Gateshead Thunder rugby league club seek lightning return
PUBLISHED: 00:15 24 March 2010 | UPDATED: 16:57 20 February 2013
After four business failures and a new season starting on the bottom run of the game, the only way is up for the North East's professional rugby league club, as Roger Tames discovers
The latest man to take on the challenge of establishing professional rugby league as a going concern in the North East smiles as he makes an unashamed confession.
Newcastle United season ticket holder Rod Findlay is the Chief Executive Officer for Gateshead Thunder, the outpost of the 13-man game that is still battling hard just to survive, 12 years after it emerged among the might of the Superleague.
Youd expect someone willing to champion the cause of a game steeped in Lancashire and Yorkshire folklore to be a long lost son of Warrington or Wigan, Hunslet or Hull. Yet the 40-year-old lawyer at the Thunders helm was born in Newcastle, dropped from his school rugby union team, and readily admits: Id never even been to a rugby league game till 2005.
To say rugby league has had a difficult time at Gateshead is a sporting understatement on a par with describing recent history at St James Park as a touch controversial.
Not that Findlay has very much in common with Mike Ashley. Hes far from a dictator in sole charge and he hasnt got a business fortune to throw at a problem that has got worse every year through financial shortcomings.
Gateshead Thunder are now onto their fifth life, having agreed a voluntary demotion to the third tier of Rugby League and recently kicked off their summer season with the penalty of a six-point deduction.
One other difference to Mr Ashley causes great encouragement to the latest men in charge at the Thunder. Given their position this Tyneside club cant suffer the traumas of relegation.
Findlay is predictably committed and enthusiastic about his adopted sport, but not with the converts zeal - more the solicitors cautious realism.
Rugby League operates on the basis of clubs being given a licence, he explains. We cant be relegated so winning or losing, for once, isnt everything to us.
What happens on the pitch isnt as important as what we do off it. Were subsidised by a grant from the Rugby League itself and we need to prove we can be sustainable as a proper business.
We now employ four full-time staff and three full-time community coaches. When Thunder first started, we were a team at the highest level but we had no business infrastructure.
The most important point for me now is that the club has a flourishing Under 18s team and were starting an Under 16s. Were producing our own players and that means were fulfilling our responsibilities to the clubs and players of our region.
This is the heart of Findlays philosopy. The latest incarnation of Thunder Rugby is a self-proclaimed community club. The junior clubs in the region and the fans club all hold shares in the re-born organisation.
Rugby League arrived at Gateshead as a Superleague franchise in 1998. But after one season with the big boys, the club merged with Hull and the team cleared off to the Yorkshire coast.
Despite becoming National League Two Champions in 2008, for most of the decade, life for Thunder has been, to use the CEOs phrase, into a headwind.
We know that in the North East, nobody talks rugby league over a pint in the pub, acknowledges Findlay. But Sky TVs viewing figures for the game do well in this region.
Nobody sees all the hard work thats gone into the game over the past years, which is how were developing our own local players. The region doesnt have to have a professional club, but we do provide some aspiration. We are the flag-bearers
So what did cause Findlays conversion - if youll forgive the two-point pun? His legal specialisation is in sports law and for more than three years he was the Rugby Leagues own in-house lawyer before moving back to Newcastle and into private practice.
Rugby League is a fast, action-packed game, he enthuses, getting into his converts stride. Its a tough sport but its also a family sport. Theres never trouble and there is a real sense of community.
Then the lawyer kicks in: A few clubs have gone under. That cant keep happening. The sport needs to survive
After going under four times themselves, if theres one thing Gateshead Thunder are good at, its being able to survive.
Given the North Easts all-consuming passion for football and professional cricket, rugby union, basketball and ice hockey all vying for support in the region, what can Gateshead Thunder do to generate more interest in rugby league?