GATESHEAD are 90 minutes away from reclaiming their Football League status after today's thrilling 3-1 win over Grimsby Town secured a place in the Conference play-off final at Wembley.
Fifty-four years after they were controversially dumped out of the league after failing to win re-election, Gateshead will take on Cambridge United on Sunday, May 18 for a place in League Two.
James Marwood's double, allied to a late strike from JJ O'Donnell, settled a dramatic semi-final second leg that saw Grimsby finish with nine men after Scott Neilson and Sam Hatton were both dismissed in the second half.
The victory, which takes the Heed to Wembley for the first time in their history, completes a remarkable turnaround from the early stages of the season.
When Gary Mills replaced Anth Smith as manager in September, Gateshead were languishing sixth from bottom in the Conference table. Now, they find themselves within touching distance of a place in League Two alongside the likes of Portsmouth, Hartlepool and Carlisle.
“We're not just getting to Wembley – we want to go there and win,” said Mills, who was a member of the Nottingham Forest side that won the European Cup in 1980. “But we're going to celebrate this and really enjoy being there.
“I'm stuck for words to be honest. It's been hard work and a long pull to get to this stage. This is a magnificent club, with a magnificent chairman, who went out of the league all those years ago by default. For us to have the chance to put that right at Wembley means a lot.
“It's a fantastic feeling. I'm delighted for everyone within the area, and particularly everyone connected with the football club.”
Skipper Ben Clark was a trainee with Sunderland before spending six seasons and making more than 160 senior appearances with Hartlepool, but the 31-year-old would regard leading Gateshead to promotion as one of the pinnacles of his career.
“It's absolutely unbelievable,” he said. “It couldn't have happened with a better set of lads or with a better manager.
“The fans were absolutely fantastic. That's only the job half done because we have to go to Wembley and finish it, but we're absolutely delighted. This is what football is all about.”
With the first leg at Blundell Park having finished 1-1, Gateshead began today's second leg brightly in front of more than 8,000 fans, with former Sunderland winger John Oster particularly prominent in midfield.
Jamie Chandler, who won the FA Trophy at Wembley with Darlington, saw an early shot saved, but the hosts made the breakthrough in the 22nd minute.
Marwood's long-range shot did not look like causing too many problems, but Grimsby goalkeeper James McKeown allowed it to slip from his grasp and roll into the net.
Scott Kerr and Lenell John-Lewis produced decent first-half efforts for the visitors, but Grimsby's task became harder when Neilson was dismissed for a reckless tackle on Craig Baxter.
However, if Gateshead thought they were going to have things all their own way against their ten-man opponents, they were forced to think again when Craig Disley rammed home an equaliser after a scramble in the penalty area.
“When a player is sent off, the mentality sometimes changes,” said Mills. “We maybe switched off for two or three minutes, and the goal gave them a lift.
“I was trying to get the message to John Oster to get us going again. I wasn't happy at that stage, but thankfully we picked up again.”
Marcus Maddison failed to find the target with a difficult chance, but the game swung decisively in Gateshead's favour when Hatton became the second Grimsby player to be dismissed after he clattered into Carl Magnay.
Gateshead piled on the pressure with two extra men, and their opponents' resistance finally cracked with six minutes left.
Oster teed up Marwood, who is a former Newcastle academy product and the son of former professional, Brian, and the forward drilled a searing strike into the roof of the net.
The win was confirmed in stoppage time when a Gateshead break ended with Phil Turnbull picking out O'Donnell, who beat the goalkeeper before rolling the ball into an empty net.
Gateshead: Bartlett, Baxter, Magnay, Turnbull, Curtis, Clark, Chandler, Oster, Larkin (O'Donnell 67), Marwood, Maddison (Hatch 72).
Subs (not used): Walker, Lester, Ramshaw.
Grimsby: McKeown, Hatton, Thomas, Disley, Doig (Cook 86), Boyce, Rodman, Kerr (Thanoj 82), Hannah (Fyfield 82), Neilson, John-Lewis.
Subs (not used): McLaughlinl, Tounkara.