Gateshead FC's 'good night out' to strengthen bond after play-off heartache as Wembley glory beckons

If strength is indeed found in adversity, there should be little surprise Rob Elliot has a fostered a near unbreakable bond in the Gateshead dressing room.

A season that began with high hopes of success on several fronts under former manager Mike Williamson looked to be delivering as the Tynesiders battled for a place in the National League play-offs during the opening months of the season.

Williamson was tempted away by an offer from League Two club MK Dons in October and was followed out of the International Stadium door by loan signings Billy Chadwick, Kyran Lofthouse and Archie Muir. An already depleted Heed squad was further depleted by the sale of in-form forward Stephen Wearne as he was reunited with Williamson at Stadium: MK.

Yet through it all, with Elliot and trusted coaches Louis Storey and Carl Magnay at the helm, a new look Gateshead squad have thrived in adversity and are now looking to achieve success on the greatest stage English football has to offer.

There was, of course, one final blow, perhaps the cruelest yet, as a row over a ten-year security of tenure on their International Stadium home meant the Heed failed to meet EFL criteria to compete in the National League play-offs, despite securing a top seven finish with some ease.

That cruel, soul-crushing decision could have obliterated the overwhelmingly positive atmosphere in the Heed ranks - but in reality, it has strengthened bonds and solidified determination ahead of Saturday’s FA Trophy Final clash with Solihull Moors.

“We had a good night out, which was fun and they deserved,” explained Elliot as he assessed how his players dealt with the fall-out from the situation.

“We took the lads out, went for dinner, just took the stress off and a bit of reflection. Ultimately, what was nice about that is we just like spending time together. I genuinely love coming to work, it’s a privilege for me to come into work everyday and spend time with these lads and I know that dressing room is very unique.

“I’ve been involved in a lot of dressing rooms over the years and this is a fantastic dressing room where everyone is who they want to be. There is no falseness and trying to be something you’re not. That’s the strength of this club, more so than on the pitch. Off the pitch is that people feel comfortable to come and express who they are - but ultimately, every single player in the squad, regardless of the outcome at the end of the season, has probably gone up tenfold in terms of their stature.

“Hand on heart, I can look at that squad and say everyone is going in the right direction with their careers and with their development. We talk about control the controllable, that’s all we can do. We just make sure the lads keep developing, the team gets better, the individuals keep improving on and off the pitch. That’s where we are at, we are in a very good place as a group.”

With no prior managerial experience, there has been some surprise over Elliot’s impressive introduction into life in the dugout.

There have been some eye-catching results and the style of football, although slightly modified from what was implemented under Williamson, still remains one of the most attractive in non-league football’s top tier.

Securing that play-off place prior to their removal from the competition and claiming a place at Wembley in today’s final is no small achievement for Elliot and his players - and the former Newcastle United goalkeeper has admitted he has developed his style during the chase for success.

“I have got to say yes, haven’t I,” admitted Elliot when asked if he had surprised himself. “It hasn’t surprised me in the fact of the players we have got. The one thing I’ve learnt as a manager is you’re only as good as the players. There is a lot more things go into it but, ultimately, when Friday afternoon is finished, you can’t control what will happen on Saturday.

“It’s always down to them and I have to remember that. Regardless of how well the team is set up, how well we do or the goals we score, I can’t put the ball in the back of the net, I can’t get the lads to play with the bravery, so I’m not surprised with the way the players have played at times.

“There are things we can get better at, and going forward I think we will, but I am really pleased with how it’s going because there is another scenario and it’s backfired and it’s not a nice feeling.”

For now, with play-off heartache behind them, all eyes are on the Heed’s attempts to secure the FA Trophy for the first time in their history. Elliot, still an interim manager for the time being, remains adamant his players can overcome one last challenge and take their place in club history.

He said: “It’s going to be a good occasion and with everything that has gone on in the last few weeks it will be a nice way to end the season with the lads on the pitch, doing what they do best. I am just looking forward to watching us play, with everything that has gone on, they deserve the opportunity to walk out at Wembley and let football be the last word really.

“We are extremely disappointed obviously, especially given the momentum at the start of the season was geared towards finishing in the top seven. After all of the setbacks we’ve had this season, with a change of staff, change of players, even the fixture list at the end of the season, the lads have just overcome everything that was put in front of them.”

Elliot confirmed on-loan Fleetwood Town Will Johnson has ‘had a little setback’ in training and has returned to his parent club. However, the young defender will be the only absentee from an otherwise fully fit Gateshead squad.