Can Gateshead really get the party started at Wembley?

The Northern Echo: ANGEL ABOVE: Gateshead manager Gary Mills sports a tracksuit top with the Angel of the North forming a proud part of the club crest. Picture: TOM BANKS (6048401) ANGEL ABOVE: Gateshead manager Gary Mills sports a tracksuit top with the Angel of the North forming a proud part of the club crest. Picture: TOM BANKS (6048401)

WHEN the celebrations and excitement have died down at Wembley this evening, preparations will quickly turn towards tomorrow for the stadium’s staff.

A Conference Premier play-off battle will not pull in the global audience of today’s FA Cup final, but for everyone associated with Gateshead or Cambridge it will mean much more.

Tomorrow is about clinching a return to the Football League and for Gary Mills, the former York City manager who enjoyed promotion via that route two years ago, he wants to enjoy the occasion again with Gateshead.

As Mills relaxes in one of the meeting room suites at the International Stadium, he delivers a short history lesson, proving the club he now leads has got under his skin.

“When I came to Gateshead, I was hearing the stories about 54 years ago, not eight years like it was with York,” said Mills. “Certainly, I have got the drive, maybe even greater than I had at York, to get the club back up after 54 years. I think it is an incredible story I was not aware about the whole situation, how they were kicked out, until I came up here.”

Gateshead lost their Football League status in 1960 when Peterborough United replaced them when it boiled down to re-election. Many suggested the voting went against the Heed because Peterborough was closer to more clubs across the country. Hartlepool and Oldham received more votes that year, so stayed up.

There had only been two years of Fourth Division football before Gateshead suffered the fate, despite boasting an average placing of ninth from their 21 previous seasons in Third Division North.

“It was scandalous really what happened, all to do with clubs wanting to save a bit of petrol,” said Mills. “Gateshead finished third bottom ahead of Hartlepools and Oldham.

“I know exactly what it is all about because my dad played for Northampton when they had to re-apply for election. Those were nervous times having finished bottom so it's hard to imagine having not finished bottom and getting kicked out.”

Mills has played at Wembley before, his trip there with York in 2012 when they defeated Luton Town will stay with him forever. He still feels emotionally attached to the Minstermen, despite his East Midlands roots, and he feels just as proud to be wearing club clothing crested with the Angel of the North now.

“I do look at the Angel of the North differently as manager of Gateshead, it’s strange,” said Mills, who will have the experience of former Darlington players like Jamie Chandler and ex-Hartlepool defender Ben Clark to call on tomorrow.

“It's funny because although I have an apartment up here, my home is Nottingham and when I drive up, I go past York. I always used to go off at Junction 44 and now I drive past it. Every time I drive past, I get that little tingle in my body. It hurt to lose my job there for whatever reason I lost it.

“I have never moaned about it but, like I've said, I am the one who got them back in the Football League. I drive past Junction 44 and now I am proud to drive to Junction 64.

“I actually do look at the Angel differently - and this is true. Deliberately, where Washington Services is, I drive by the A194, on to the A1 and get off at the next junction to the Angel. And yes, there's a tingle. It's incredible. You have your thoughts and when I drive past, I say things in my head, which I will not tell you.”

Such tingles are only likely to increase for Mills if he becomes the man to lead Gateshead back to the Football League – even if he boasts a European Cup winner’s medal under the brilliant guidance of Brian Clough among his achievements.

"At York, there were a few managers who tried to get them back in the Football League,” said Mills. “It was rammed down my throat that it had been eight years and it was almost as if the club felt a little bit sorry for themselves that it was never going to happen.

“I wanted to be that manager, the man who could do that. You have to have that drive, you have to believe in yourself and I worked hard to do that. I did it and they cannot take that away from me.

“There have been a few clubs that have risen from the ashes recently - look at Newport and Accrington - so it can happen. We have to try to make sure we follow them.”

Mills is 52. He has managed at a host of non-league clubs since accepting the Grantham Town role in 1996, but has had his shots at Football League management cut short at Notts County in 2004 and then York last year.

Whatever desire he holds to finally succeed at that level can date right back to his early days playing football, where he still draws on the memories of working under Brian Clough to help him through now.

Mills said: “Listen, the influence from the gaffer, it was his man-management, how to treat and respect players to get you respect back. He kept things simple and basic to make sure players knew their jobs.

“Yes, of course, I learned from the gaffer. I think everyone has - Martin O'Neill, Nigel Clough himself, learned from his dad. You could learn but you cannot try to copy it because you would fall flat on your face: simple as that.”

At the end of the month, Mills will be attending a reunion dinner to celebrate the success of Nottingham Forest’s 1979 European Cup triumph. It was in 1980 when he became the youngest player to appear in a final at the age of 18, a replacement for Trevor Francis to help Forest overcome Hamburg.

Does the experience help him go in to a Conference play-off contest at Wembley 34 years on? He said: "Preparing the players and how to relax players going into a major final - and this is a major final for Gateshead - is important.

“How we train, how soon we go down to Wembley, how many days before. I've been told we have the chance to look at Wembley the day before just to get a feel of the place. It's all little things that you think are not that big but they are and it's important that the players are focused on the job ahead.

“I can remember playing in that final, amazing as it was. Of course, I was nervous, excited, call it what you like, but I was not scared at all. We went out and did our jobs. We had to defend a lot of that game against Hamburg. But we did it together. That’s what we need to be on Sunday: together.”

There is one Clough method that Mills has not replicated, however. He said: “Listen, the gaffer was amazing, a genius and half the things I tell you, you wouldn't believe. At Forest before the 1980 final, we actually celebrated winning it before we actually played it.

“Our last league game was May 8 and the European Cup final was May 28. I remember the gaffer coming in and saying ‘what the hell are we going to do for three weeks?’ He told us to have a couple of days off and to bring our passports in the following week.

“The actual week before the game on the Wednesday, he took us to Majorca. We went Saturday to Saturday and then flew out to Madrid on the Monday and played the game on the Wednesday.

“We did not even train all week when we were out there. Believe me, we were out there partying and then we went and won the European Cup. After we won it, we got back to the hotel and he told us none of us were allowed out! We are probably the only team in history to celebrate winning the game beforehand.

"I remember when we went to Madrid for the final, Peter Shilton was training in the middle of a roundabout. We were having a couple of beers and he said he needed to train so the gaffer said he could train on the roundabout outside the window. That is exactly what happened.”

For Gateshead it has been all work and no play ahead of their end of season finale and Mills is determined to secure the result tomorrow that sparks a post-match promotion party his players will never forget.

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