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 by 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, with 73 of them travellers 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 aren’t playing today and are away (at Huddersfield this weekend) 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 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, 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 more people in it than Guiseley.

Their attendance woes can’t be traced 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 offputting 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 town’s Toon faithful.

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 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 pillagings. Regardless of reason, though, South Shields’ rise has been staggering.

In the early 2010s, the South Shields chairman proclaimed he wanted to turn the club 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 North East legend 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, going over 2k and even 3k 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, calling 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. 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 copious bandwagon while it is camped at their site.

The only constant is Newcastle and Sunderland, something the bandwagon 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.

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 eye, 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 faithful 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 Newcastle and Sunderland monopoly, 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 (ED: Since this article was written, Gateshead were at home on Bank Holiday Monday and a total of 1,118 turned up – 886 Gateshead fans and 232 from Halifax) 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.

(If you fancy going along to watch/support Gateshead, they are next at home in the National League to Chester on Tuesday 12 September – kick-off 7.45pm)

(All contributions from Newcastle fans welcome, send articles (as well as ideas/suggestions) to [email protected])

  • Tim Boddy

    Great article! Really well written and very interesting. Nice work Alex!

  • Michael Wood

    You missed the point totally the reason people don’t go is the price £15 to watch a game In a stadium not fit for football is the reason

    • Sdrawkcab Deman

      We’ve been bleating this mantra for years, blaming negativity etc of the Stadium itself that’s helped crowds to dwindle!

      Last few times we’ve been of late, has left us walking out with tail between our legs, sadly, never really wanting to return. It’s nothing to to with events on the pitch, 99% fault of the ground itself, as it’s not a football stadia (bet Hammers no this feeling 😉), and leaves you in a place that’s just not a healthy feeling at all 🙃.

      So I’m 100% Toon thro & through, born less than 1/2 mile away from river Tyne, with my 1st St James Park visit aged a lofty 5, with 1st game much older, 5 1/2 ;-) and been hooked since.

      Crowd I go see Heed with are both Toon & makems, ah, one lonely Gunner, bereft and a tad disconsolate of late (I tell him you wanna try supporting the Toon, then you’d know!) who all just love the beautiful game. For many a year, we’ve always kept up with Heed’s results, so I say with confidence that family & friends are literally raring to go support Gateshead. Totally agreeing with all remarks and sentiments, as it’s definitely past the time of Gateshead needing a ground to call their own. Once done, I’m confident the crowds will definitely come!

  • molend

    I’ve been saying this for years, so I’m probably wrong. Gateshead and Newcastle are one and the same (Gazza, Andy Carroll, Brian Johnson et al.) and all I hear is ‘Aye, but it’s ower the river’. Well so’s Prudhoe where me Aunt Lizzie used to live (remember her?), but it’s in Northumberland so that’s aall reet. For goodness sake, let’s lend them support to get into the league, to progress mebbe to league 1 and then the bairns can go out on loan to them instead of Kilmarnock etc. It seems to me such a no brainer that I’m probably missing something.

  • anyobrien

    Been a few times to the international stadium to watch the heed and its a dam awful place to watch a game of football…. Horrible soulless cold ground.
    They had there chance a few years ago to build a purpose built stadium with the backing of Tesco… But as usual the wonderful council got involved and fooked it up.

  • Hughie

    For once an excellent piece of journalism in the Mag Alex. Many believe the soulless stadium and its location in a bleak industrial estate are the problem– There is no reason why Tyneside could not support another league club– be it Gateshead or South Shields– the population is there, the football interest is there.
    The only point the article misses perhaps is the competition from the excellent Northern League, which draws several thousand fans every Saturday and has many clubs around Tyneside. All is not lost though–Accrington Stanley survive on paltry crowds. Try holding a few more concerts at the stadium– that would raise funds?

    • Bob Pickersgill

      Income from concerts at the stadium would not go to the football club, it would go to the council as they own the stadium.

      • Hughie

        Good point Bob…even if the club initiated and organised an event though, perhaps they’d get a portion of the take? Nevertheless most believe the ground is the main issue— the idea of building on the old North Durham rugby ground seemed promising … don’t know why it fell through?

        • Bob Pickersgill

          Hi Hughie,
          From memory, the reason the proposals for the new ground did not materialise is because potential partners and leaseholders for office space pulled out and I presume it became financially not viable.

  • TheNutJob

    Let them play a few games at St James, 52,000 will turn up

  • Steve Pearce

    What now for Gateshead?

    A local consortium buy Gateshead, build them a new stadium and start pouring money into them. In four years they will have a ground to rival SJP, have passionate local owners who are not afraid to spend money and they will be in the Champions League while Newcastle are still shackled to that fat stinking cockney [email protected] and stumbling along in 14th with no hope of any progress. All that is needed to make this happen is people with vision, money and imagination who hate Mike Ashley and all he stands for!

    • Burt Humperdink

      err….is that your last answer?

    • NUFCDan

      A bit like FC United of Manchester who play in the league below them to even smaller crowds?

      • Brian Standen

        Absolutely spot on

  • HappyToons

    Blyth Spartans would get a lot more than Gateshead if they ever get promoted and a population of 37000. But that would be on the back of the excitement of an opportunity for League football, a couple of years struggling and it would be 500. But they could easily fill their ground if in Gateshead’s position. Blyth is also all Newcastle and even John Gibson used to say you can’t get anywhere as Black and White and enthusiastic in numbers as Blyth! I think there were two mackems back in the day, the types with no mates and they took some abuse. Two mackems!!! Still a bit of a myth that mackems have a big support in Northumberland Coal towns. A handful in Bedlington, Ashington and Morpeth and I mean just that!

  • Grahame Johnson

    Help I’m confused Chris Rea is a smoggy and proud of it today on BBC he didn’t say you you know he said the Geordie way y-na

  • Bryce Owens

    I’m from Newcastle got no affinity to gateshead so why should I feel obliged to go and watch gateshead if toon not playing. Won’t go got no interest in the heed

  • X,WHY,Y MAN.

    Gateshead really need to get themselves their own stadium which would give the club a solid base and identity.
    I guarantee that would create interest and bring more fans to the club as has been seen with South Shields who returned to Mariners Park.
    They were only getting attendances of around thirty when they were playing at Peterlee.

    A lot of what has happened at South Shields is down to Geoff Thompson’s injection of cash which has been good in one way but also has it’s downsides.
    They now have a big section of bandwagon jumping fans who were nowhere to be seen when the club was struggling.
    They are akin to what you get at clubs like Man Utd and they now think they have a divine right to win games and have become utterly obnoxious which I have experienced first hand being part of the Non League scene.

  • Gallowgate Dave

    Excellent article. I used to be a Gateshead Harrier and the stadium is an issue, it’s just not a footy stadium. The ground is also out of the way, I live in Low Fell and according to GoogleMaps it’s 2.7 miles away when SJP is only 3.4 miles away but far easier to get to with 1 easy bus every few minutes as opposed to a bus, a metro and still a bit of a walk or alternatively a bus and then a canny hike to the International Stadium. More importantly though although I live “south of the river” and have an affinity with Low Fell almost all of my socialising is done in Newcastle, my son was born in Newcastle, I’ve worked in Newcastle, lived in Newcastle and went to university in Newcastle. My affinity with Newcastle is just far stronger than a few charity shops and amusement arcades in Gateshead town centre that I never visit. Most people in Gateshead live closer to Newcastle than a lot of the people “north of the river” and probably spend far more time there than they ever do in Gateshead town centre. It’s only natural they’d gravitate to support the Toon.

  • FairsCup69

    I’m nearly 50 and until recently my home town football club weren’t anywhere. That’s why I support the toon and not the Heed. When I was in my early teens, if there’d been the offer of league football in Gateshead who knows where I would have ended up?But fast forward to 2017 and although the offer is ‘better’ they play at a soulless stadium miles from anywhere so my son whose nearly 12 also chooses NUFC. Much as the Heed are the second result that I look for I couldn’t imagine cheering them on in an FA cup tie against NUFC.

  • Tynewalker

    Good article. I used to to support the Toon as a child but my Dad always took me to Gateshead. Saw some great games and had exciting times.
    I left the area at the time they were relegated in 1961 and subsequent news of them was sparse down south. However I always watched Newcastle when they were in London.
    On returning home I continued to support Newcastle and did not go to Gateshead until about 4 or 5 years ago. I live in the west of Gateshead and travel is difficult and I agree the ground is soulless. Lots if not most of residents in the west of Gateshead associate themselves naturally to Newcastle as their town and have little affinity to Gateshead.
    It’s a shame for the football team and your article has shamed me into making more effort to go in the future.

  • Geordiegiants

    What has Gateshead got to do with us? We are Newcastle, we are nothing to do with Gateshead. It’s a different town. I support one team and one team only, the same club in the same city I was born.

    • FairsCup69

      As per my post it’s fortunate for you that your home town spawned such a renowned name in football. It makes you sound like Joey Barton. I only hope the next time I’m trying to obtain access to SJP they don’t ask for proof of my place of birth otherwise I’ll be banned. I wonder what the crowds at SJP would be under such circumstances?

      • Geordiegiants

        I’m not saying people from gateshead shouldn’t support Newcastle fella, I’m saying why is Gateshead football club any concern of mine.

  • Leazes Ender

    It really isn’t user friendly is it this service provider

    • Geordiegiants

      Ha ha ha lol

  • Drewmanchoo

    There was a plan to build a new stadium near the civic centre as a
    training base for teams for coming to England as part of the the
    2018/2022 world cup. I remember a deal of local excitment at prospect
    (in the pub i was in!). Sadly Russian and Quatar backhanders scuppered
    that and now there isn’t the money to pursue it.

    I agree with the
    rest of these posts, having been to see the Heed a few times the problem
    is the stadium, its a depressing place to watch football. Back in the
    90’s there were more than 10,000 in there to watch Newcastle and and it
    was still dire.

    That said, Gateshead FC is a massive missed
    opportunity. If the council built a new stadium the interest would be
    there. You watch the Toon one week, and Gateshead the next, plus could
    be a easy place to loan out NUFC talent. Also a massive contingent of
    the Toon live in the Heed, so if you care about the Toon spare a thought
    for Gateshead home of the Baltic/Sage/Angel and the Dunston Staithes!