BY ALEX JACKSON
It’s a sunny August afternoon at Gateshead International Stadium, and the native Tynesiders are running rampant in a league contest against Macclesfield. An early Fraser Kerr goal is followed a Jordan Burrow header just before half-time, and the Silkmen’s resistance withers further in the second half before culminating in Jordan Preston beating the offside trap and slotting home to deliver three points.
Then the attendance is announced: 633. 73 of them have travelled up from Cheshire.
There’s the traditional smattering of applause for the away contingent’s efforts, but the disgust in the crowd can be clearly felt behind it. Newcastle United aren’t playing today and are away anyway, and Sunderland are a late kick-off.
Meanwhile, a few stops down the Tyne and Wear Metro, South Shields entertained Bridlington Town in the Preliminary Round of the FA Cup. The home side ran out 3-1 winners. The crowd was over 1,400 people. This is not a rare occurrence for the NPL Division One North side.
This is an all too familiar story for Gateshead FC, but even by these standards the club’s local presence seems to be at an all-time low. The 633 crowd once would have been poor for a midweek fixture, indeed it was just four more people than the crowd they received for a Tuesday night fixture against Guiseley just a fortnight before, and was a decline from the crowd that saw the Heed run out 3-0 winners against Torquay the Saturday prior. The support is non-existent in all forms, even local press: at the time of writing the local newspaper, the Evening Chronicle, has had no articles about Gateshead since pre-season.
It’s no surprise therefore that feelings of resentment are growing among the Heed faithful. The phrase ‘hotbed of football’ is frequently used to describe England’s North East, yet on the southern banks of the Tyne, a different reality is playing out that doesn’t so much as poke a hole in the myth, but shatter it.
Gateshead FC have had a tumultuous history. Several incarnations of the club have existed and fallen apart, the current one coming into existence in 1977. This iteration has been the most successful since the club’s halcyon Football League days between 1930 and 1960, reaching as high as the 5th tier, making the FA Cup 3rd Round for the first time in 50 years, and at one point coming within a game of a fabled return to the Football League.
They have, however, always struggled for attendances, and despite recent successes this hasn’t improved. During the 2016-17 season Gateshead ranked 21 of 24 with an average attendance of 910, a decline of 4.1% on the year prior, and no doubt inflated by the 3,700-strong crowd who came to watch high-flying Lincoln City potentially seal the title at the International Stadium.
So far this year, Gateshead have slipped another place to 22nd, now only ahead of Solihull Moors and Boreham Wood, with 21st place Guiseley a good 300 people ahead of them. It’s a bizarre situation when you consider that the town of Gateshead has some 100,000 living there than Guiseley.
Their attendance woes can’t be attributed to any one factor. Much is made of the original club’s exit from the Football League in 1960 and subsequent doldrum years that arguably have only just subsided. In that time the Heed lost two generations of potential supporters, something that shows in the crowd, where over-50s are arguably a more common sight than young casuals.
A lot is also made of Gateshead International Stadium’s off-putting effect, due to the distance from the pitch and difficulty of generating an atmosphere in an 11,000-seater arena when three stands are empty and the fourth isn’t even a quarter full. Talks of a new stadium reached a high point in 2008, but was driven by an obsession with building in the land-deficient town centre that ultimately killed the idea. Since new chairman Richard Bennett took over in 2015, all stadium talk has stopped.
Another problem, however, is simply the rejection of the club by the townspeople itself. Gateshead is very much a Newcastle United town. From the banks of the Tyne to the southern reaches of Whickham and Sunniside you will find pubs flying Newcastle United flags. Even pubs closer to the town centre advertise Newcastle games being shown live, one pub promoting a free shot for all punters after every Newcastle goal, such is the intensity of the fight to attract the barstool Toon Army.
That’s not to say the people of Gateshead hold any animosity to the town’s football club. The club has close to 24,000 followers on Twitter, one of the highest in the division, and higher than former Football League clubs like Macclesfield. People giving good wishes to their ‘hometown team’ are not uncommon. For a long time the prevailing feeling among Heed fans was that the town’s population were just a bit of persuasion away from staying on the south side of the Tyne. If they could be tempted to a game and the performance was sharp then maybe they’d stay for good. Indeed, during the run to Wembley that seemed to be the case: crowds rose as high as 2,000 people. For the play-off semi-final against Grimsby Town the visitors brought 2,000 followers, and were comfortably outnumbered by the home support 4-to-1.
Now, after a Wembley defeat and two mediocre seasons, the attendance is back to rock bottom. It’s been a dramatic but sadly unexpected fall from grace for the Heed, but this time salt has been rubbed into the wound in the form of South Shields FC.
In many ways, South Shields’ rise in recent years could be karma. After all, the two most successful iterations of the Heed owe their existence to South Shields FC relocating up the Tyne. The Mariners’ recent success could perhaps be Gateshead’s long overdue punishment for their repeated pillaging. Regardless of reason, though, South Shields’ rise has been staggering.
In the early 2010s, chairman Geoff Thompson proclaimed he wanted to turn South Shields into a local footballing power, and spent the money to match. He upgraded the stadium, and built a squad composed entirely of players of a standard way above the Northern League the Mariners played in, anchored around former Sunderland and Middlesbrough star, Julio Arca. And the population threw their weight behind his vision, turning out in their droves to Filtrona Park. In a league where teams can struggle to attract three figures, South Shields were averaging well over 1,000 a game, doubling and even tripling that for derby games against the likes of North Shields.
A few miles up the road, the frustration and exasperation of Gateshead fans began to harden into resentment.
Is it as straightforward as ‘Gateshead’s support migrated east’? Not really – South Shields is a large town in its own right, home to over 75,000 people, but it is known that the Mariners were just another pedestrian Northern League side until the arrival of Arca and co. While not an indictment of Gateshead’s population specifically, it is an indictment of the North East’s fickle supporters.
By observing the non-league scene on Tyneside, it is apparent that the North East’s ‘hotbed of footballing passion’ extends only as far as Newcastle United and Sunderland. While the two powerhouses enjoy strong, constant support, the others rotate on a wheel of popularity based on success and investment. The level of the game is irrelevant – where there is constant success there will be crowds. While once Gateshead were flavour of the month, it is now South Shields, and they are reaping the rewards of the North East’s newest bandwagon while it is camped at their site. The only constant is Newcastle and Sunderland, something the hordes are swift to remind you of through the wearing of Newcastle and Sunderland shirts to games (some were even present at Gateshead and Shields’ respective Wembley appearances), as if looking to remind you that they are here for the success and not out of any sense of loyalty. Like Jay Gatsby in Fitzgerald’s iconic novel, the crowds come in their droves for his parties, but at his funeral the mourners can be counted on one hand.
In many ways it is a wider commentary on the North East’s façade of local pride. Much is made of Geordie pride and identity, but as stated above it seems that pride only reaches from the gates of St. James’ Park to the Strawberry pub across the road. Despite the proclamations of a regional identity, the North East has only ever wanted to fit in. In 2004, the population overwhelmingly voted against devolution, 75-to-25. North East regionalist parties are even more non-existent than the average English Regionalist party, indeed they aren’t even listed on Wikipedia’s summary of regionalist parties in the UK. The North East’s blind loyalty is so dependable it’s taken for granted: in 2010 Labour MP Vera Baird was booted out of Redcar for her failure to deal with the crisis at Corus steelworks. A few years later she returned as a Police & Crime Commissioner candidate for the North East. Not only did no one bat an eyelid, they elected her to the role. Twice.
The use of non-league football is much the same: a disguise of difference hiding the fact that nothing has changed. It is not a coincidence that non-league attendance swells and contracts in line with the performances of Newcastle and Sunderland, indeed many are linking South Shields’ meteoric rise to the recent hopelessness of Sunderland. It’s part of the wider symptom of non-league clubs being used as trends, either in the pursuit of success, a chance to virtue signal, or props for Premier League fans in their fight ‘Against Modern Football’. And, like all fads, it eventually comes to an end. It’s happened to Gateshead, and it will eventually happen to South Shields. Sunderland will improve, or the money will dry up, and those thousands of new fans will dwindle back to the core hundred or so that were propping up the stands when they were just another Northern League team.
For many Gateshead fans, this is approaching the final straw. The club have worked hard to attract the restless and disillusioned of Newcastle and Sunderland, offering discounted tickets to season ticket holders of those clubs and trying to build relationships with them, but to no avail. The crowds from the ‘Good Days’ haven’t so much as declined but shrivelled to a necrotic husk, and coupled with the bumper gates and media attention for a team three leagues below them, it’s developing a siege mentality among the Heed faithful. Talk between supporters on matchday is less about how the club can promote itself and more about disgust at how their fellow townspeople can be so unwaveringly loyal to a Newcastle United that has been run through the ringer the past few years, yet will never return to the International Stadium after one bad game. The feeling is not one of hope, but resignation. Even as the Heed sit in the play-off spots of the National League, people are worried at just how long they can survive on such paltry crowds.
Fans are rallying to promote fixtures on social media, but this is not a new idea, and scepticism remains over how effective it will be, not least with the current non-league darlings still going strong. The outreach hasn’t ended, but it’s becoming more and more apparent to Gateshead fans that the town, and the region at large, doesn’t love them, and though they may have their days in the sun, they will always be strangers in their own back yard.