Yesterday, in a game that was low on quality, but off the scale in tension and drama, Gateshead defeated Grimsby 3-1 (4-2 on aggregate) and are now set to play Cambridge United at Wembley, with the winners heading into the Football League.
Yes... the actual Football League... the one from which the name of Gateshead was so cynically removed in 1960.
For me, it was a totally surreal experience, not just because Gateshead Stadium has been so impressively upgraded since I moved away from the town, but because during the decade or so that I travelled far and wide following the team, the Football League was something that one or two of your players had tasted during their career, but a level to which your club could never really aspire.
Just being around for another season was a cause for celebration, and the occasional wins at places like Stalybridge, Bath, Kidderminster, Kettering, Gretna, Emley, Marine and Radcliffe etc were the icing on our non-League cake.
Some of the faces at the Stadium were the same—well the same but older—but the nerves were plain to see: the 1990s definition of nerves was getting to a ground with the rusty minibus windows still intact. Yes, that's how much it has all changed.
I was lucky enough to have been invited to share the corporate hospitality yesterday, and it was hugely impressive: well-organised, excellent food, plenty of drink for those that weren't driving, and thoroughly enjoyable company. Surely it wasn't going to be a great day, ruined by ninety minutes of football..?
The atmosphere inside the ground was superb. The attendance was 8,144, probably ten times Gateshead's home league average, and the biggest for a Gateshead club sporting fixture since the heady days of Gateshead Thunder's 1999 Super League campaign.
Both sides looked nervous throughout the early exchanges, but the game (and the home fans) exploded into life midway through the half when James Marwood's speculative drive was spectacularly fumbled by Mariners' keeper James McKeown. For the rest of the period Gateshead looked comfortable, without being consistently threatening and the single goal separated the sides after forty-five minutes.
The pattern continued at the start of the second period, but somewhat bizarrely the momentum swung Grimsby's way when they were reduced to ten men. Gateshead looked unsure how to play with their man advantage, and spurred on by their left-back (and best player) Aswad Thomas, the visitors pressed forward and netted a deserved equaliser—which prompted an ugly-looking pitch invasion and the arrival of a sizeable police presence at the far right-hand side of the ground.
Grimsby continued to look the more likely to score, until the game took another twist with another sending off, Sam Hatton being dismissed for the second of two needlessly reckless challenges.
Finally the numerical difference started to show, Gateshead dominated possession, but lacked a bit of composure in the final third. It needed something special to break the deadlock, and the moment finally arrived with just six minutes remaining, as James Marwood unleashed an unstoppable left-foot shot that flew past McKeown to spark some wild celebrations amongst the home fans and a rather unnecessary pitch invasion by some of the Gateshead contingent.
For some reason, Grimsby let Gateshead pass the ball around for the next five minutes—with a similar period of stoppage time being added as the clock reached ninety minutes. Belatedly, Grimsby pushed forward, only to be caught on the break, with JJ O'Donnell sliding the ball into an empty net to put the result beyond doubt.
Of course it's easy to gloat when there is a cordon of police separating you from the opposing supporters; it's a bit like going to a zoo and waving your burger at a lion, safe in the knowledge that it's snarling behind the bars of a metal cage. All a bit unnecessary really.
The Gateshead players eventually made their way through the mass of supporters to exchange applause with the fans in the main stand, before heading for the sanctuary of the dressing room. Each player's subsequent arrival in the lounge was greeted by loud applause, with a special ovation being reserved for the appearance of Chairman Graham Wood.
Overall, it was an incredible day, but essentially it's still a job half done. Two weeks from today, Gateshead's fate will be known: another year in the Conference... or a long overdue return to the Football League. From what I've seen, this Gateshead squad is certainly good enough, they'll have the amazing Heed Army behind them, and 18th May might just mark the end of one remarkable sporting story... and the first chapter in another.