By Michael Scully - Gateshead FC Supporter
Toward the end of the 2017-2018 season Gateshead FC was put up for sale by the previous owners, Richard and Julie Bennett. A deal was agreed with an overseas consortium in May 2018 but the potential buyers withdrew, so the Bennetts said they would continue to fund the team but on a vastly reduced budget.
In July 2018, it was announced that a new buyer had been found, a Hong Kong based Naval Architect by the name of Dr Ranjan Varghese. Due to the league’s concerns with the new owner and the budget submitted, he was requested to put up a bond of £200,000. An initial statement was given by Dr Varghese, which can be read here.
It wasn’t long before alarm bells started to ring with regards to the new regime when rumours began to surface that a certain Mr Joseph Cala had some involvement with the club.
Supporters of Portsmouth and Morecambe warned us as to what could happen if he did actually get involved as he had previously failed in attempts to purchase their clubs, not to mention a disastrous 42 day spell in charge of Serie D club, Calcio Lecco and allegations that he had previously been arrested after being found with €6000 in fake banknotes.
It is also alleged that Mr Cala was the gentleman who had tried to buy the club originally but had failed the FA’s fit and proper owners test.
In addition to Dr Varghese, Michael Williams was installed as the club’s Operations Director.
Mr Williams, who had previous links to Mr Cala, was quick to point out that Joseph had no involvement at Gateshead FC. At this point in time, some fans still had major reservations about the current regime, whilst others wanted to give them the time and support to prove their intentions.
The team’s Manager, former Newcastle United player Steve Watson, began to assemble a young team along with a few loan signings and, understandably, Gateshead were among everyone’s favourites for relegation. However, early form seemed to make a mockery of those predictions and all seemed rosy. That is when things began to unravel off the pitch.
Long serving volunteers, including the Treasurer and turnstile operators, were sacked and Mr Cala was to be found manning the turnstiles himself. The only original staff left at the club were Mike Coulson, a well respected General Manager who had been at the club for over 20 years, and two youngsters, Alisha Henry (Commercial Manager) and Dom Scurr (Press Officer). The decision to dispense with the services of the volunteers even led to well-loved former owner, Graham Wood, to relinquish his Honorary Life Presidency as he ‘no longer wanted to be associated with these people’.
More concerns were raised about Mr Cala’s involvement but we were told he had indeed been involved with the purchase of the club in an advisory level to Dr Varghese, but that was as far as it went and now he was working the turnstiles!
As 2018 wore on, results continued to defy expectations but rumours began to surface of fines and a transfer embargo being imposed on the club by the league, however, once the embargo was confirmed, we were told the club were working with the league to get this sorted.
At the turn of the year, two loan signings (one of which was Sunderland winger Luke Molyneux) were recalled by their parent clubs and, due to the still in place embargo, couldn’t be replaced.
To make matters worse, Steve Watson became so disillusioned that he left to become Manager at York City in the league below, despite Gateshead challenging for a playoff place. His replacement was to be U-19s Manager and former Sunderland defender, Gateshead legend Ben Clark.
A meeting was arranged between the club and the supporters and present were Michael Williams, Mike Coulson and Ben Clark. Everything was painted as being rosy by Mr Williams and it was announced that Mike Coulson would be taking on a new role as Football Operations Manager as Michael would be taking a step back to focus on his other business interests.
It was also confirmed that Mr Cala was indeed working at the club, as Chief Financial Advisor. During the meeting it was also alleged that the club had made a bid of £100,000 for one of the loan players who had been returned to their club, this despite the transfer embargo still being in place.
Within two weeks of the meeting Mike Coulson had resigned, citing that the current regime were working to a different moral compass to which he worked. He also claimed that it was indeed Mr Cala who was the true owner of the club, something the fans had suspected for some time.
Another factor in Mike’s decision was the sale of the club’s top scorer, Scott Boden, to a rival for £12000 even though he couldn’t be replaced. An offer had been received from Chesterfield but it was agreed amongst the Gateshead staff that Scott would not be sold until the embargo was lifted and he could be replaced. However, the following morning, it was discovered that Mr Cala had sold Scott behind everyone’s back. This was all done around the time it was discovered that an unpaid HMRC bill of £10,000 was hanging over the club. Alisha Henry was thrown in at the deep end, taking up Mike’s duties.
Soon after, there was another bombshell for the fans. Fraser Kerr, one of the top players at the club, was sold to local rivals, Hartlepool United, for the paltry sum of £4000 which left the club with a first team squad of 14 players and still the playoff dream lived on. It was also alleged that club captain, Scott Barrow, had been touted around other clubs by someone acting on Mr Cala’s behalf.
The decision to sell Fraser was the final straw for the supporters who launched a Supporters Association, The Gateshead Soul, with the help of the Supporters Federation and Supporters Direct. One course of action agreed upon was to hold a peaceful protest at the next home game to show our displeasure over the off-field events at the club.
The following day, a statement was issued, allegedly by Dr Varghese, stating that the club was up for sale for a nominal £1 fee and it was agreed that the Supporters Association would be allowed to assist in finding a buyer. As such, the planned protest was called off.
Chris Dunphy, former Rochdale Chairman, and his business partner Bill Goodwin, came forward as potential new owners and the Supporters Association declared them as being their choice to take over the club.
Chris and Bill found hurdles put in their way when it came to getting hold of the clubs accounts and they withdrew their offer as they found it impossible to deal with the current regime. However, they were to declare soon after that they would still like to buy the club and requested that Dr. Varghese signed an exclusivity agreement.
The agreement was duly signed, however, there was no witnessing signature to make it legal and talks ground to a halt.
At the end of March, the local Council - who are owners of the stadium - evicted the club due to outstanding debts forcing the team to train elsewhere, though it was agreed that matches could continue to take place.
Mr Cala was also banned from any area of the stadium. In addition, the players and staff did not receive their wages until the league intervened to release some of the bond to cover this. The failure to pay the wages resulted in a damning statement being released by the players, urging the owners to sell up to Chris and Bill, as can be seen here.
Unsurprisingly, due to the lack of players, we fell just short of the playoffs, however, the fans are so proud of what they have achieved. This despite setting off at 6am for some games down South, the Supporters Association having to pay for match day food for the squad as the club would not provide this, and supporters also having to wash the kit as the club failed to pay the launderette which they use.
Shortly before the last game of the season it was announced by the club that two additional Directors had been appointed, one of which, Nigel Harrop, was previously the owner at Ilkeston Town when they were liquidated in 2017. Despite this, they still insist the club is up for sale, despite a willing new owner waiting in the wings.
On the 29th April it emerged that first team Assistant Manager Ian Watson had been sacked via email and, later that day, our Physio Annie Davis and popular Player/Kitman JJ O’Donnell were also sacked. Finally, on the 30th April, it was announced that the players had not been paid once more, and that manager Ben Clark had been relieved of his duties also.
No club could ask for a better group of lads than the squad we’ve had this season, who gave so much for the badge on their shirt. Unfortunately, it is now looking as though this squad will be broken up as players look elsewhere.
As things stand, it looks as though the club will be lost to these people as many supporters are saying they will not return while they are still involved and there is talk of a breakaway club being formed. Rumours are also circulating that the owners are looking to move the club outside of Gateshead and to re-locate to Kingston Park, home of Newcastle Falcons. It is also alleged that they have applied for voluntary relegation and are hoping to drop two divisions - though that has been denied categorically by the club in a statement on social media yesterday.
Thank you for taking the time to read all of this, but this club means so much to the fans and we are running out of time to save it.