I feel sorry for Gateshead fans. Not so much for the injustice their Club received in 1958, voted out of the Football League after appearing in the re-election places for only the second time in their thirty year run. Nor for their having seen their club dissolve and reform four times since. No, what I feel sorry for them about is playing their home games at the International Athletics Stadium.
The first, and fairly obvious point to make about the Stadium is that it isn’t a purpose built football ground. It has a full-scale pitch at its centre, but this is surrounded on all sides by a full, eight-lane running track. This is never a good thing for a football ground as it instantly distances the crowd from the game. As stadia like the old Wembley, this was surmountable by sheer atmosphere, but as a venue for a non-League team whose gate could be numbered in hundreds, it would never work.
But the worst of it is that that typical no-League crowd has nowhere to go except the Main Stand, on one side of the pitch. The Stand is built to suit the larger athletic crowds, and Gateshead’s fans do little to come near filling it, their cries and shouts resounding like echoes of ghosts in the overexpansive surroundings. And as there is no possibility of sitting or standing behind either goal, or on the further side, the game is carried out in a three-sides empty stadium.
The Club did unveil plans in 2009 to build a proper Football Stadium for themselves in Gateshead City Centre, but these don’t seem to have gone anywhere yet.
Of all the non-League grounds I visited in a near ten year spell following Droylsden, the Athletics Stadium is by far and away the most successful atmosphere-killer.
I went to Gateshead with Droylsden in the 1999/2000 season, our first back in the Unibond Premier Division. In view of the distance, I forewent driving, and travelled on the team coach (on which there were usually 20 places for supporters, to help defray the expense). It was actually a fun experience, if you could ignore the usual beery rowdiness, childishness and vulgarity on the way home: not the players, who just congregated at the back of the bus and drank, but you should have seen the Committee Men! It was during this game that I had one of the weirdest experiences I’ve ever had in life, let alone sport.
This came about an hour into the game. We had taken the lead, and Gateshead levelled before half-time. Now they were attacking along their left flank, directly in front of us, playing right to left.
One of their players picked up the ball and moved infield. Our defence didn’t challenge him for the ball, but let him come on until, in front of goal and about twenty-five yards out, he swivelled and let fly with a ground shot. The shot was all along the ground, beat our keeper on his right hand, and rolled about one to two foot inside the post and into the net.
Then it kept on rolling, without the slightest change of pace, away into the distance behind the goal.
By some piece of sloppiness, the net had not been properly fixed to the ground at that point, and the shot had just gone straight through it. Both teams surrounded the officials, none of whom could say, definitively that they had been the ball go in between the posts. So the game restarted with a goal-kick, to our relief and Gateshead’s frustration. There was no more score, so Gateshead were denied a win and we got away with a point we should never have had.
That this happened at all was strange in itself but the truly wierd thing about it was how I reacted. I had an unobstructed view, I’d seen the ball go inside the post, started the indrawn breath of frustration, even seen the ball hit the net. But the moment that ball continued, uninterrupted, my mind kicked in to override what I had actually seen. The ball has not ended up in the net, therefore it had never been in the net, the shot had missed, it had gone outside the post. I’d seen what I’d seen, but the instant that the expected outcome failed to materialise, my brain started to rewrite history, to fit the facts to the outcome.
It was one of the most utterly strange things to ever happen to me, and I was not alone. The same thing had gone to everyone around me. We had all seen Gateshead score, we had collectively begun to groan, and we each of us now doubted the evidence of our eyes. Terry Pratchett makes much use of this phenomenon in the Discworld books, particularly when Death is about, but this was real life.
I struggled with myself but ended up convincing myself that I had seen what I’d seen, that Gateshead had had a legitimate goal unjustly allowed. But without replays of any kind being possible, I had only what I had fleetingly seen to guide me, and I needed an effort of will to believe myself.
The goal that never was, and the instant conviction that overruled the evidence of my eyes. It was a bizarre experience, but I experienced it, because I was there.