Gateshead & The Fog On The Tyne

It’s been a busy and dispiriting few days at Gateshead FC. The club’s ultimate survival remains in the balance, and this week has seen a strongly-worded statement from its players after they weren’t paid on time at the end of last month, whilst a buyer for the club described as “the ideal candidate” by supporters’ group has now pulled out of taking control of it, the players have issued a statement about the owner of the club for which the phrase “strongly-worded” couldn’t be more of an understatement, and, in addition to all of this, the club has now been kicked out of The International Stadium over a failure to pay its rent.

When we were last looking in on goings-on at the club four weeks ago, there were questions to be answered about the way in which it was being run that called into serious question the competence of those running it, both on paper and on a day-to-day level. The club is owned on paper by Dr Ranjan Varghese, but Joseph Cala, an Italian-American who’d previously unsuccessfully attempted to buy both Portsmouth and Morecambe seems to be in complete control on a day-to-day basis, despite not being permitted to own it or, in theory at least, be a person with significant control of the club, after having failed the Owners & Directors Test last year.

At this point, the only positive that can be taken from it all is probably the sense of relief that the supporters of other clubs must be feeling at not having such a shower take control of their club, none of which will be much of a consolation to Gateshead supporters who, in a matter of a few weeks, have gone from hoping that their club will be in the National League play-offs at the end of this season to wondering whether it will still exist by then.

Three successive defeats have torpedoed the club’s hopes of getting into the play-offs, but this now seems like small beer in comparison with what has been going on behind the scenes at the club in recent weeks. We noted before that the popular Mike Coulson, who’d been with the club in various capacities for three decades before being promoted to the Director of Football position within the club, had resigned his job after just two weeks, and had gone to work for Blyth Spartans instead. Coulson, however, had a sting in his tail. In an interview with the Sunderland Echo published on the 11th March, he laid his viewpoint on what had been going on behind the scenes at the club bare.

Coulson told the Echo that, “In my opinion, it is Joseph Cala that owns the club, and Ranjan is just a front for it.” Coulson had already been sufficiently concerned over this – Cala failed the Owners & Directors Test so shouldn’t be involved in any position of control within the club, whether he’s formally listed as a director of the club or not – to pass his concerns on to the Football Association’s integrity department, who are now are attempting to investigate Cala’s involvement at the club.

Protests against Cala and Varghese had been planned by supporters, but these were put on hold after Cala confirmed to the Gateshead Supporters Club that the club was up for sale for £1. The suspicion has grown amongst those self same supporters since then that this announcement was more to do with getting the protests stopped – which would, quite asides from anything else, have reduced policing costs for matches, presuming that they would even be paid – than actually seeking an exit route from the club. The most likely buyer came to be Chris Dunphy, who retired from the board of League One club Rochdale at the end of last year after twenty-eight years on the board there, including twelve as chairman.

Dunphy had met with Cala the previous Friday and agreed terms in principle to buy the club. However, when an exclusivity agreement promised by Cala on Tuesday night failed to materialise and with rumours starting to circulate that the accounts provided by the club, Dunphy, along with business partner Bill Goodwin, withdrew his interest, with a source close to him telling the Sunderland Echo that, “Chris feels that the way Gateshead’s owners conducted themselves means that he had no alternative but to withdraw his interest.”

The position with regard to the playing side of the club has deteriorated significantly since the start of the year. Since then, top goalscorer Scott Boden and defender Fraser Kerr have been sold to Chesterfield and Hartlepool United respectively, leaving managed Ben Clark with only fourteen outfield players to call upon, and when the players didn’t receive their pay at the end of last month frustration at how the club is being run finally spilled over, leading to the following statement being issued on behalf of the club’s remaining playing staff, which is so extraordinarily blunt that we reprint it here, in full:

The Gateshead Football Club playing staff would like to issue the following statement regarding the owners of the club.

We use the word owners in reference not only to Ranjan Varghese – the named owner of Gateshead Football Club – but also Joseph Cala, the man we all feel has been unofficially running the club virtually unopposed since the start of the 2018/19 season.

As of writing this statement, all staff at the club are still awaiting our wages for the month of March. This was due on Friday 29th and then later promised to be paid by Monday 1st April.

Our manager (Ben Clark) has since been told by Cala that we will not be paid unless he calls the National League and successfully requests them to release funds from the bond. We believe that this is a highly inappropriate and unprofessional thing for the club’s ownership to say to our manager in our current situation.

For the months of January, February and March 2019 in particular, we have encountered several problems receiving our wages. Players and staff have not been paid on time for three months running and some have been paid improperly. Several outstanding expenses are still owed as well.

On Friday, the day before an important National League match at Braintree, our training was disrupted as we were be called back to remove our belongings from the International Stadium and leave the premises due to outstanding debts owed to Gateshead Council.

This serious financial mismanagement at the club has to stop. We are a squad of sixteen senior players with one of if not the smallest wage bill in the National League yet debts and wages are still left unpaid.

Gateshead players and staff have been consistently undermined and lied to by Joseph Cala.

The sales of Scott Boden and Fraser Kerr were brokered by Cala behind the back of all staff at the club despite supposed guarantees that these players would not be sold while we were under a transfer embargo.

The embargo has been in place since September and we were informed that this could be lifted very quickly should we wish to bring a player in. We are now into the final month of the season and have seen virtually no effort to get this lifted, leaving us with fourteen outfield players and one senior striker.

There have been numerous hurdles we’ve had to face over the course of the season, such as travelling to almost every away game on the day, having to get up as early as 5am with no pre-match meals (until Saturday, thanks to Gateshead Soul) in order to cuts costs.

Still, this barely scratches the surface of all the damage that has been done.

In spite of all of this, all players and staff have remained professional and continued to perform above and beyond all expectations to the point where we are serious contenders for a play-off position going into the final month of the season.

We have always given 100% for the badge but we could not have done this without the immense support from the simply unbelievable Heed Army who have backed us through thick and thin while those in charge haven’t.

While our job is not yet complete, we continue to compete while battling the stresses of being thrown out of our home stadium as well as the financial predicament of not being paid properly, if at all.

We have reached the point where these decisions are now affecting our lives away from the football club. Many of us have bills to pay and young families to provide for and it is seriously concerning that very little explanation or apology has been given as to why this has been allowed to happen. This is your doing, not anyone else’s.

As owners, you have a responsibility to honour contracts, agreements and show a basic level of human decency and respect towards your staff – none of us have ever experienced anything like this before and we feel we have reached the point where we cannot continue while you, the current owners, are still at the club.

We have the football club at our heart and nobody wants you at Gateshead any longer. The players, staff, fans, National League and Football Association have all made that abundantly clear. It is in everyone’s best interest, including your own, to leave.

Fortunately on Friday, there seemed to be light at the end of the tunnel for everyone as an agreement was reached in principle, to sell the club to former Rochdale chairman Chris Dunphy.

Having agreed to sell the club to Chris, we simply ask you to honour this promise and leave the club with at least some dignity by allowing Chris to take over alongside Bill Goodwin.

These are men with a proven track record at running a football club and we wholeheartedly endorse their takeover bid.

Should you fail to go through with your promise to allow Chris to be in a position to take over at the club, we will be left with no choice but to take immediate action.

It is up to you to ensure that it does not come to that.

To describe Cala’s attempts to get the manager to release the bond of £200,000 lodged with the National League as ‘highly inappropriate’ would be something of an understatement. And with both a former staff member as respected as Mike Coulson and a statement released on behalf of the entire playing squad confirming that Cala is “the man we all feel has been unofficially running the club”, we can only anticipate that there will be serious sanctions taken against Gateshead FC if Cala doesn’t get the hell away from it in the very near future and stay away permanently. After all, what is the point of having ownership rules in the first place if they’re broken as brazenly as this in the first place?

As mentioned above, this came on top of the club being evicted from The International Stadium at the end of last week, with staff being asked to collect their belongings and move out of their offices on Friday lunchtime. It is understood that the club’s remaining home games will not be affected and that the club will be given access to the pitch, changing-rooms and to open the stands for their remaining matches. As such, it remains likely that Gateshead will be able to complete their fixtures this season, providing there’s no intervention from the National League or FA or an exodus of players should the terms of their contracts become irrevocably breached by the ongoing issues over their wages being paid. What happens next, however, is anybody’s guess.

The ongoing bleating about the £200,000 bond paid to the National League looks especially pathetic when set against the numerous ways in which Gateshead have been mismanaged this season. Why on earth should this money to be released to these people? Unable to pay the players’ wages on time, flagrantly breaching National League and FA rules regarding club ownership, and evicted from their stadium, Joseph Cala’s time at Gateshead has utterly vindicated his failure of the Owners & Directors Test. There’s no way of sugar-coating it: he’s exactly the sort of person that governing bodies should be seeking to prevent from becoming involved in the running of a football club. In that respect, he’s lived down to everybody’s worst expectations. The biggest question that now remains is the extent to which he will drag Gateshead FC before he gets shoved out of our game altogether.