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.

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