Two nights ago, I posted a random “Throwback Thursday” photo on Facebook; it was a picture taken with my trusty instamatic of Deon Bird scoring a try in Gateshead Thunder’s Super League game against Warrington back in September 1999.
It was the final fixture of the regular Super League season, and the new squad of mainly Australian players had finished in sixth position (just one place outside the play-offs); an incredible achievement for a fledgling club taking rugby league to a new audience outside the sport’s traditional heartlands.
As the end-of-season party got underway on the Wilderspool terraces, the Gateshead players came to acknowledge their ever-growing band of supporters, the Thunder Army. These were moments of mutual and warm appreciation, made all the more special by subsequent events that resulted in the loss of our players, and the end of the Super League dream after that one campaign.
But what a campaign it was…
You could write a book filled with memories of those 30 games, which included 19 victories—in fact I did write a book… it’s no longer in print, but hopefully some of you have a copy hidden away somewhere. And everyone who watched the Thunder, at home or away, will have their own favourite moments that, almost twenty years later, remain as strong and emotive as they were at the time.
My favourite game? It has to be the win over Wigan Warriors at Tynecastle. It had everything… that “wonder try” by Brian Carney; two great finishes from Matt Daylight; simply stunning defence in the closing minutes; and joyous, truly unforgettable celebrations at the end of a game that brought down the curtain on the career of Danny “the Ox” Lee. What a player he was…
The midweek victory at the Boulevard was pretty special too. A close opening forty minutes following by a second-half demolition, during which David Maiden scored a length of the field try straight from a Hull kick-off. It’s still hard to believe that the players we saw that night would be wearing the black and white of Hull FC just a few months later.
Try of the season? I think Brian Carney’s score in Edinburgh was the official choice, but my vote would have gone to a try by Deon Bird in the home fixture against Castleford, collecting a bouncing ball one-handed, at full pace, before diving over the line. It was a sublime piece of skill.
Time moves on, but nearly two decades after that truly amazing summer, rugby league still exists in the north east; the name “Thunder” now being preceded by the word “Newcastle”, as the current squad is based at Kingston Park, north of the River Tyne.
To say that the road has been rocky would be the mother of all understatements, but I think it’s safe to suggest that none of the various subsequent incarnations of this brilliant club would have existed had it not been for those men who travelled halfway around the world, many with their families, to showcase their particular brand of sporting entertainment and excitement.
Look at all the countless games that have been played from 2000 onwards; all the friendships that have been forged through a love rugby league … a love of Gateshead Thunder. To have created such a legacy in one season, just 30 games, is incredible. Maybe they don’t know quite what a difference they made, but I for one am so grateful.
I suppose that there will always be that nagging question at the back of the mind: what if? How might the future have been had things worked out differently? But even in those few short months a unique bond was created that has clearly stood the test of time. For players and fans alike, it was a remarkable experience, and I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.
So to Ben, Matt, Deon, Craig, Ian, Will, Willie, Danny, Kerrod, Luke, Craig, Andrew, Brett, Tony, David, Adam, Brett, Richard, Sean, Mick, Brian, Garreth, Danny and Steve… and to Shane, Shaun and everyone behind the scenes; thank you.
There’s only one Gateshead Thunder!
Richard... Jack of some trades... you can guess the rest