Back in 1999, professional rugby league arrived in north east England in the form of Gateshead Thunder. The newly-assembled squad was made up almost entirely of Australians, all top-class athletes, but not all household names outside their home country.
The prospect of the sport expanding away from “traditional heartlands” was not universally welcomed; and there were those who suggested that Gateshead Thunder would play in front of small crowds and achieve little on the field…
I’ve played and watched so much sport over the years, but rarely (if ever) have I seen one team make such an incredible impact. Under the guidance of Shaun McRae (another Aussie), Gateshead Thunder produced some sparkling performances on the field, which resulted in a sixth-place finish in Super League – just two points and one position outside the end-of-season play-offs – and home attendances increased throughout the summer to an average of nearly 4,000.
What was truly special was the rapport between the Gateshead players and the fans. The “Thunder Army” (as they quickly became known) had no rivalries or prejudices … they just loved supporting their team. And even when outnumbered, they were rarely out-sung. There was barely a let-up from the terraces, especially away from home, and I suppose the most memorable example was the final game of the season, away at Warrington, when 300-400 Gateshead fans gathered behind the posts and chanted and danced their way through pretty much the whole 80 minutes. It was the first (and so far last) time I’ve ever been part of a conga inside a rugby ground…
When the hooter sounded, the players didn’t just come and applaud the fans; they would often clamber over advertising boards and accept the handshakes and hugs from the crowd (I was always a manly handshake man…). Again, this was something I had simply never witnessed before; and not surprisingly, it only made the bond even stronger.
The highlight of 1999 (and one of my all-time favourite sporting moments) was the 20-16 win over Wigan Warriors in a game played at Tynecastle Stadium in Edinburgh. The game had everything. Three great Thunder tries, a seemingly inevitable fightback from the reigning Super League champions, and some unbelievable Gateshead defence to hold off the Wigan onslaught in the closing minutes … all played out against an incessant barrage of noise from the Thunder faithful. The celebrations (both on and off the field) that greeted the final hooter remain etched in my memory. It really was amazing…
Sadly, history will relate that Gateshead’s Super League dream “died” in November 1999 when the club decided that joining forces with Hull was the best way to resolve ongoing financial issues. Those memories are etched in my mind too…
Some said: “I told you so”; others were much more sympathetic; but the legacy of our original squad is that they created a spirit and resolve to refuse to let the Thunder die. The club reformed – a number of times, as it transpired – but despite many ups and downs (and there have been plenty of the latter), professional north east rugby league, and the Thunder name, still exists.
Rugby league is one of the (if not the) most intense, physical team sport. Physical strength and toughness is a given, but rugby league is very much at the forefront of player welfare, which includes supporting those who have some form of mental health condition. It takes a lot of courage for anyone to admit they are struggling and need help, but I can certainly appreciate why someone in such a tough sporting environment might be reluctant to speak out.
That said mental health issues can affect anybody. No one is “too big” or “too strong”.
You might feel like you are alone, but you aren’t.
You might feel you can’t talk; but someone will listen.
You might feel like no one can help; but there are people who can … and will.
In order to try and combine the 20th anniversary of Gateshead Thunder and the great work that is being done to raise awareness of mental health issues in sport in general (but rugby league in particular), I have decided to undertake a third “road trip”.
I’ve done a football club in each of the four Home Nations in one day, and six county cricket grounds in eight hours … the 2019 event will take in 10 (or maybe even 11) professional rugby league grounds in eight hours. The clubs will include Leeds Rhinos who were Thunder’s first opponent in Super League, Warrington (who were the last) and Wigan (but not Edinburgh..!).
I’m looking at a date in mid-May when no games are scheduled. There is a lot to arrange, but hopefully I’ll be able to get a bit of publicity along the way, and maybe meet up with an old friend or two on the day.
More details will follow, but the first (draft) plan is as follows: Castleford, Wakefield, Dewsbury, Leeds, Bradford, Huddersfield, Rochdale, Oldham, Salford, Warrington, and Wigan (in that order).
There are other possibilities and I’m open to suggestions. In fact, there are only two things I can say for absolute certain. One, I will be wearing the original Gateshead Thunder away shirt that belonged to Deon Bird (in fact I will be proud to wear it); and secondly, when I get home, I will raise a glass to “Big Niall” Mercer, one of the original Thunder Army, a great bloke, larger than life, who was taken far too soon.
I don’t want to end of a sombre note though; so I will leave you with this exchange between Big Niall and a barmaid after Thunder had played a game away to Swinton Lions back in the early 2000s:
“Can I have a bottle of red wine to take out, please?”
“I’m sorry; we only serve wine by the glass…”
“How many glasses in a bottle?”
“Can I have six glasses of red wine, please?”
“But can you leave them in the bottle..?!”