JJ O’Donnell opens up on an agonising year for Gateshead FC and hopes for a brighter future under new owners
The WhatsApp group was buzzing, panicked phone calls were made, and anxious text messages were exchanged.
The rumours, the speculation and the concerns were all gathering pace as Gateshead Football Club teetered on the edge of extinction.
The disastrous ownership of Dr Ranjan Varghese and his controversial ‘financial advisor’ Joseph Cala had taken the club to the brink of going out of business.
Just a few years after coming within 90 minutes of a place in the Football League and that heartbreaking visit to Wembley, travelling in numbers to West Bromwich Albion for an FA Cup Third Round tie and reaching the FA Trophy semi-finals – Gateshead were heading for oblivion.
All of the efforts of hardworking custodians like Graham Wood, Mike Coulson and Brian Waites were being wasted by the tumultuous tenure of Varghese and Cala.
Players went unpaid, key players were sold without the manager’s knowledge, a transfer embargo was imposed, and club staff were kicked out of the International Stadium after a dispute over an unpaid rent bill.
A rescue bid was launched and agreed by former Rochdale chairman Chris Dunphy but a long-drawn-out takeover deal was pulled in frustration as efforts to reach conclusion were delayed with little explanation.
It was agonising for the club’s support and for their longest serving player JJ O’Donnell.
“It was just after the season finished and the club was said to be up for sale – but was it really up for sale? I’m not sure it was,” admitted the former Luton Town winger.
“When Mr Cala was here, it was a shambles and I felt he didn’t want to sell this club and he was happy to see it dwindle and go under.
“He didn’t care, he wasn’t part of Gateshead, he didn’t understand the people here or the town.
“It’s horrible and I think we were two or three days away from going out of business.
“Everyday was a challenge and people like that shouldn’t be allowed in football.
“I’d ask Cala questions and I would be lied to about when we would be paid, or when different things would be happening.
“How were they allowed to be near the club is up for question, but they were here a year, and they came close to ruining a club for people that have supported it for 20, 30, 40 years.
“I was constantly on my phone looking for updates, trying to find out what was happening because I care about this football club as much as anyone.
“They came in and tried to demolish it, but the right people saved it and they are in charge now.”
Those “right people” were a supporter-led consortium that rescued their football club with less than 72 hours until the North East was stripped of one of its highest-ranked non-league clubs.
Long-term supporter Neil Pinkerton led the charge, ably supported by local businessman Trevor Clark and the increasingly influential Gateshead Soul Supporters Club.
The future of the Heed was secured – but not before the National League imposed an enforced relegation as a punishment for the financial mismanagement of the previous regime.
The new owners took their sanction in their stride and began rebuilding their club on and off the field.
Foundations are in place; key links have been forged within the local business community and attendances at the International Stadium are on the up.
Progress in the National League North has been solid as Gateshead lie on the brink of the play-off places after losing just two of their opening 12 league games.
Under the management of former Newcastle United defender Mike Williamson, the Heed have also marched into the First Round of the FA Cup – where they will host League Two club Oldham Athletic on Sunday week.
Motivation for the players and management team has come from repaying the faith and commitment shown by the new owners and the wider community.
“I see it as a motivation everyday to try and pay back these people that have saved our club,” explained O’Donnell.
“They put their hands in their pockets and as a group of players we need to understand that.
“They fought for the club and we want to fight to get this club back to where it should be.
“As a group of players, we can’t let them down.
“It’s never going to be the biggest football club in the North East – but it’s our football club and we all care about it and It’s a special community to be involved in.”
If one player sums up the rejuvenation of Gateshead, it is O’Donnell.
Less than 24 months after spending two and a half years out of the game with a foot condition called sesamoiditis, the Heed stalwart is back playing regularly and has become a key part of Williamson’s squad.
His impact has been key in the impressive start to the season and O’Donnell surprisingly sits alongside on-loan striker Joshua Kayode as the club’s top goalscorer with six goals in his 15 appearances so far this season.
The dark days of feeling bones underneath his foot crumble and trying to take a single step leave him in agony have been left far behind.
The physical strains are in the past – but the struggles of nearly two and a half season out of the game have left an indelible impact on the 28 year old.
He said “It’s been incredible and it’s something I didn’t really imagine could happen.
“It’s a confidence thing really – and in the last couple of seasons I have been going on to the pitch thinking just don’t get injured.
“Now I am thinking about going on to the pitch and scoring goals or creating chances for my team-mates.
“Every single day when I walk up to training, I look back and think that it might not have been this way.
“It feels like it’s all in the distant past now, but every day when I wake up I am grateful that I can still train and play.
“I take nothing for granted anymore – I know how close I came to not being able to play and that drives me on every day.
“When I score, or we win a game, I celebrate like it might be my last goal because you never know.
“I enjoy the highs and I have experienced a lot of lows in the game.
“But I enjoy the highs, whether its setting up a goal, scoring a goal, a win or getting into the First Round of the FA Cup – it’s something I will always enjoy, and I am always thankful for it.”
There is an unbreakable bond between O’Donnell and the club that helped save his career – and now they both putting the dark days of the recent past firmly behind them.