Chasing Promotion

Sunday, May 4, 2008 11:08 | Filed in Local Interest, Sport

Earlier on in the season, I mentioned Gateshead FC: I could get used to this, in reference to the fact that my local non-league club had won their first seven games of the season, and were flying towards promotion from the Unibond Premier League to the Blue Square North.

(For those of you not up on football stats, the Premier League is England’s top division. Below that, you have the Championship, then League 1, then League 2. Below that is what is referred to as ‘non-league football’ and there you have the Blue Square Conference as the premier non-league division, and the lowest division that is national – as below the Blue Square Conference, you have two regional divisions, Blue Square North and Blue Square South).

Perhaps unsurprisingly, it wasn’t possible for Gateshead to continue winning all of their games, and they slipped down the table a bit, eventually finishing in 3rd place, enough to secure a play-off spot (the champions get promoted automatically, positions 2-5 play off for one remaining promotion spot). Although we did manage to finish as the joint highest scorerst in any of Englands top divisions, scoring 93 league goals (and a total of 133 now in all competitions this season).

The Unibond Play Offs take a slightly different format to that I’ve seen elsewhere: instead of the familiar two-leg semi final, and a single final at a neutral venue, both semi-final and final are one-leg affairs held at the home ground of one of the two clubs. Which club? — whichever one finished higher in the league.

Last tuesday we disposed of Eastwood Town, with a comfortable 4-0 victory, to take us to the play off final to face Buxton (who had beaten 2nd placed Witton Albion on penalties). As Buxton had finished 5th, we had home advantage, and so I made my way to Gateshead International Stadium yesterday with my 4-year old BTP to watch the game.

Gateshead had played Buxton twice in the league in the previous month — winning 4-0 and 5-0 — and so were obviously favourites, but as those wins had been achieved after Buxton had secured their play-off spot, they didn’t have as much to play for at that time as us (who could theoretically just about have won the title).

As I got inside, I realised that it was busy. It had been a few years since I’d last been there, during which time the average crowd had declined from the 550 or so that used to turn up to the Vauxhall Conference games in the 1990s to an average of around 280 this season. But this was far busier than that…

The play off semi final had attracted over 500, but this was the busiest I’d seen the ground, even eclipsing games against teams like Barnet or Wycombe Wanderers who were about to achieve promotion to the football league — in total 1402 people made their way to the stadium yesterday.

The only question was whether all of those ‘glory hunters’ (if you can ever class a non-league fan as a glory hunter) would see anything that would make them want to come back the following season.

After about ten minutes, I realised that while the standard of football, fitness and ball control was far above anything I would be able to achieve, if was still a massive step down from the level of football normally seen on Match of the Day. But it wasn’t just high-tempo clogging, there was some great intelligent play, overlapping runs and generally an entertaining game that was worth watching.

In the first half, Gateshead had had all of the possession and pressure, but hadn’t created many real chances and I was beginning to worry that Buxton would carve something out when the second half started, but instead it was former Newcastle United defender Kris Gate who put Gateshead in front five minutes into the second half, weaving through three challenges before planting the ball past the goalkeeper to settle home nerves.

In the following fifteen minutes, Gateshead created a few more chances, but the closest they game to a second was headed off the line by a defender with the goalkeeper well beaten. Buxton seemed to realise that they were still in the game, and revitalised by three substitutions (and the referee seemingly not thinking that holding a Gateshead player in a headlock and wrestling him to the ground not even worthy of a caution) they began to exert pressure on Gateshead for the first time in the game.

As the game moved towards the eightieth minute, the question seemed more ‘can Gateshead hang on’ than anything else: Buxton were camped in our half but despite this were still struggling to get the ball in our penalty area. And then in a flash, the game was put beyond doubt as a long clearance from defence found Brayson on the halfway line, who sprinted with the ball into the opposition penalty area and lifted the ball over the keeper to make it two-nil.

Game over, and the Buxton seemed to lose quite a bit of belief at that point as the final ten minutes of the game petered out…

…leaving Gateshead as the play off winners of the Unibond Premier League, and set to join the Blue Square North next season. Hurrah!

Will I be going again? Well, we’ll have to see what next season brings, but I enjoyed the afternoon out, and while I’m not expecting to visit every game next season, I’d be surprised if I don’t take in at least a few…

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1 Comment to Chasing Promotion

  1. Laurence says:

    May 6th, 2008 at 7:42 pm

    Viva Gateshead!…congratulations on the promotion.

    Potentially another three weeks of agony for the Cheeserolls, but i am quietly confident/aprehensive Colin will get our boys (and they are boys) over the top.

    Lancaster City, better luck next season……

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