Everyone eagerly awaits the publication of the fixture list in the Summer. It marks the symbolic start of the season, the point where you discover when the derby will be played, who you’ll face on Boxing Day and when you can start planning for those exotic away trips to your favourite destinations. Mmmm, Welling.
However, the fixture list can be a cruel mistress. Sometimes it fails to provide what you desperately desire. That’s been true the last couple of seasons, because it has denied me the opportunity to enjoy one of my favourite away days. This is the third season in a row when we’ve been sent to Gateshead in midweek, and it’s driving me mad. I miss the trip to Gateshead in all its idiosyncratic glory.
The reason I look forward to a trip to the north east is down to two factors: the people and the stadium. The former element is easy to explain. There are plenty of non-league clubs that give you a fantastically warm welcome, but it’s hard to beat the reception you get at Gateshead. I’ve had elderly stewards going out of their way to show me to my seat so we can continue our nice chat about how bad our form is, press officers who just can’t do enough to help, and fans who are keen to come across and ask my opinion of the game at half time.
But that last example, lovely though it was, was on a day when I was commentating from the benches in front of the press box. That’s fine, but the real treat of the stadium is the press box. Commentating in there is a heck of an experience!
The reason Gateshead boasts a gloriously unnecessary press facility lies in the peculiar nature of their ground. The clue’s in the name: the Gateshead International Stadium wasn’t built to house National League football.
One of the most pleasing memories of my childhood is a nostalgic recollection of the golden days of British athletics. It seems to me that when I was a kid, every Friday night there’d be live coverage of either Seb Coe or Steve Ovett setting a world mile record from Oslo or Zurich. Or, most pleasingly, Gateshead. The stadium was Britain’s top athletics venue when we had some of the greatest names in middle distance running, and these guys were box office. Gateshead was their domain, a place I’d never been to but which seemed fascinating to a starry-eyed ten year old learning how to fall in love with sport.
Of course, the stadium, with its cavernous main stand, isn’t necessary a great fit for the football club. The running track separates you from the pitch and everything seems on a slightly too large scale. Yet that’s what makes it more interesting than the modern identical stadia which seem to be designed out of the same blueprint give or take the odd subtle variation.
And then there’s the press box. An immense, dusty series of airy rooms it once housed the elite of the world’s broadcasters. Now it hosts Conference commentators enjoying a rare opportunity to stretch out and enjoy some space in contrast to the usual experience. (One club which I’d better not name has a press box which essentially consists of a plank nailed across a row of seats to perch your equipment on; plenty of conference press boxes are so tight that once you’re in you’re not going to be able to leave without asking ten people to leave their seats too, which is hardly ideal if your bladder’s on the small side!)
The last time I went there I ended up in a huge booth all on my own, no doubt because my biased raving would disturb the more reasonable members of the press corps. It was amazing, and the closest I’ll get to having an executive box to myself at a match!
I loved every second of it, but then that’s not an unusual feeling when I pay a visit to The Heed.