First published in Rugby League World, October 1999

JANUARY 29. Kerrod Walters leads his teammates out into the pre-season chill of Wheldon Road, Castleford, and the Gateshead Thunder have reached the starting line.

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Gateshead Thunder promotional pack, 1999

Super League beckons in a few weeks and for the handful who’ve made the trip from the North East, a dream is about to become reality.

SEPTEMBER 12. Deon Bird scores under the posts at Wilderspool’s railway end and Kerrod slots over his first – and last – goal for the club as the hooter sounds to bring the curtain down on the Thunder’s incredible debut season.

The team tipped to finish nowhere, while playing in front of nobody, finishes sixth after contesting a top-five place right to the end.

There are about 250 Thunder fans behind the goal who have sung, shouted and conga-ed their way through the 80 minutes. Their players come to applaud them, hesitate at the advertising boards, then step over and join the party. They shake hands, hug fans and smile at young children and babes in arms.

Yet until that night in Castleford it had been a dream.

Mine went something like this: Saturday night, win the Lottery but don’t be greedy –- £3m would be enough. That’s £1.5m to secure the family’s future and £1.5m to storm the gates of Super League.

There were others in the North East who shared the dream. Some were North Easterners who had caught the bug at the RFL’s mlsslonary games at Gateshead, some were Rugby League exiles from the heartlands. I was an ex-Carlisle fan from Tyneside (long story!).

As far as I know, none of us ever won the Lottery – so we didn’t have to demonstrate how little we knew about running a professional Rugby League club.

But fortunately there were people who believed that Super League and the North East of England were made for each other. And while the rest of us dreamt, they were quietly working to make it happen.

Kath Hetherington and Shane Richardson introduced themselves to the North East media in June last year [1998]. They gained the franchise in August. Shortly afterwards they named it Gateshead Thunder. What has happened since has been a roller coaster ride for them and for anyone close to the club.

And there are a lot of people who feel close to the club –- because that’s the way Shane and Kath wanted it. Their pre-season pitch was, “Heroes You Can Touch”. That’s exactly the way it went.

From the very outset the connection was made between players and fans, players and youngsters, players and amateur clubs (although some amateur clubs were apparently more enthusiastic than others).

And let’s get this straight: yes, the team was packed full of Australians. Yes, that upset people elsewhere in the let’s-keep-it-to-ourselves world of Rugby League. And no, we don’t care.

Just ask the guy, originally from Widnes, who had seen only a couple of matches of his favourite sport in the 16 years before the Thunder came along. lt’s still an 80-mile round trip to a home game but he was so impressed he went out and bought an Aussie flag, emblazoned the word Thunder across it and waves it happily at every match.

Or ask those 250 people who were at Warrington on the last day of the regular season whether they care where the players wearing the shirts are from. They spent half the game singing this little ditty:

Watching the Thunder, watching the Thunder,

You’ll come a-watching the Thunder with me,

And if we win, then we’ll sing,

lf we lose, we’ll sing it louder,

You’ll come a watching the Thunder with me.

The tune, if you haven’t worked it out, is Waltzing Matilda.

What those people have cared about more than anything else has been the pride and the commitment those players have put in. Pride and commitment which has ensured that the Thunder is a club with passion. That passion is what brought people back for more after they’d seen their first game.

For years we had said that North East people were like Rugby League people – that they could embrace the game and embrace those who play it. We were right. Of course the players will never be household names in the same way as Alan Shearer and Kevin Phillips in the North East – but Felsch and Grimaldi and Peters and Sammut are names in my household and in a few thousand more across the region.

Matt Daylight is more than a household name in my street – he is a hero.

Match programme, final home game, September 1999

Match programme, final home game, September 1999

At the final home game, the 66-6 rout of Wakefield Wildcats, the crowd was invited down to the track for a presentation to the retiring Danny Lee. Now, Danny may have been a big name in Cronulla, but six months ago no one in the North East had heard of him. Two thousand people stayed for the ceremony.

The squad fanned out around the track to shake hands, accept the slaps on the back, exchange a few words: the squad and 2,000 people reinforcing the bond they had built in the course of the season.

Up in the stand a neighbour of mine stood uncomfortably, missing out on the excitement down below. Before March 1999, Nicky had never set foot in a professional sports stadium. She almost froze on opening night as Thunder took on Leeds Rhinos in foul conditions. By July, she was prepared to drive to Hull – on her own – for a Wednesday night game. She shared the joy of the victory over Wigan in Edinburgh.

Five days before that final home game Nicky had major back surgery and set the Thunder match as a recovery target. She made it, but couldn’t get down to join the celebrations. Someone at trackside pointed out the lonely figure in the stand to Matt Daylight and the Thunder’s top try scorer didn’t hesitate.

He shot across the track, clattered up to row R, gingerly embraced the pained Nicky and said: “Hello, I’m Matt.” “Yes,” choked Nicky. “I know.”

Super League – and Rugby League – in the North-East has come a long way in a short time. It has won a lot of friends and can teach the rest of the game a few lessons. Just ask the man with the Aussie flag – a League fan for 20-odd years – or Nicky – a Thunder fan for 30 weeks.

Altogether now: “Watching the Thunder, watching the Thunder…”

  • This article appeared in Rugby League World magazine www.rugbyleagueworld.net in October 1999 under the byline Alex George. Alex wrote a lot about rugby league in the North East back then. He even edited the Thunder matchday magazine. He was, and still occasionally is, me.
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The Rugby League World article, October 1999

  • In November 1999 it was announced that the money had run out. In the absence of new investors Gateshead Thunder merged with Hull Sharks and moved to Hull for the following season. A new Gateshead Thunder joined the Rugby Football League in late 2000 and currently plays in Championship 1, two levels below Super League.
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