For the last eight years or so, I've got up at some unearthly hour and driven up the A19, along the Felling by-pass and into Newcastle to get to work. I've lost count of the number of times I've passed Gateshead International Stadium... home of the town's football and rugby league clubs.
Throughout the two decades that I lived in Low Fell, both these clubs were a hugely important part of my life. Both have encountered more than their fair shares of trials and tribulations, but I suppose that's what makes the good times so much more special.
During the 1990s, I was a regular on not only the Stadium terraces, but at grounds right around the country (actually that should read "countries"—viz. Gretna and Colwyn Bay) watching Gateshead FC. Back in those days, "success" was defined as not being relegated, and a half-decent run in the Trophy and FA Cup.
If following a club was simply about the weekly taste of victory and silverware, then Gateshead would not be on anybody's list of teams to support. But over those years, the players who represented the club, and the small, but ridiculously dedicated band of fans—the Heed Army—gave me so many brilliant memories, the like of which a Manchester United fan (for example) probably wouldn't even understand, let alone appreciate.
It would be rather self-indulgent to recall some of the stories here (suffice to say there were several occasions when there were more Gateshead players on the field than supporters on a far-flung midweek evening terrace) because the real reason for today's blog is to recognise those Gateshead supporters who were travelling then, and still travel now come rain or shine—the hardest of the hardcore.
Tomorrow, Gateshead will entertain Grimsby Town in the second leg of a Conference play-off semi-final, with the tie superbly poised at 1-1 after Thursday's clash at Blundell Park. It's the biggest game in the club's recent history, coming some fifty-four years after being unceremoniously dumped out of the Football League when a first application for re-election was ignored in favour of three clubs all of whom were making one of multiple bids to retain their status.
There have been several occasions during the intervening half century when the very existence of the club was threatened, but for those whose resolve may have been sorely tested, but never broken, this season's third-place finish was a reward that was as fantastic as it was long overdue.
The stark reality is that two games of football lie between Gateshead and a return to the Football League. Even typing the words it's hard to take in, but tomorrow afternoon I will be privileged to be back on the terraces, hoping against hope that there is at least one more chapter to write...
But tomorrow isn't about me, nor the majority of an expected 6,000 crowd. In some respects it's not even about the manager, and his magnificent squad of players, nor those whose hard work and investment has helped make this occasion possible.
No. Tomorrow is about Tony, Gary (Frankie), John, Mickey, Tommy et al... for the thousands of pounds... the tens of thousands of miles... the sheer love of their club. It was a pleasure being a small part of your remarkable journey (a horrible word—apologies), and if a Wembley trip and maybe even beyond is fated to happen, then you deserve every single special moment.