Saturday, 7 November 2009

Gateshead 2 Brentford 2

FA Cup first round
Attendance: 1,150

Many years ago when I lived near Brentford my flatmate went to Griffin Park to buy a ticket for a big match. “Can you prove you’re a supporter?” he was asked at the ticket office. What was he supposed to do? He told me he nearly broke into a chant of “Deano, Deano!” (aka Dean Holdsworth). There was no need for such tests of allegiance for today’s tie. Gateshead is a long way from London for a start and, being playing in the vast international athletics stadium, there was plenty of room at the match for everyone including my son and mascot, Bertie, and I.

In fact, I’ve never been in such a woefully empty stadium for a match (see video at end of this post). It must feel a bit like this playing behind closed doors. Never mind having a row to yourself; you can have a block to yourself and I’m sure (if you know the right people) you can have a private stand. There was swathe upon swathe of empty red seats. Most clubs change the colour of their seats to match their strip but Gateshead ought to do the switch the other way round. The pitch is surrounded by a running track, of course, and three sides are unroofed. The all-seater set-up further dampened the atmosphere and, in the first half at least, gave the tie the sterility of a match from the foreign millionnaire’s league. At a time when most clubs are looking to move into 11,000 all-seater stadiums Gateshead want – and, moreover, desperately need – to move out of one and, last week, announced proposals for a ground of their own after next season. About the only reason for a football club to share an athletics stadium is that the giant digital stopwatch can double-up as a scoreboard and countdown clock (pictured below with goat mascot).

“He’s gone to the posh match,” I overheard one supporter saying to another, a reference to the other game taking place at'ParkStadium (think I’ve got the punctuation right there) and perhaps also to Newcastle’s opposition, Peterborough. We’d seen some of their fans on the way up, ‘Posh’ scarves fluttering from car windows. (This wasn’t the first time that Gateshead had had their thunder inadvertantly stolen by Peterborough as the club replaced them in the Football League in 1960). With Sunderland only a few miles away, Gateshead are always going to struggle to attract support. It’s not that locals don’t care; it’s just that they’ve got other priorities.

Gateshead did all they could to boost the attendance. The car park was free (a nice gesture) and accompanied under 16s could get in for just £2. A couple of lads approached me asking if I could usher them through but, as I was trying to work out the feasibility of this, the two fellas in front adopted them for the purpose. The hosts also tried – rather sneakily, by all accounts – to get the match switched to Sunday in the hope of attracting other local supporters but Brentford objected. The outcome was another lowest gate of the round for Gateshead who only avoided the ignominy of a three-figure crowd thanks to the huddle of Bees fans (see pic above). God, they must be dedicated. They sat at the back of the opposite stand like hardy hikers on a hill top.

The first half wouldn’t have taken their minds of the five-hour plus return journey. It was dire. The match finally burst into life 10 mins into the second half when the Brentford goalie flapped at a corner and conceded an own goal. “Heed Army, Heed Army!” we called and jabbed. North-east passion was aroused. The home lead was short-lived, however, as Newcastle reject Carl Cort soon equalised with a header and later Brentford took the lead. Two mins into injury time, though, Heedgates (as Bertie called them) scrambled in an equaliser and the players collapsed under a scrum of joy.

So it’s back to Griffin Park for a replay. A more homely occasion for all concerned, I’d have thought, if not quite as novel. Today’s match was one for the FA Cup connoisseur, to be sure.

Two links: Click here for an excellent BBC blog about the travails of Gateshead and the club’s social context. The blog also has a link (also here) to some archive footage of the club’s 1953 FA Cup quarter final, worth watching if only for the vintage intro music, the baggy shorts and the cheery, rattle-waving fans. You can practically smell the Bovril and cigarette smoke …

Royals connection: Ex-Reading manager Terry Bullivant is now assistant manager for Brentford. Remember him?