THIS is the story of Gary Forrest, chairman of a group of companies recently valued at £1.2bn and manager of West Auckland football club, going OK but worth a few bob less.

“We’re now aiming at £3bn by 2022,” he says, and it shouldn’t be a column, it should be a book.

He’s 50, left school at 16 – “GCSEs? Two, I think” – began working life on a job creation scheme helping lay footpaths at Jubilee Park in Spennymoor.

“In those days you didn’t just sit around on community schemes playing computer games all day,” he recalls.

Now he flies the world first class, dizzy heights for a lad with two GCSEs. The average Northern League football ground may be supposed closer to economy.

“I use football to take my mind off work, it’s my freedom, the only time apart from Christmas when my phone isn’t ringing.

“I get bored very easily. I can’t sit still, my mind’s always active. There’s no point in taking up a hobby, other than football, because I’d rather read emails. I have to be challenging myself all the time.”

His High Street Group, property development and construction, has headquarters in central Newcastle, offices in Singapore, Hong Kong and Dubai and a huge portfolio of residential, hotel and leisure projects across the UK.

Hadrian’s Tower, a £40m, 27-storey apartment block which will become Newcastle’s tallest building, is already under construction and attracting substantial interest from overseas investors.

Other North-East projects include a 130-bedroom hotel and 176 apartments next to Durham County Cricket Club and 14 “aspirational” homes on an £11m development at Newcastle racecourse.

The man behind it all is married with four daughters, managed Coxhoe Athletic and Shildon before West Auckland, is clearly to work/life balance what Blondini was to the tightrope.

This week he’s been in Dubai. A week today he’ll be in the dugout at Hebburn for West Auckland’s FA Vase last-16 clash, hoping to guide the south Durham club to Wembley for the third time in a decade and to a first victory.

Priorities? “By the time I get to Hebburn, I’ll only have one.”

HIS mum was from Byers Green and still lives in Spennymoor. His father was an RAF man from Liverpool. It explains why he supports Everton, he says.

After several years living in Hong Kong they returned to Spennymoor. He was in the school football team – “defence, too lazy to run around up front” – and until 16 was also a useful boxer.

“It’s my favourite sport but I gave it up at 16 when women and alcohol came along,” he says. These days he works out at the gym in his luxury home in Washington.

Academically, it might be supposed, he under-achieved. “The teachers didn’t inspire me,” says Gary. “The only thing I was really interested in was history.”

By that time his father worked for the Allied Dunbar finance group. At 18 the younger Forrest became the company’s. and the country’s, youngest financial adviser.

“They gave me a psychometric test and it literally went off the paper. They asked if I had the ambition to own a Porsche and I said that if I had a Porsche I’d want a Ferrari and if I had a Ferrari I’d want a Lamborghini.

“There’s never been a limit to my ambition. There still isn’t.”

Soon, however, he realised that not many people wanted to take financial advice from an 18-year-. He worked independently – £60,000-£70,000 a year by I was 21” – and in 2003 sold out with the proviso that he’d remain a major player.

The High Street Group was formed in 2006, ten years later posted profits of £26m, now contemplates floating on the Stock Exchange.

The chairman and his workforce are also much committed to charitable activity, tackling everything from Kilimanjaro to the Grand Canyon.

The website talks of values of entrepreneurial spirit, integrity and flexibility shining brightly across the company.

It also lists seven guiding principles. The last is “Keep it simple.”

WE meet in the group’s corporate box at St James’ Park, over the road from its sixth floor headquarters.

As I arrive he’s on the phone, “Rothschild” and “mobilising equity” mentioned in the same sentence. He’s casually dressed, welcoming, wholly affable despite that the Northern League management committee once hauled him in (as he puts it) for persistently becoming a bit too excitable while at Shildon.

“My wife calls me a robot, says I have no emotions,” he says. “Maybe I only have emotions in football.”

His memory’s impressive – “I missed my wife’s 30th birthday because of football, we were playing Spennymoor” – his mental capacity hindered by a brain disorder which means he’s unable to see pictures in his mind.

“If someone asked me to describe Mike Amos, I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t picture Nicola (his long-time PA) except that she has black hair.

“It’s why I don’t read books, except biographies, because I can’t form pictures in my mind. You don’t have that problem with emails.”

Coxhoe had been bottom of the Wearside League, sometimes barely able to raise 11 men, when he switched from player to manager. In the next five years they twice won the Wearside League and collected another eight or nine trophies.

“It was about raising standards, doing things professionally, training every week, turning up 90 minutes before the game, not rolling home drunk on Friday night.”

At Shildon he guided the club to the FA Vase semi-final, a heartbreaker in two instalments, and, in 2015-16 to a first Northern League championship for75 years.

That life balance bit? “My family have sacrificed a lot, especially when I was at Shildon.”

He left on a point of principle over a player transfer on which he wasn’t consulted,, joined West Auckland after speaking to several other clubs. “The funny thing is I’d probably have retired at the end of that season, anyway,” he says.

He insists that he doesn’t put money into his clubs, but doesn’t take a penny out, either.

Most clubs just dream of getting to Wembley. For West Auckland, after two Vase final defeats, a win’s overdue. “In a way the worst thing would be to go out in the semi-final, like Shildon did.”

He still vividly remembers that one, too. “That goal was never offside….”

Ambition doesn’t end there. He’s been talking to potential commercial partners for West Auckland, he admits – “some pretty big people” – moots the possibility of a new ground, anticipates an announcement in the coming months.

“West over the years have really missed an opportunity. They twice won the World Cup and I don’t they’ve really capitalised on that. Just look at the other teams who were in that competition.

“When I tell people the story, they don’t believe me. There’s a need for things to go up another level.”

SURPRISINGLY, he believes that he doesn’t have the energy for football that once he had, acknowledges the importance of those around him in both sport and commerce.

Former Darlington player Phil Brumwell, with him at Shildon, is now managing director of High Street Hospitality, the hotels and restaurants division now developing across the North-East and far beyond.

As the High Street Group moves ever upwards, 27 storeys and beyond, what chance of the skyscraper being the limit?

“My wife wants me to slow down. I do try to spend more quality time with my family, but there’s still no end to my ambition.

“At the end of the day I’m a still a lad from Spennymoor who left school at the bottom and it’s important I don’t lose sight of that.

“I’ll keep on pushing and pushing, see how far we can go, but I’ll never forget where I’m from.”

The book could be a best seller.