One year and a week ago, Gateshead beat Ebbsfleet United to stay in the Conference.
In September, they were fourth bottom.
By the end of Gary Mills’ third game in charge, a 3-0 home defeat to Wrexham, he began to doubt a belief he had conveyed to his players on arrival a fortnight earlier, that they would reach the promotion play-offs.
But since challenging the Tynesiders on March 1 to win nine of their last 12 games, they have claimed seven but drawn the rest and another stalemate against Cambridge United at the International Stadium today (5.30pm) – when neither Newcastle United nor Sunderland are in action – will guarantee fifth place, at least.
That would pair the Heed with Cambridge – who are already guaranteed second spot – in the play-off semi-finals, at home on Wednesday and away on Sunday week.
Third place will send Mills’ men to FC Halifax Town or Grimsby Town on Thursday, with the second leg at home three days later, while fourth will bring either of the same two clubs to Tyneside on Thursday before the following Sunday’s return leg.
Mills’ experience with York City two years ago – when the Minstermen finished fourth, yet overcame the disadvantages therein to triumph at Wembley – has left him comfortable with any eventuality.
But the Heed manager wants victory this evening, to finish third and reap the benefits that follow.
And just over 12 months on from the club’s great, Riverside escape, Mills insists much the same group of players now boast the mental aptitude to complement ability that could see them pull off a “magnificent achievement”.
“Absolutely, I told them that from day one,” he said.
“I’ve been around football long enough to know that you have to be right mentally. If you haven’t got that, if you don’t believe and you don’t have the drive to succeed then you’re not going to. But I told the players from day one that we’re going to get into the play-offs. I challenged them to that.
“After we played Wrexham here in my third game, I’m not too sure I believed that we could because we were that poor, but we’ve moved on since then.
“The players have listened, they’ve learned and as games have gone by they’ve told themselves ‘Hold on, the gaffer might be right. I probably am better than I’d given myself credit for’.
“So all credit to them, we can go and achieve, and I’m not going into Saturday thinking we need a point. I want three points and I want to finish third.”
Mills added: “A lot of people are asking if we do get into the play-offs who we want to play.
“Now Cambridge might have in mind that they want to play Gateshead and if that’s the case they might be looking for a certain result. I don’t know, that’s down to them.
“All I know, and I mean this, is that I don’t feel it matters who we play. I want to finish third, I want to get that little advantage of being at home in the second leg. Having said that, I got to Wembley playing away in the second leg at York. But I want to finish third. What an achievement that would be from my players, given where we were when I came in September.
“I said after the Welling game that we had 12 games to go and we’d need to win nine, which would have given us 27 points. If we beat Cambridge on Saturday it’ll give us 28, so I’ve actually underestimated how good my players can be.
“If it comes off, it’ll be a magnificent achievement.”
Admission is £14 for adults, £9 for Newcastle United season ticket holders and over-60s, £7 for 16 and 17-year-olds and students and £2 for under-16s. Cash turnstiles in the Tyne and Wear Stand and North End (15, 16 and 17) will open at 4.15pm.