bit of an overkill in my personal opinion!
“I’ve kind of switched off from it until I’ve got something that really interests me.
“Whether it is a club that you’re watching or a player you’ve got an eye on ‘oh he’s out the squad again, he might be available!’
“It’ll be great to support them from afar.”
And what a fitting way it would be to mark a historical debut season with promotion.
“It’s massively important. It’s a shame that it has taken this long to happen to be honest when you look at the size of the club. It probably should have had a ladies team many years ago.
“We’re thriving at the moment. People want to come and play for us which is fantastic.
“It could only get better and the more we come together and the more we push as a team, the ladies can fly the Gateshead flag alongside the men’s team.
“Gateshead is far too big not to have a successful ladies team, so the aim is to push as much as possible and hopefully push for promotion each season.”