Super League dream for Thunder supremo Findlay

The Northern Echo: UP FOR THE CUP: Gateshead Thunder’s Robin Peers, and Liam Dent, a pupil from Whinfield school, Darlington, with The Northern RFU Challenge Cup trophy UP FOR THE CUP: Gateshead Thunder’s Robin Peers, and Liam Dent, a pupil from Whinfield school, Darlington, with The Northern RFU Challenge Cup trophy

GATESHEAD Thunder chief executive officer Rod Findlay dreams of watching his side take on Super League opposition.

This afternoon, if Thunder beat Oldham at The Northern Echo Darlington Arena in the fifth round of the Carnegie Challenge Cup, the dream will almost certainly become a reality.

But not in the way he has envisaged.

Having helped guide Gateshead into the Co-operative Championship - the second tier of the European game - Findlay stands just one promotion away from Super League.

And while the recently-introduced licensing system means Thunder would not be promoted even if they claimed the Championship title this season, the club’s offfield leader insists top-flight rugby league could be a permanent fixture in the North- East rather than a fleeting occurrence.

“It would be fantastic to line up against a Super League side in the next round of the Challenge Cup,” said Findlay, who took charge of Gateshead on a full-time basis six months ago. “But our ambitions do not stop there.

“We’re realistic about where we are, and having won promotion to the Championship last season, this season is all about consolidation and settling in to our new surrounds.

“Eventually, we want to kick on even further though, and our long-term aim is definitely to secure a place in Super League. That will require steady progress both on and off the field, but having got ourselves into the second tier of the game last year, we’re looking to go even further.”

To long-term fans of the North-East’s only professional rugby league club, Super League status is nothing more than they deserve.

Having initially been formed as Gateshead Mets, an Academy team that played against the Academy teams from professional clubs, Gateshead Thunder was born when Gateshead was granted Super League status in 1998 ahead of Swansea and Cardiff.

Under the control of current Salford coach Shaun McRae, Thunder finished their maiden Super League season in a creditable sixth position.

Victories over the likes of St Helens and Wigan helped swell the average attendance to the 3,800-mark, but with debts mounting, Gateshead was always going to be a leading target when the Super League authorities opted to reduce the number of teams in the league from 14 to 12.

On November 15, 1999, Gateshead Thunder was officially merged with Hull Sharks to form Hull FC. Barely a year after it had been created, the North-East’s first rugby league superpower was no more.

“The club had a reasonably successful year in Super League,” said Findlay.

“From a standing start, in an area that didn’t have as much of a rugby league heritage as other parts of the country, we built up a fan base and got ourselves established.

Things would probably have kicked on even more if we had been there for a second season.

“Unfortunately, and for a number of reasons, that didn’t happen. It was a difficult time, and it would have been easy for rugby league in the North-East to have simply faded away.

“Thanks to the unstinting support of a number of volunteers, that didn’t happen, and from a very low base, we’ve been able to grow back to where we are today.”

A reformed Thunder joined the Northern Ford Premiership in 2000, but within two seasons, the club had plunged into administration.

Club sponsor Mike Jeffels eventually took over, but further financial problems saw Thunder fall into the hands of a panel of supporters in 2003 and join National League Two.

They remained there for the next five seasons, gradually adding players from Fiji, Australia, New Zealand and the West Indies to a squad that already boasted a core of North- Eastern players, and steadily climbing the table as a result.

Last season was their most successful yet, with a lengthy unbeaten run resulting in promotion to the Co-operative Championship.

They have won two of their seven matches this term, and pushed their average attendance above the 1,000-mark, a notable achievement given the small crowds that have hampered their development in the past.

“We feel like we’re on the right track,” said Findlay. “On the field, we’re finding our feet in this division and we were absolutely delighted to appoint Steve McCormack as our new head coach last week.

Steve has years of experience at Super League and Championship level.”

Today’s game represents another opportunity to progress, with Thunder starting as favourites against an Oldham side from the league below them as they look to book a place in the Challenge Cup quarter-finals.

With Gateshead International Stadium unavailable because of an athletics event, today’s match at The Northern Echo Darlington Arena will be the first professional rugby league game to be staged in County Durham.

But with Findlay hoping to present Thunder as a team for the whole of the North-East, it is unlikely to be the only occasion when the club leaves its Gateshead home.

“We’ve always said we’re representing the region,” he said.

“We might be based in Gateshead, but we’re there for anyone who’s interested in rugby league in the whole of the North-East.”

Tickets today cost £11 for adults and £6 for children, students and pensioners.

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