Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Gone But Not Forgotten (Part 2)

The story of the end of Gateshead FC's stay in the Football League may be one of the great forgotten story's of post-war British football. In an age in which it was practically impossible to just get chucked out of the League, why were Gateshead, who had not done very much wrong on the pitch, chucked out so arbitrarily? It's a tale that the League has chosen never to spill the beans on in full, but it sparked a series of deaths and rebirths that have been ongoing now for nearly five decades. Whilst Gateshead FC has shown tremendous durability in continually bouncing back when it has seemed as if the odds have been continually stacked against them, it's worth recalling that decades of instability on north Tyneside could have been avoided had the Football League not made one of the stranger decisions of it's 119 year long history.

Gateshead owed their very existence to a financial crisis at another club. South Shields FC had been founded in 1907, and elected into the Football League in 1919. During the 1920s, the Great Depression hit the north-east particularly hard, and the very existence of South Shields was very much a hand-to-mouth one. In 1930, they moved ten miles west, away from the coast and to Gateshead, just to the south of Newcastle-upon-Tyne. On paper, the move made sense. Newcastle supported just one professional team, and was a much larger city that North and South Shield were combined. They also had a ready-made ground to move into at Redheugh Park, paid for by the local council. It seemed as if the decision was the right one to start with. A crowd of 15,000 turned out to see their first match against Doncaster Rovers, and in 1932 they narrowly missed out on promotion to Division Two to Lincoln City.

Redheugh Park was, it has to be said, not one of English football's more salubrious venues. A hotch-potch of various stands, and surrounded by a greyhound track, it was always going to struggle to be filled, especially when nearby Newcastle United could comfortably fit over 60,000 people into St James Park. Gateshead, sadly, never really caught on. None of this is to say that the club didn't have its moments. The early 1950s were the club's golden years. In 1950, they missed out on promotion to Division Two again, this time by just two points, and two years later they had a run to the FA Cup Fourth Round. The following year, they would better even that, beating Liverpool 1-0 in the Third Round before going on to lose by a Nat Lofthouse goal to Bolton Wanderers in the quarter-finals at Redheugh Park, in front of a record crowd of over 17,000 people. When the Football League re-organised in 1958, Gateshead were placed in the Fourth Division, and finished the following season needing to re-apply for re-election. When the same thing happened again the following year, it might have been a small cause for concern, but nothing could have properly prepared them for what happened next.

Gateshead finished the 1959-60 season in 22nd place out of 24 in the Fourth Division. Southport and Oldham Athletic, who finished below them, had both been required to apply on more occasions than them. What exactly happened is lost to the mists of time, but the Football League shocked everybody by voting to replace Gateshead with Peterborough United. Some have said since that the league was concerned by Gateshead's small crowds. Some have said that smaller clubs were tired of having to travel so far north. Some have blamed the Gateshead directors of the time for complacency (the club's refusal to serve free alcohol to visiting directors has also been cited). Some simply think that Peterborough was simply better placed, geographically whilst other, darker voices have even suggested that money might have changed hands.

The following years were years of slow decline. Unsurprisingly rejected in their application to join the Scottish League, and with northern non-league football lacking a big league for semi-professional clubs (the North West Counties League accepted them for a couple of years, but the north-eastern Northern League - home to the likes of Bishop Auckland - was resolutely amateur. They bounced around various semi-pro leagues until 1968, when they joined the newly-formed Northern Premier League. They were demoted from this in 1970 after finishing bottom, and spent three years playing regional football before folding in 1973.

What happened next was a strange case of history repeating itself. A new South Shields FC had reformed in 1936, but by the mid-1970s they were struggling in the Northern Premier League. In 1974, they changed their name to Gateshead and moved into the Gateshead International Athletics Stadium, an 11,000 capacity stadium in the borough, In 1974, they changed their name to Gateshead United and quickly became a powerful team in the Northern Premier League, before themselves folding. Immediately, a new Gateshead FC was formed, and took their place. This time, there was a degree more permanence. The new Gateshead won promotion into the Alliance Premier League (now the Conference) in 1983 and, although relegated again, won promotion back in 1986. Relegated again, they finally got back there. in 1990. Supported by strong local sponsorship, this time they stayed there for eight years, finishing 7th and 5th in 1995 and 1996. Crowds, however, remained low, and they were relegated in 1998, and since then have been in the Unibond League.

The International Stadium, with its running track and vast cantilever stand, had been the very reason for the club's existence in the late 1970s, but in the long-term it has come to be regarded as a contributing factor to the club's struggle to attract large crowds. Current chairman Graham Wood, however, is ambitious, and hopes to be able to move the club into a "proper" football stadium, hoping that this will finally persuade the people of Tyneside that a viable alternative is available to the all (well, not quite) conquering behemoths of the area, Newcastle United. You can read more about the possible sites for the club - one of which, intriguingly, is the original site of Redheugh Park - here. Times, certainly, have changed since Gateshead FC struggled to make crowds of 500 in the Conference when they were a top six club eleven or twelve years ago. Newcastle's fans are amongst the longest-suffering of any in the top flight, and there might just now be a place for a smaller club to take a small bite out of the Magpies' cake. Freddy Shepherd has, after all, been having it and eating it for many years now. They might never beat Liverpool in the FA Cup again, but I wouldn't bet against yet another revival from Tyneside's most robust club.


Si said...

Great stuff 200percent. I too have a fascination with former league clubs (nerdish, I know!), whatever happened to Barrow, Nelson and Southport? I look forward to reading about any other teams you have completed research on.

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