EARLY RUGBY LEAGUE ON TYNESIDE
There have been several Tyneside-based rugby league teams over the years.
Wallsend RFC flirted with the code in the early years of the Northern Union, a South Shields team joined at the turn of the century and in 1938, Newcastle moved south of the Tyne and played a season of matches at the White City Sports Stadium but did not rejoin the league after World War Two. Several other teams have come and gone in the intervening years
The Charity Shield match and several full and junior internationals were held at the International Stadium from the 1980s and over the next two decades. An academy team, the Gateshead Mets, was formed, which played against the academy teams of professional clubs.
Mid-way through the 1998 season, Gateshead was granted a franchise in the Super League ahead of Swansea and Cardiff. A competition was held to determine the name for this club, and Gateshead Thunder was born with Shaun McRae as head coach.
Despite early season problems in attracting fans to a new summer sport, by the end of the season the average gate had risen to 3,895. Gateshead finished in sixth place – just two points outside the play-offs. They had beaten St Helens home and away and beaten Wigan on the road in Edinburgh at Tynecastle. Matt Daylight was the joint leading try scorer in Super League and winger Ian Herron was one of the deadliest goal-kickers in the top flight.
In November of that year, Gateshead Thunder’s board announced the club would merge with Hull Sharks. The Association of Premiership Clubs blocked proposals for the newly merged company to enter a separate Hull-based team in the Northern Ford Premiership and so the new club would be called Hull and play all its home games in Hull. This was widely seen as a takeover simply to allow Hull to remain in Super League.
The fans of the Gateshead club set up a campaigning organisation, Thunder Storm, to fight the “merger”. Although this proved unsuccessful, it was the catalyst for a new Gateshead Thunder to be formed. The new Gateshead Thunder was accepted back to play in the Northern Ford Premiership on the 2nd August 2000 with a similar bid from Bramley being rejected. The new board had the stated objective of winning back Gateshead’s place in Super League within five years.
The new Thunder’s first game was a friendly for the Tolent Cup against another club that had been threatened with merger, Sheffield Eagles. The first official game was on the 3rd December 2000 with an 18-0 defeat to Hull Kingston Rovers. They finished third bottom under coach Andy Kelly with back to back wins over Hunslet and York were the only league successes and a win over amateurs Wigan St. Judes in the Challenge Cup.
Financial problems were again to trouble the club. A bold plan for the 2002 season failed, and when only one draw, 12-12 against Featherstone Rovers, was recorded after the first two months Thunder were forced to cut their losses. Andy Kelly and the club’s 15 Yorkshire-based players, were released as Thunder went into administration with spiralling debts.
Club sponsor Mike Jeffels took over the club through his Kicks Leisure organisation and former Bramley coach Paul Fletcher was brought in, taking over a young, inexperienced and predominantly locally produced side. Although they came close to victory against Keighley and Swinton, Thunder Mark III lost every game to finish bottom of the table.
2003 saw eight Australians added to the squad, along with Bill Ryan as a coaching adviser. After just eight games of the season and with the club in a difficult financial position, Kicks Leisure withdrew their sponsorship and chairman Steve Worsnop left the club.
A panel of supporters, including committee members of Thunder Storm, took over the running of the club in the interim period. This management committee was successful in persuading the RFL to allow Gateshead Thunder to enter National League Two. A business case based on the funding provided by the members’ club, lottery and matchday income was accepted by the governing body but was still significantly short of the minimum needed to run the club for the rest of the season, and a series of fundraising efforts were organised to fund the shortfall.
The new era of Thunder Mark IV came with the Arriva Trains Cup victory over Workington Town at Gateshead RUFC’s ground; the International Stadium being unavailable. Fundraising efforts and sponsorship from local companies meant that by the end of the 2003 season Gateshead finished the year in the black, with all debts paid. On the field, however, the situation deteriorated: coach Paul Fletcher resigned after a defeat by London Skolars. The board appointed Seamus McCallion as head coach. The former Durham Cricket Chairman and head of Century FM, Bill Midgley, joined the board.
2005 saw the arrival of Dean Thomas as head coach at Gateshead. Dean was able to strengthen the squad, bringing a multi-national flavour to Tyneside rugby as he recruited players from Australia, the West Indies, Fiji and elsewhere. The strategy paid off, and Thomas guided Thunder into the play-offs, before they eventually went out to Workington Town. Off the field, the club underwent a restructuring, with new investment coming from Essex-based financier Neil MacPherson. The club returned to the status of a limited company, with three directors. After two stalled attempts, it was agreed that Gateshead Thunder would be allowed to use Newcastle Falcons’ Kingston Park stadium for a game against York. They also played a game at the venue in both 2006 and 2007, and the club stated that they hoped in future to be able to play one game a year at Kingston Park. Dean Thomas guided Gateshead into the play-offs for two seasons running. He left the club at the end of the 2006 season and was replaced by former Castleford coach, Australian Dave Woods.
2008 NATIONAL LEAGUE TWO CHAMPIONS
The 2008 season saw Gateshead wildly exceed expectations, going unbeaten for much of the year and winning promotion to National League One for the 2009 season as champions.
2009 THE CO-OPERATIVE CHAMPIONSHIP
Thunder’s plans for the 2009 season were disrupted when it was announced that Dave Woods had been sacked. Assistant Coach Chris Hood temporarily took over the coaching duties, and was later appointed permanently. With only a handful of players signed at the point of Woods’ departure, Hood was forced to put together a squad at the eleventh hour.
Several high-profile signings were made by Hood, including former NRL players Nick Youngquest, Kris Kahler, Paul Franze and Russ Aitken, but were unable to join the club until the finale of the French Elite season in May 2009. Super League players such as Hull KR’s Liam Watts and Castleford Tigers’ Nathan Massey, Jamie Cording and Anthony England were also taken on loan with a view to boosting the squad. However after a struggling start to the season, Thunder appointed Steve McCormack as Head Coach with Chris Hood returning to his role as Assistant Head Coach in April 2009.
Through the efforts of Hood (victories against Whitehaven & Doncaster) and McCormack (victory against Oldham in his first game in charge), Thunder were guided to being the last non-Super League team competing in the 2009 Challenge Cup. They reached the quarter-finals, playing against St Helens but lost 66-6. League victories against Halifax, Widnes, Leigh and Toulouse gave Thunder a chance of completing the ‘great escape’. Gateshead Thunder secured their Championship status at the expense of Leigh with an away win against Doncaster 0-56 in the final match of the regular season.
However, Gateshead Thunder’s chairman Steve Garside wound up Gateshead and Newcastle Rugby Ltd which ran the club in October 2009. Thunder Rugby Limited were formed in November 2009 as Gateshead’s new parent company and the club became a community club.
Following this breach of the insolvency rules in 2009 under the previous company, the new parent company decided that Thunder would be best placed in Championship One and elected for a voluntary demotion. However, the RFL also upheld a six-point deduction for the 2010 season.
Since the formation of Thunder Rugby Ltd., the club has continued to strengthen both on and off the field.
Major sponsors have been attracted to and maintained their relationship with Thunder after seeing the club as one which is building for the future in the right manner.
The club, along with community clubs from across the North East, is now producing local high-quality players and coaches.
Off the field, the club has heavily invested in the wider community, and the formation of Thunder Community Trust (Registered Charity 1141513) has seen Thunder base itself around the wider game across the North East. The club was named 2011 The Co-operative Championships Community programme of the Year due to this sterling work.