Wednesday 25 September 2013

One Exile's trip to Gateshead

Nobody can possibly look forward to a Tuesday night away fixture at Gateshead. Apart from a) people from Gateshead and b) me. That's because I'm a Chester fan, but for the past 15 years I've been living in the North East.

Actually, there must be other Chester fans who quite like the idea of a trip to Gateshead as there were around 140 of us at the Gateshead Stadium for Chester's visit to drizzly Tyneside. We were all rewarded by some cracking goals. Unfortunately, they were not all scored by the away team.

Since leaving Chester in 1998, I've gained a wife and also a friend who tagged along on the promise that we could visit a real ale pub for tea first, which was serving German food and smoked German beer as part of their Oktoberfest. A few days before the match, I emailed the exiles blog to suggest meeting in the pub. Nobody else met us there, which is a shame because both the food and the drink were great.

Gateshead has a baffling road system which means it is virtually impossible to get from A to B without driving around the rest of the alphabet, twice. There are hardly any directions, and most crossroads have both no right turn and no left turn signs. So despite the pub being only a mile from the ground, and the ground being clearly visible by its massive floodlights, we still nearly missed the start of the match. And quite a start it was too. 40 seconds on the clock, and GOAL!! A stunningly fabulous strike from 40 yards, and well worth applause, but sadly, for the wrong team.

The Chester team were dazed. We looked as if a bunch of part time players had been rounded up after a full dayʼs work, thrown on a coach, whizzed up the A1(M), and were now expected to play professional football before being back at work by 9am the following morning. For the next 10-15 minutes, things didn't improve much, as the part timers looked like they were still mentally filing accounts or planning u-bends or whatever the lads get up to on the 9-5.

Gateshead's early goal came so fast that I hadn't yet had time to take in the sights and sounds of the Gateshead International Stadium. Both home and away fans were seated in the same stand, which was a bit weird as there was an entire empty stand opposite. The lights were off. Seats surrounded the entire ground, including behind both goals. Nobody was allowed to sit in them. We all stared forwards. This was odd, as it meant you couldn't see the home fans. But you could hear their chants and songs which echoed down the same stand we were in. It was all a bit weird. The stand however was pretty neat - it had plenty of rows of seats so we were nice and high up, out of the wind and drizzle.

So, about two minutes in, we were 1 goal down, looked a bit clueless, and instead of cheering the team on, our travelling fans started trying to claim that Gateshead was a “sh*thole” and sung they wanted to go home. This continued for some time. I don't quite understand the point of this chant. Why not support your team and not immediately complain that you want to go at home? I apologised to my friend and wife for the negative attitude more than the bad language - but it really doesnʼt encourage neutrals or children to come back. We need more positive songs.

Luckily, Chester were slowly building up some pressure and managed to equalise somewhere around the half hour mark. GOAL!! Hugs all round. Thank god for that. Friend and wife weren't going to go home without experiencing the mad passion and celebrations. It was all pretty boring until then. Iʼd spotted that there was a steeplechase pool behind one of the goals. I wondered whether it was full of water, and what would happen if the ball went in it. I never found out.

As the first half wore on, Chester looked better and better. We chanted ʻcome on Cityʼ. We built up some more pressure and perhaps missed a few good chances to take the lead as the first half came to an end. I couldn't tell you who was taking chances or anything like that because frankly, all the action was so far away. I have neglected until now to mention that between us and the football pitch was an 8-lane athletics track. This looked pretty cool. I hoped that Gateshead would wheel out some athletes at half time to keep us entertained; they didnʼt. There was no entertainment at half time.

I hoped that Gateshead would have a mascot called Rusty (the Angel), but they didn't. There was literally nothing to keep fans interested, so most people went downstairs where there was a decent lookingcatering operation and a TV showing Sky Sports News. At least the loos were clean and had hot running water.

As the teams appeared for the second half, the mind wondered a bit about how much money it must cost to build and maintain a world class athletics facility. In all my years being exiled in Durham, I canʼt really recall much happening there. I'm pretty sure that most of Gateshead's road signage budget was sucked in to maintaining the stadium. It's the only possible explanation.

BOOM! Weʼd kicked off again, and Chester looked like the part time players had finally been fed. But not in a good way. They just rolled around quite contentedly, while the much hungrier Gateshead team were now first to the ball and generally looked much quicker. I said this wasnʼt looking good. you could see Gateshead's next goal coming from the other end of the pitch. Pass pass pass. Zip past the Chester player, round another, fire in and easy peasy itʼs in the back of the net. GOAL. Groan. You could have predicted that 20 seconds earlier. It looked like we were making it easy for them.

This felt bad. We were like rabbits in the headlights. Part time plumbers and electricians versus a full time team. Our lads had done a couple of days work and travelled three hours to get here. Gateshead had spent two days on football training and looked like they'd jogged all the way to the ground.
This looked tough. We were getting pickled. Chester needed a shot in the arm. They looked dejected. We kicked off and tried to push up straight away to find an equaliser. We lost the ball. Gateshead sped up to Chester end, passed it and scored again. GOAL. Gateshead 3, Chester 1. Painful stuff.

The away fans picked up their favourite chant complaining that they wanted to go home. Friend and wife probably agreed with them. Or at least, they'd probably prefer to be back in the pub. Mmm. Real ale. Chester made some changes but I couldn't tell you who came on and who went off. The stadium PA system was truly terrible, and between the running track, long jump pits and team dugouts, the centre line just looked so far away. Opera glasses were not provided.

Having made some changes, and now two goals behind, Chester suddenly looked much better. The team oddly gained a do or die kind of attitude which I admire. One point at the end of the season is always worth more than a slightly worse goal difference, and while Gateshead looked dangerous on the counter, I was really glad that we'd changed tactics and were off looking for a goal.

The good news is that one came, and a pretty good one it was too. Unfortunately for us, it was at the far end. in the dark and drizzle. All I know is that we scored a belter. Hurray. Hugs and cheers. Jumping up and down. No more “I want to go home” chants now. Much more encouragement. Good. Positive mental attitude. We can do this. Chester pressed on. We kept pushing forward, piling on the pressure. Gateshead looked pretty tired. We looked lively.

Gateshead got a couple of breaks and just wasted time walking the ball towards the corners. Chester looked perky and had some great opportunities to equalise. Four minutes of injury time were announced and in the mist, as Chester pushed on, Gateshead took the ball. Their striker got a break on the half way line. He was past the Chester defence with half the pitch to go. One of our players managed to bring him down which stopped a Gateshead fourth goal but led to a straight red. Eek. But it made for quite an exciting finish.

As the injury time ticked on, Chester had another great push forward but just couldn't score. Gateshead kicked the ball down the pitch. Chester ran back at their goal, got a bit bogged down, turned and as we eyed up another onslaught, the ref blew for full time.

So - to sum up, we made quite a lot of annoying mistakes and looked pretty tired and lacking in confidence at times. We're in a new league this season and up against a lot of full time teams. Things were always going to be tough and a long Tuesday night journey to the North East requires some pretty strong commitment.

To cap it all, overnight roadworks on the A1 meant that all southbound traffic had a long detour down the A167 via Chester le-Street, Durham and beyond. Just the last thing that any of the dedicated Chester fans or players really needed, but kind of symbolic. Hopefully we'll make it to the end of the season above the drop zone - but it looks like we're going to have to go the long way to get there.

Richard Dean