Wednesday 22 May 2019

One Sunny Day at Wembley: The Joy and Despair of the Football League's Greatest Play-Off Final

On Sunday Charlton Athletic face Sunderland in the League One play-off final. This is not the first time the pair have faced each other in a Wembley play-off final, in 1998 the two clubs faced off in what was one of the most memorable play-off finals of all time, and match well worth revisiting.

25 May 1998, it was a beautifully hot bank holiday Monday, and for the supporters of Charlton Athletic and Sunderland who descended on Wembley Stadium in the nation's capital there was an all-time classic in store for them on the football pitch. Although none of them would have known it as they milled around Wembley Way in the hours before kick-off, the 77,739 in attendance were to witness what many still today consider the greatest play-off final of all time. Charlton and Sunderland were to face off in one of the biggest games in football, the Division One play-off final as it was then known saw the two sides from what is now the Championship fighting it out for a place in the richest league in the world, the English Premier League, and boy would it be a cracker.

That 1998 final will be always remembered for the contributions of two men. Clive Mendonca and Michael Gray were two boyhood Sunderland fans who that day played on opposing sides. Mendonca, a centre forward signed from Grimsby Town the previous summer was a Sunderland fan plying his trade in South London, whilst defender Michael Gray who made his debut for the Black Cats in 1992 aged 18, had in recent years became a pivotal figure for his home town club.

Although born in North London, Mendonca had spent almost all of his childhood in Sunderland and used to regularly stand on the terraces at the club's old Roker Park ground as a young lad. Mendonca, however, never actually got to play for his boyhood club, whereas Michael Gray actually made the first 363 of his 534 senior appearances in English football whilst wearing the red and white of Sunderland, including that late May afternoon at Wembley. It has to be said though, that of the two players, Mendonca's contribution to the match was far more useful than that of Gray, who's match was defined by one harrowing moment that would settle the result.

Sunderland finished the 1997-98 season in third place four points behind champions Nottingham Forest and one point behind second placed Middlesbrough, whilst Charlton finished two points behind Sunderland in fourth. A 2-0 second leg home victory saw Sunderland beat Sheffield United 3-2 on aggregate in the semi finals to set up the final tie with Charlton who had dispatched of Ipswich Town with two 1-0 victories.

Despite being remembered in the years since as a brilliant game of football, when the match got underway Charlton and Sunderland initially began to play out what seemed to be a rather low key affair compared to what would follow later on. Charlton wore their traditional red whilst Sunderland wore what was not the most pleasant of dark yellow away strips. It was Charlton though who started the better team, however, and despite the slow start, the match did come to life on 23 minutes thanks to that man Mendonca. When Mendonca picked up the ball with his back to goal just inside the Sunderland box he turned wonderfully before driving the ball home to put the Addicks in front, and it wasn't to be his only goal of the game either. Two more were to follow.

Charlton went in at the break one goal up having had the better of the first period but it took just five minutes after the restart for the men from the North East to draw level. Irishman Naill Quinn was to score twice for Sunderland that afternoon and the first of his two goals came in the 50th minute when he successfully headed the ball past keeper Saša Ilić from a Nicky Summerbee header. 

It was another 23 minutes before Quinn got his second and there were a couple more goals in between. Striker Kevin Phillips put Sunderland 2-1 up when a right-footed chip over the keeper saw him become the country's leading goalscorer in professional football that season. Mendonca's second came 13 minutes later, a delightful ball from Keith Jones was followed by two excellent touches from Mendonca before his low drive into the bottom left corner made it 2-2.

There were two minutes between Mendonca's equaliser and Quinn putting Sunderland 3-2 in front. Quinn's second came by chesting the ball down and squeezing it in at the near post after a Lee Clark cross. With Sunderland having retaken the lead on 73 minutes, 17 minutes plus stoppages stood between themselves and a place in the Premier League, but Charlton had other ideas, and although they had to wait another 12 minutes, the equaliser did eventually come. A John Robinson corner saw a towering header from Richard Rufus find the net with Sunderland's French keeper Lionel Perez stranded. For Rufus, it was his first ever goal in Charlton shirt and one that would send the game into extra-time where more drama was to follow.

Inside the stadium they could feel the tension, it had been a nervewracking 90 minutes for the supporters and now they had to sit through another half an hour and the possibility of a penalty shoot-out after that. It would not have been surprising if there had been a few heart attacks in the crowd, but thankfully none were recorded. Anyway, it was a case of the show must go on and a winner must be found, and that meant there had to be a loser also. With both sides having put in so much effort, enough to no doubt make their fans very proud, the unfair reality was that one of these two teams would not actually be getting promoted to the Premier League for next season.

When a team takes the lead in extra time it's easy to assume they will go on to win the game, and when Nicky Summerbee smashed the ball home to put Sunderland back in front 9 minutes into the first extra period one might assume many thought it was game over and Sunderland were headed for the Premier League. Charlton manager Alan Curbishley was now looking very concerned but in this the most dramatic of games, however, the story was not finished yet, and after Jones hit the ball across the box on 103 minutes, a superb first touch by Mendonca saw him volley the ball into the net to complete his hat-trick, and cap of a fantastic display against the club he supported as a child. Mendonca's goal that would usher in the dreaded penalty shoot-out, and having thought the game was won it was now the turn of Peter Reid in the Sunderland dugout to look worried. 

Two seasons prior Sunderland manager Reid had coached his side to the First Division title and a Premier League place, but the club only lasted one season in the top flight and the prospect of an immediate return rested on a series of penalty kicks. Although possibly the most distressing of ways to settle a match of this nature, no one had ever come up with a better alternative to find a winner when two teams just could not be separated, and so it was, the dreaded spot kicks. 

Whilst the television cameras showed various shots of extremely nervous looking fans, the players prepared for the shoot-out, deciding who would step to try and find the net from the spot. At the tunnel end of the ground in front of the Sunderland supporters, hat-trick man Mendonca went up to take the first penalty and had no trouble dispatching the ball past Perez and into the middle of the net. Another excellent penalty saw Summerbee draw Sunderland level, whilst another brilliant penalty followed and then another... In fact, they were all going in. 

The shoot-out ended up in sudden death with all of the first 13 penalties having been scored before Michael 'Mickey' Gray stood up to take penalty number 14, a penalty that would follow him throughout the rest of his career. In a game defined by two boyhood Sunderland fans, both would actually help consign the club to the Division One for another season. Michael Gray hit his penalty straight at Charlton keeper Ilić who had no trouble making the save to win the shoot-out 7-6 for his side. Ilić, an Australian born Serb, had been playing non league football just a year previously and was now heading for the Premier League.

Whilst the Sunderland players were devastated, captain Kevin Ball looked stunned, and penalty misser Gray was being consoled by manager Reid, Charlton were as you'd expect going wild and had every right to. After a 120 minute 8 goal thriller that ended with a shoot-out, the Addicks were back with the big boys for the first time in almost a decade. Saša Ilić, stood with his arms aloft in celebration, was an iconic moment, but unfortunately for Michael Gray his penalty miss became the most iconic moment of all, and when the game is remembered it's usually for two things, Mendonca's hat-trick, and of course that missed penalty.

Sunderland came back stronger and won the championship the following season with a mammoth 105 points, and in the process getting back into the Premier League where they would last four seasons. Charlton only lasted one season in the top flight, but an immediate return was followed by a seven year spell in the top division. 

After that penalty miss Michael Gray stayed at Sunderland until 2004 and went on to make three appearances for England during that period, but no matter what he did Gray was always, and probably always will be, remembered for that one moment of despair when the dreams of a football mad north east town were shattered in the cruellest of ways. As for Clive Mendonca, he scored another hat-trick in Charlton's first home game in the Premier League the following season, a 5-0 victory over Southampton, but four years later retired, returning to his native North East and going to relative obscurity.

They say history is written by the winners, but sometimes it is the losers that play the most memorable part, and that was certainly true of Michael Gray, the man who brought to an end the most breathtaking of play-offs finals, and arguably the greatest promotion final we've ever seen. Charlton Athletic 4-4 Sunderland, what a game!

Sunday 19 May 2019

The Four Minute Champions: The Dramatic Finale to the 2000-01 Bundesliga Season

“Life moves very fast. It rushes from Heaven to Hell in a matter of seconds.” - Brazillian novelist Paulo Coelho.

In life, euphoria can turn to despair in no time at all, and those involved in football know this all too well. It's amazing how is quickly a football fans world can be turned upside down. This is often most prevalent on the final day of a league campaign where one team's dreams can be affected by matters in another stadium at the other end of the country, and where fans in one ground anxiously tune into radio's to find out about events in another.

Sergio Aguero's injury time winner for Manchester City at home to QPR in 2012 saw them crowned Premier League champions, and Manchester United, playing elsewhere, suddenly relegated to second place when moments earlier they thought they had the title in the bag. On that occasion, Manchester United had barely had time to celebrate with full-time in their game at Sunderland and City's sensational last gasp winner coming literally seconds apart. But it was a slightly more heartbreaking affair over in Germany on 19 May 2001 in a Bundesliga finale that saw one team celebrate winning the title only to realise several minutes later had not won it after all.

FC Schalke 04 had never before won the Bundesliga, they had seven German football championship's to their name, but all were won in the years before the Bundesliga's formation. The Bundesliga came into being in 1963 with Schalke's last title coming five years prior to that, some 43 years earlier to be precise. In contrast, FC Bayern München, champions for the two previous seasons had won 15 titles in those intervening years. Schalke went into the final day of the season 3 points behind their title rivals Bayern, but with a superior goal difference, they knew defeat for Bayern would give them the chance to steal the crown.

A 3-1 win away at Bayern had given Schalke advantage in the title race with five games left to play, but the club took only 7 points from a possible 12 in the four games that followed to give their challengers the advantage going into the final round of fixtures. For that final day, Schalke were at home to SpVgg Unterhaching whilst Bayern were away at Hamburger SV.

At 15:30 local time Schalke's game kicked off in front of a sell out crowd of just over 65,000 at their old Parkstadion home in Gelsenkirchen, and by 15:04 the home side in their traditional blue kit were 1-0 down. Martin Cizek hit a freekick into the box and in the ensuing melee, André Breitenreiter found the net to silence the crowd. Over in Hamburg Bayern were struggling, but with Schalke losing it mattered one jot and the visiting fans were now in a celebratory mood. 

When Mirosław Spiżak nutmegged the keeper to put Unterhaching 2-0 up after 27 minutes the Parkstadion fell into despair. Bayern were champions surely now. As for Unterhaching, a win was vital to help them stay in the division, but as it stood with results elsewhere going against them, even a victory would still send them down.

Nico van Kerckhoven tapped the ball home to give Schalke a goal back whilst a minute later a cheeky backheel from Gerald Asamoah made it 2-2 on the stroke of half-time. Bayern meanwhile were also drawing and they went in 0-0 at the break with the HSV supporters gleefully cheering when news filtered through of Schalke's quickfire double. Bayern were still in the driving seat but had looked rather nervy, Schalke's two late goals meanwhile gave them momentum. Could the pendulum swing towards the boys in blue during the second half?

On 59 minutes Bayern had a goal ruled out for offside, Schalke were still drawing but not for long however as Martin Cizek restored Unterhaching’s lead 10 minutes later. On the bench Schalke coach Huub Steven was looking a solemn figure, although deep down he must have been worried, they were on the verge losing a title race that a few weeks earlier they seemed certain to win, especially with Bayern only needing a point. In contrast, the Bayern fans were celebrating in Hamburg, waving flags and cheering at the news from Gelsenkirchen in the north west of the country.

With VfB Stuttgart still winning, victory for Unterhaching would not be enough to save them from relegation. Things were getting desperate for Schalke also and club superstar Olaf Thon was ushered onto the pitch for his first game after eight months out with a serious injury, but it was Jörg Böhme, however, who wrote the next paragraph. An excellent freekick from Böhme on 73 minutes found the back of the net from 20 yards out to draw the home side level. A minute later and Schlake were finally in front with Böhme again on the scoresheet thanks to a clever chip over the keeper, seemingly destroying Unterhaching's already slim chances of staying up in the process. Over in Hamburg, the HSV fans raised the volume knowing one goal for their side would deny Bayern the title. Ebbe Sand soon put Schalke 5-3 ahead but Bayern were still drawing 0-0. As both games headed into stoppage time, however, there were still a few twists left in the season finale.

On 90 minutes HSV's Marek Heinz crossed the ball in from the left and Sergej Barbarez hit the ball past Oliver Kahn, Bayern were now 1-0 down, and with only minutes of the Bundesliga season remaining, Schalke were now top of the table on goal difference. Back in Gelsenkirchen news of HSV's goal filtered through and the celebrations began, albeit with some a little cautious and still rather nervous, after all, there were probably still a few minutes left in Hamburg and their game itself had not quite finished yet either. Although Schalke held on, caution in Gelsenkirchen continued at the final whistle but it did not last long. Whilst coach Huub Stevens and sporting director Rudi Assauer were trying to keep everyone calm word spread around the stadium that Bayern's game was over and HSV had won, cue absolute pandemonium.

The scenes at the Parkstadion were those of pure ecstasy, fans ran on the pitch in celebration and players and coaching staff were going absolutely berserk. Within no time at all the biggest party the town had seen in possibly ever was in full swing, and what minutes earlier would have seemed a miracle was now a reality. Or so they thought...

Over in Hamburg, however, the match had not yet actually finished at all, although as the game went deep into injury time Bayern thought all hope was lost, and coach Ottmar Hitzfeld looked distraught, it seemed as if they'd blown it! But could there be one more twist in the tale? You bet there could! 
One could argue that it was Matthias Schober who decided the title race, won it or lost it depending on your allegiance. When Schober the HSV goalkeeper stupidly picked up a backpass from Tomas Ujfalusi, referee Markus Merk had no choice but to award Bayern an indirect free kick inside the penalty area. By this point, Schalke's supporters in the Parkstadion had realised events on the pitch were still being played out in Hamburg and a hush descended over the stadium. Supporters eyes had all turned to the ground's giant screen which now that the powers that be had realised the title race wasn't quite over yet were showing on it live the dying throes of the HSV/Bayern game. With almost every HSV player in the wall and Bayern goalkeeper Oliver Kahn also up there in the HSV box, a slight touch from Stefan Effenberg then saw Patrik Andersson smash the ball through the wall and into the net. Unbelievable.

In the blink of an eye, there was suddenly pandemonium in what for sponsorship reasons was at that time known as the AOL Arena. Kahn was going wild waving the waving a corner flag in the air, club legend Franz Beckenbauer was going crazy in the stands, the coach Hitzfeld was beside himself on the touchline, and of course, the fans were jumping for joy in the stands. Schalke had been champions for only about four minutes, Bayern had stolen their crown in the most dramatic of circumstances, and back at the Parkstadion, it was suddenly like a morgue with the supporters absolutely stunned, sobbing into their scarves, and staggering around bewildered. FC Bayern München were now champions, FC Schalke 04 were not!

Since that final day in 2001 Schalke are still waiting for that elusive Bundesliga title, with four second placed finishes in the 18 seasons since the best they've managed. In contrast, Bayern, however, have fared much better winning 12 league titles during those 18 years, and become even more so than ever the truly dominant force in German fußball.

But that incredible end to the final round of matches of the 2000-01 season will go down in history as possibly most dramatic finale in Bundesliga history. In the blink of an eye, we saw ecstasy turn to agony in one stadium and agony turn to ecstasy in another, and of course, Bayern München were champions again, who else?

This article was also published on Pundit Feed and can be viewed here

Wednesday 15 May 2019

Trouble on Tyneside: A season of turmoil at Gateshead FC

A few weeks ago upstairs in Pelaw Social Club a large crowd gathered. Less than a mile from the banks of the River Tyne a full house of about 200 people were in attendance for a crisis meeting to discuss the future of football in the town of Gateshead. Five years ago Gateshead Football Club were 90 minutes away from the Football League but as it stood on that mild spring evening it felt like it was a case of if Gateshead's loyal fans known as the Heed Army do not act soon they may no longer have a team to support. 

In the form of a supporters club known as Gateshead Soul and led by a man called Bernard McWilliams, the Heed faithful are fighting back against a regime who in less than year has managed to essentially asset strip the National League club, but at the same time rack up large debts, fail to pay players and staff, and get kicked out of the council owned stadium they call home, amongst many other things.

Gateshead Soul at the aforementioned supporters meeting announced that since the clubs final match of the season that had taken place several days earlier, they had been working very hard to try and start to put plans in place to form a new club. They'd finally decided there was no alternative and urged supporters to get behind the project which they claimed had support from ex Rochdale owner Chris Dunphy who had recently tried to buy Gateshead FC but found the regime there impossible to deal with. The new club they claimed, would most probably have to start at Step 7 of the non league pyramid although might be able to get permission to start as high as the Step 5 Northern League Division One. It was also claimed by the group that they had support from the council to use the International Stadium next season (there has been no word from the council themselves). This is the same stadium that Gateshead FC were several months back barred from using outside matchdays, and it is still uncertain as to whether or not that club will be able to use the ground at all next season.

It will probably be a difficult few months for the Gateshead Soul group who at the supporters meeting seemingly had the backing of the majority of Gateshead fans and have since raised over £10,000 in donations, but they do seem if nothing else than rather determined. The turmoil at the 'other' club meanwhile continues on a daily basis with seemingly more new shenanigans being discussed amongst Gateshead fans every time I log onto Twitter. 

Whilst I've been wanting to tell the story of how we got to this point ever since that social club meeting, with so much having happened it's been a challenge to put it all into words, and with as I have already said so much still happening almost on a daily basis, the tale is seemingly far from complete. The account of how this cherished Tyneside football club was wrecked by what many would call a bunch of cowboys, however, is a story I feel I must tell. I consider it important to help raise awareness of the plight of the loyal supporters who have seen their club torn apart and put through constant turmoil by an owner and his associates who seem to be putting their own vested interests above those of the club for which they have been entrusted. 

Gateshead's ownership has twice changed hands since that sunny day down in the nation's capital when they were defeated in the National League play-off final, and when the previous owners Richard and Julie Bennet at the end of July last year sold the club to Hong Kong based Indian businessman, Dr Ranjan Varghese, several months after an earlier deal had fallen through, there was for a brief period at least genuine optimism from some quarters of the Heed Army. That optimism did not last long, however, as things began to unravel. The first worrying signs as far as many fans were concerned where when rumours came about that a man with a dubious past called Joe Cala was involved in the club. New Operations Director Michael Williams who supposedly had links to Cala denied his involvement, but as we shall soon see this was a downright lie.

Joseph Cala is a man of mystery and I've found information on him pre Gateshead hard to come by but here goes: 

Mr Cala had a failed attempt to buy Portsmouth in 2012, then in 2017 was found strutting around the Globe Arena in Morecambe claiming he was the new owner of Morecambe FC, a club in crisis where players were not being paid. At Morecambe Cala found his attempted takeover blocked by Diego Lemos, a shareholder who took out a court order to prevent him from buying the club, not only that but Cala did not have clearance from the EFL to run Morecambe. What exactly went on at Morecambe seems a little unclear but ultimately Cala did not own the club at that time and in the end, never did at all at any point. 

It must also be noted that Cala had previously also briefly been owner of Italian club Salernitana where the players were not paid and the club suffered a complete financial collapse, there were similar stories elsewhere including another Italian side Lecce where he was in charge. 

With regards to Mr Cala, I've struggled to find out much more than what I have mentioned above but one final and also important Cala fact is that he was once charged with fraud in California, something he did not even bother to contest. All in all, he sounds like a classy bloke.

After his failed involvement at Morecambe Cala seemed to disappear from the footballing scene for a while but then made a reappearance when he began to run the show at Gateshead. The rumours were true and Cala was definitely on the scene at Gateshead. Although officially Varghese owned the club and Cala had nothing to with Gateshead FC whatsoever, it turned out the reality was rather different... Joe Cala was basically running the club whilst Varghese sat in an office in Hong Kong and had no real involvement.

When many long serving volunteers including the treasurer and all the turnstile operators were sacked, Mr Cala was amongst many other things actually found to be running the turnstiles himself, and as I sat listening to those in charge of Gateshead Soul tell us that under Cala, matchday takings from the turnstiles were never banked and no one knew where the money went, I had to wonder what the hell had been going on. Although Cala definitely was working on the turnstiles I can not myself verify what actually did happen to the takings, but from what I now know about him it would hardly be surprising if the accusations were in fact true!

And then there was the transfer embargo... Now that we've discussed Mr Cala worming his way into the club lets move onto that. It did not take long for the new owner and Cala to find themselves in what a very fine mess. League rules meant the club had to submit a budget at the start of the season and stick to it. Taking over the club at such a late stage just before the season started, the budget had already been set, but the new owner's surpassed this budget and in December last year the National League hit back with a transfer embargo, something that as far as I'm aware is still in place as things stand.

Not long after the transfer embargo was put in place the Gateshead first team manager left the club. In January of this year, Steve Watson left to take over at York City and was replaced by Heed stalwart Ben Clark. Despite all the turmoil off it, however, performances on the pitch had been rather more stable and despite the change of manager, this continued. The club had started the season favourites for relegation but as we headed towards the spring, looked like a good outside bet to reach the play-offs. 

It didn't take long for Clark to start considering his future at the club, however, as top goalscorer and club captain Fraser Kerr was sold behind his back. Further frustration occurred when Chesterfield made an offer for Scott Bowden. Several within the club voiced their concern at the prospect of losing the player, so after talks with Cala, they were relieved when he agreed they would reject the bid. However, when Gateshead's players and backroom staff arrived for work the following morning they found that Cala had sold him after all. The club's general manager Mike Coulson then quit his job over this saying he could not work with people he did not trust. Things did not end there either, there was then the Scott Barrow saga. Barrow received an offer from Hartlepool United but after talking it over with Mr Cala, happily agreed to stay at Gateshead, only to later find out Cala was later that day offering him to other clubs behind his back. Despite all this Ben Clark reluctantly stayed at the club.

Things took an even more dramatic turn for the worse when at the end of March the players were not paid and the club was booted out of their stadium. Gateshead FC it turns out had not been paying the rent on the council owned athletics stadium that they had called home for nearing 50 years, with the players and the rest of the staff frog marched out the stadium one day after training. The club was allowed to continue using the ground on matchdays but that was all, the rest of the week it was no go area for the Heed. The players were eventually paid albeit many days late.

Thanks to the kind help of local side Hebburn Town they were allowed to use Hebburn's pitch to train on during the week but no longer had any facilities of their own to use outside of matchdays, whether it be a pitch for team training sessions or offices for administrative purposes. It wasn't just the players and the stadium rent that had not been paid either, several local businesses were owed money including the local laundrette. Having not been paid, the laundrette would not wash the player's kits and fans had to step in to wash shirts. The Gateshead Soul supporters group were not just washing kits however, they even found themselves making the players packed lunches for away games as things got so bad that the club would not provide them with a pre-match meal! 
There was, however, renewed hope for the fans when on March 8, 2019, Gateshead FC's owner Dr Ranjan Varghese put the club up for sale for just £1, and on March 31, a deal was agreed in principle for ex Rochdale FC owner Chris Dunphy to buy the club. The supporters club were right behind the deal from the beginning and it was going to be a very satisfactory ending to what had been a season of complete turmoil, or so most supporters thought...

Sadly though that story does not end with 'and several days later the deal was completed...', no, under Varghese's ownership things would never be that simple! Four days later Dunphy pulled out of the proposed deal stating negotiations had been 'difficult' and that there had been no progress made. Within no time Dunphy changed his mind but faced several delays in trying to obtain an exclusivity agreement in order for him to do due diligence and by all accounts what he did eventually receive wasn't worth the paper it was printed on. Things then went quiet, the club said there were also other parties involved but nothing happened, supporters got edgy, there were protests outside the ground, and still, nothing happened. Nope, nothing whatsoever. The deal never went ahead, talk of it disappeared, and fans quickly forgot about the idea of new owners saving their club.

No one was quite sure what would happen next and what more twists and turns this tale had in store. On the pitch, the season came to end with Gateshead missing out on play-off spot but ending with a comfortable mid table finish. No sooner had the club's final game of the season came to a conclusion, however, then the fans found their club in more turmoil. 

Alisha Henry who a couple of months earlier had taken the reigns as general manager found herself sacked via text message straight after the final match of the season, then the clubs assistant manager was sacked via email, shortly followed by manager Ben Clark. All the players bar one were out of contract with Scott Barrow only having a couple of months left on his meaning the club virtually had no members of staff left! One man however supposedly still at the club was stadium announcer Peter Grant whom many fans saw as a regime puppet, and he was causing controversy of his own. During the final match of the season, Grant did not realise his microphone was still turned on when during a substitution he told the female fourth official to "Hurry up you stupid woman". You couldn't make it up.

If all of this wasn't bad enough for the Heed faithful then because of one of the names involved, news of two new directors having been appointed by the club was the final straw. Nigel Harrop and Trevor Clark were both appointed as directors, and whilst the latter was a local businessman of which little was known, the former was known to Gateshead fans as the man who bankrupted Ilkeston FC several years earlier. At Ilkeston Harrop built a youth academy with a high turnover of players and used this academy to claim various government grants, of which it was rumoured he pocketed for himself before leaving the club penniless. That at least was the word on twitter from Ilkeston fans warning those supporting Gateshead that Harrop was not to be trusted.

Two days after the supporters club meeting which had quickly followed Harrop's appointment, club owner Ranjan Varghese went on local radio to slander the Gateshead Soul and its chairman Bernard McWilliams. Amongst other things he also stated that the club would definitely be playing at the International Stadium next season and that he had never claimed otherwise, rather strange since a statement from him released via Twitter three days earlier stated the complete opposite. Varghese also stated that the club had sorted themselves out financially and implied they were no longer for sale, the former, however, was rather questionable because at the end of April the players were once again not paid and as I type still have not been.

The above brings us almost up to date, but there have been a couple of further updates in the past few days. Reserve team manager Dave Dickson who had joined the club part way through last season, it turns out, is still at the club and has been promoted to first team manager. In a recent newspaper interview, he talks about assembling a squad of young players for the forthcoming season, whilst it has also been reported that there have been trails to try and find potential candidates for his new squad. It all sounds rather familiar to Harrop's Ikleston set up. Other reports suggest the National League has serious issues with recent goings on at the club and are wanting answers, particularly on the stadium issue. 

So there we have it, the complete utter mess that is Gateshead Football Club. The story is no doubt far from complete but this is where we are up to so far, and with supporters planning to form a new rival club it will certainly be an interesting future. Why all this has happened to a beloved Tyneside based club and for what reason I'm not sure anyone other than those running the show can be totally certain, and although it has been suggested that there are similarities with the plight of Gateshead and what once went on at Ilkeston, did those overseeing Gateshead Football Club really intend for it to all pan out like this? Right now it's hard to make sense of most of it, but if the fans have their way, they will keep football alive and well in the town for many more years to come, and I really do wish them the best!

Further update: Just as I finish this piece I find out Gateshead FC have just survived a winding up order over unpaid tax at the High Court. Apparently, they have now paid all outstanding tax bills. The players and staff, however, have still not been paid their last wages.