Parachuted straight into rugby league's big time, but crashing down to earth, Mark Smith finds out why two years without a single league victory have not extinguished Gateshead Thunder's flame
THEY say the teenage years are the most difficult, but even before their tenth birthday Gateshead Thunder had been thrown into the 1999 Super League, merged with Hull after one season, re-formed in Gateshead, sent into administration, promoted as champions, relegated, dissolved and re-born as a community club.
The last two years have proved by far their most stable, on a financial level at least, although their last 56 games against professional opposition have failed to deliver a single victory. It is either progress or disaster, depending on your barometer, but this is not a club used to doing things the conventional way.
“We realise that sport is results-driven, and that the results over the last two years have not been good,” says Thunder’s director of community programmes Chris Hood, the long-time club-man who has previously stood as assistant coach, head coach and director of rugby.
“All that the man in the street probably sees is the score in the paper and the league table, and it is not for him to worry about or appreciate everything else that we are doing. Those who see the actual games realise we are closer now to winning than we have been since the end of our last administration in 2009, but ultimately it comes down to what happens at 4.45pm on a Sunday afternoon.
“We have been close in a number of games, but in professional sport the margins are so thin that you get punished.”
Once again Thunder remain rooted to the bottom of English rugby league’s third tier, Co-operative Championship One. It is a league with no relegation, fortunately for them. Going through three head coaches last season they hope to have found their long-term solution in Kevin Neighbour, the North East native who shone for the club as a player and has returned to steady the ship from the touchline.
“We are a lot closer to getting that first win thanks to Kevin,” says Hood, whose enthusiastic work in the community has seen sponsors and junior clubs embracing the 13-man code in its North East outpost.
“As a club we said we would spend these two years getting the roots of the tree properly planted, which we had never done before, and now it is all about building the branches.
“We know people will focus on the fact that we haven’t won for so long, but when we eventually do it those two years will be forgotten.
“We are not trying to play down the losing run, and we do see it as a weekly heartache.
“We are not masochists and it is tough to take it when you keep getting beat, but it becomes a lot more bearable when you see the continued passion of the players and fans.
“At the moment we have just got to get over the hurdle, and realise that the world changes for us with that first win.
“Confidence is a big thing, and the lads have just got to get that win once to realise they can do it a second, third and fourth time.”
Learning the lessons from previous incarnations Thunder have no intention of throwing money at the problem as they did in 2008, winning the Championship One title and being relegated two years later when the cash ran out.
“Although we fully appreciate that it is a results-driven game, what we have come to understand is that it is not going to be winning or losing that breaks our business,” says Hood. “Obviously that determines how successful you are as an organisation, but the thing that drives us is people’s passion and understanding of the belief that we still have.
“For the first time we have a board of directors running the club as a business, and it is not a case of a sugar daddy or someone putting their fortune in to prop us up.
“Our sponsors have been brilliant, we have a charitable trust, supportive fans and people are right behind us.
“We are in the process of improving the business, and we are one of the few clubs actually looking at purchasing our own facilities and trying to get a real home. We are looking towards owning our own ground and generating our own income, and our sponsors and supporters are sticking with us in trying to do the best for the club.”
Painting a defiantly bright picture despite the current on-field gloom, Hood adds: “There is light at the end of the tunnel.
“We could do what has happened in the past in terms of spending a load of money on players, winning a few games and then everyone losing their jobs because we have spent all the funds by the end of the year.
“Alternatively we can take a holistic approach, which is what we are doing, but it requires patience.
“If we are totally honest about our plans for a permanent home ground, then we are in the advanced stages of sorting that out.
“The first win is not far away and the future is bright, but we just need people to keep believing in us.”