Having lived in the shadow of the behemoth structure of St James Park for a few months now, it is hard not to be drawn in by the allure of Newcastle United. The stadium towers over the city like some imposing medieval fort, and people gather in their tens of thousands to cheer on the team despite the club’s fortunes being pervaded by an all too familiar disappointment. The masses of people that fill the pubs around the ground are as passionate about their club as any set of fans you might encounter, and their passion quite quickly leaves you checking up on the scores in the hope that Newcastle aren’t doing too badly. Despite the fact that Newcastle currently sits atop the rankings of football teams in the North East, I believe that there is another club lying on the other side of the River Tyne that is more than worth a visit, Gateshead FC.
For a lot of people, the first ideas conjured in their minds when Gateshead is mentioned will be negative. They will most likely think one of the following: the ground has an athletics track and that simply isn’t right for a football club, non-league football isn’t good enough to warrant watching, and why bother going to Gateshead over any of the bigger clubs in the North East. These 3 ideas shouldn’t at all dissuade someone from visiting this club, and hopefully the following will highlight the many reasons why football at this level, and Gateshead in particular, can be an entertaining and rewarding footballing experience.
The first argument that people might make when avoiding Gateshead, that an athletics track ruins the atmosphere of a ground, might have some merit. One only has to look at the backlash from West Ham fans after moving into their new stadium to see that the amalgamation of football and athletics is unpopular, with most seeming to agree that their current home lacks the soul, character and atmosphere of Upton Park. The distance from the pitch serves to remove the fans from the action, which critics suggest can only impact the noise generated by a set of fans. On my visits to Gateshead, however, I found that the athletics track was simply insignificant. It didn’t affect my view of the game whatsoever, and in fact the modernity of Gateshead’s ground, which is owed to its role as an athletics stadium, means that the view is perfect despite the added distance. With regards to the atmosphere, I was massively surprised to find that there was a quite sizeable group amongst the 600 or so home fans who sang at some volume for the vast majority of the game. I had admittedly expected the atmosphere to be rather subdued, and so the presence of this unexpectedly vocal element of the fan base made the match even more enjoyable. They might not draw in massive crowds at Gateshead, but the notion that the presence of 8 lanes of track between a pitch and some stands must influence the atmosphere around a ground is rubbished quite conclusively by ‘The Heed’.
Secondly, there are people who state that non-league football is, quite simply, not good enough. There are plenty of people who would prefer to watch Manchester City, Barcelona or Bayern Munich dominate their respective leagues with players cherry-picked from the ranks of the world’s best, and to some extent you cannot blame them. You might not find players comparable to Aguero, Messi or Muller scoring for Solihull Moors every week, but to simply dismiss this level of football would be ignorant. There may be a gulf in terms of quality, but in terms of entertainment and value for money the National League more than holds its own. Having been to Tranmere, Chester and Gateshead this season (each costing no more than £7) I have seen a fair amount of National League football, and in each case the obvious differences in ability between the Premier League and the National League was something I hardly noticed, because I was still being entertained. Football at this level is played by a myriad of ex-Football League players, many of whom still possess the ability that saw them play at a higher level. This, combined with a tendency for some of the less experienced or capable players to make mistakes, means that games at this level will offer more than enough excitement to recompense for the difference in quality, and at a fraction of the cost of a team like Newcastle. The football elitists might still turn their nose up at the thought of a trip to Gateshead on a cold Saturday afternoon, but such a trip will provide a cheap and enjoyable game of football that, whether it produces a moment of magic or a moment of madness, will offer a story to tell.
Lastly, someone planning to take in a game of football in the North East might question why they would choose Gateshead over a team such as Newcastle or Sunderland, each of whom possess grand stadiums and the kinds of luxuries that go amiss as you venture further down the football pyramid. Gateshead, however, is not the footballing wasteland that some might consider it to be, offering a comfortable environment in which to watch a game. You won’t have to freeze to death on an open terrace at the ground, or traverse almost the entire city to get there, as it lies a few minutes away from a station on the North East Metro Line. 50,000 people might not descend on the stadium on a Saturday, and Gateshead might not possess a history as storied and successful as its big brothers in the North East, but all the same it has a passionate set of fans and a friendly atmosphere about the club. St James Park will always rule the skyline over Newcastle, but if you ever develop a desire for a footballing experience that costs less but doesn’t sacrifice authenticity and entertainment, then it might be time to consider Gateshead FC as the next destination on your travels.
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