The news was hardly a surprise, but with the rebranding of the north east’s only professional rugby league club as “Newcastle Thunder”, the curtain finally came down on the short, but uniquely turbulent history of Gateshead Thunder.
I read an article in the local press this morning, in which the reporter suggested that “even the die-hard Gateshead fans have been universally mute in their disapproval”, but the one thing that those “die-hard” supporters have done (seemingly with barely a break since the loss of their Super League club in 1999) is fight.
That fight wasn’t necessarily to succeed… it was often simply to exist; and the fact that there was actually a club for the Newcastle Falcons to buy says all you need to know about the passion and commitment of the fans, as well as the dedication and determination of all those who have had the bravery and resolve to preserve the club (and the sport) in this part of non-heartland England – often against seemingly insurmountable odds.
Newcastle Falcons is a big club and a well-established brand, but their last set of accounts revealed significant losses. Financial problems were almost par for the course for Gateshead Thunder, but it does appear that the new owners are giving rugby league every chance to show on-field progression, and whilst the move across the Tyne is no guarantee of success, there is little doubt that it realistically represents Thunder’s best chance of success.
That said, I am still saddened by the loss of Gateshead Thunder. I could write a book filled with my memories of our season in Super League and the incredible (and emotional) fluctuations in fortune that followed… actually I have written a book (two to be precise) and I only have to open the pages to be transported back to some of the most special times of my adult life.
To pick just one moment to encapsulate what Gateshead Thunder means to me is almost impossible because there are so many to choose from; but right now, I am recalling the night on the Boulevard terraces in August 1999, just days after that remarkable performance against Wigan in Edinburgh. After a close first half against Hull Sharks, we were outstanding after the break, eventually winning 40-12.
The forty or so travelling fans saluted their heroes as the game ended. The players came to the edge of the pitch and returned our applause… then suddenly, one by one the whole team clambered wearily over the advertising boards and walked over to shake hands and exchange a few words with the Thunder Army. The moment wasn’t planned, it was a spontaneous show of respect - affection even - from a group of elite athletes, the like of which I had never before witnessed in years of watching professional sport.
Seasons came and went; players came and went, but the seeds had been sown by the squad of ’99 and the rapport between those on and off the field never changed. That was the way it was… that was the Gateshead Thunder way.
I’m sure those same die-hards - with whom I shared so many good times – will be there on the Kingston Park terraces when the new season gets underway. The name may be different, but if the spirit of Gateshead Thunder remains, then Newcastle Thunder might just make a few people sit up and take notice – I certainly wouldn’t bet against it.
But for now, I will close by thanking every single player who represented Gateshead Thunder with such pride and courage. Through you I made so many friends, and have so many fantastic memories… and wherever I may be, and whatever the future may hold, I will always be “walking along, singing a song, walking in a Thunder wonderland…”