The North East football season ended in the brilliant Wembley sunshine with a Geordie playmaker etching his name in history through a sumptuous free-kick that would have graced any game on this wonderful stage.
The heartbreak for Gateshead is that Ryan Donaldson’s graduation to the Football League comes with Cambridge rather than the team that he played 39 times for over the last couple of years. And after the way Gary Mills and his men waged war against the odds this season, for one of their own to plunge the dagger in felt like a particularly traumatic way for Tyneside dreams of a return to the Football League to evaporate.
They were gracious in defeat and concluded the campaign with the kind words of their opponents and the applause of their 7,000-strong band of followers ringing in their ears. But judging by the heartbroken response of Gateshead’s players – who sat, to a man, crumpled on the sun-kissed Wembley pitch as Cambridge skipped up the Wembley steps to lift the play-off trophy – it was an unsatisfactory consolation prize.
Mills’ men will go again next season and should feel no disgrace at going out on their sword. They have done more than anyone would have expected when Mills was handed the job with the brief to avoid the struggle that last season became. They have made friends and progress during this brilliant run, but the manager is a winner, and this will hurt during the close season.
They went out on their shield, but to be put to the sword by someone with such a strong Gateshead connection will probably have made it worse. Cambridge’s number seven – clearly too good for this level – was the clear vote for man of the match and a player who will look at home in League Two.
Donaldson’s background makes him the unfortunate story of an era-defining day for Gateshead. His father Ian played for the club, and his brief spell at Gateshead helped them to remain in a division that they have taken by storm since Mills came in. But he came back to haunt them yesterday.
Newcastle born and raised, Donaldson’s apprenticeship at Benton in the colours of Newcastle was successful enough for him to be considered a certainty for a long career in the Football League by the Academy staff who cut him loose at the age of 21.
That was not to be, but as Gateshead themselves discovered last season, he retains the brush of pedigree that once saw him tipped for great things in black and white. His wonderful, curling free-kick was exactly the sort of flash of attacking inspiration that Mills’ men needed when they enjoyed long spells of possession either side of the half-time interval.
How different it might have been if Mills had been the manager when Donaldson took the decision to relocate to the east and accept Richard Money’s invitation to try to return Cambridge to the big time. He has transformed Gateshead from a team struggling to prosper among the fallen Football League clubs into genuine contenders, and they will start next season in better shape because of it.
But their name will be absent from the League Two fixture list, and that means that the more than half a century wait to clamber out of non-league football goes on. And Arsene Wenger and his Gunners thought they had it bad with nine barren years.
The irony was that Gateshead’s downfall was crafted when they actually started playing the sort of football that Mills has encouraged them to this term. They had escaped unscathed in the early moments of the game when their sluggishness was a cause for major concern for travelling supporters who have come to refer to themselves as ‘the Heed Army’.
Money’s Cambridge started with the look of a team who were uncowed by their surroundings. They have recent league pedigree and have played in this fixture before, and it was clearly less of an ‘occasion’ for the team clad in yellow and black.
An early sign of Donaldson’s intentions came on just two minutes when the forward sent a low drive fizzing towards Adam Bartlett. The Gateshead goalkeeper was fortunate that it was at the right height for him, because there was enough venom to beat most stoppers from that distance.
It should have been advantage to Cambridge before 10 minutes when Josh Berry drifted, unmarked, into the box to connect with Donaldson’s cross. Somehow he managed to divert it wide from close range and Mills’ men needed a prod to wake up.
They began to settle soon after and moved the ball around with greater conviction. James Marwood angled a drive wide and Gateshead started to enjoy better possession than opponents who had spent most of the season above them.
Still there were concerns. Marcus Maddison had picked up a soft booking early in the game for diving and might have seen red when he clattered in carelessly as Cambridge pushed on. It seemed as if Gateshead were starting to gain a foothold, but the reprieve was only temporary.
Cambridge started the second half better and this time, they capitalised. Again, Donaldson was at the heart of it as he lofted a cross into the path of Liam Hughes, who had the simplest of jobs to nod past Bartlett.
Donaldson’s free-kick appeared to have ended the game as a contest, but Gateshead recovered brilliantly. Substitutes JJ O’Donnell, Jack Lester and Liam Hatch made a difference and it was Lester who handed Gateshead a lifeline.
They looked almost certain to go on from there, but a nasty injury to Cambridge’s Ian Miller took the wind out of their sails.
It seemed like a particularly cruel way to end one of the most memorable campaigns in the club’s long history.