By Dominic Scurr
FOUR hours into the return journey from an agonising 1-0 defeat at Eastleigh, Gateshead captain Scott Barrow grabs a coffee at Woodall Services and takes a seat to reflect on the day’s proceedings.
A looping 16th-minute header from Spitfires stand-in skipper Reda Johnson proved decisive as the Hampshire outfit moved seven points clear of Gateshead to tighten their grip on the final play-off position with three games remaining.
The Heed had done everything right, making the 640-mile round trip over two days opposed to the usual one – staying overnight in the Southampton Double Tree Hilton and enjoying a proper pre-match meal prior to a fixture where they knew three points would put them right back in the hunt for that coveted top seven finish.
But, as Barrow admits: “We just weren’t at the races to start with, we were slow, went a goal down early on and that’s ultimately cost us.”
Despite being tipped for relegation at the start of the season, the Heed have never dropped into the bottom half of the National League table and have occupied a play-off position for an impressive 22 out of a possible 43 gameweeks.
And while a play-off place now looks unlikely for Barrow and his teammates, a top half finish that seemed so unlikely last summer, is now almost secured.
It hasn’t been down to luck, the Tynesiders have had virtually none of that all campaign with a transfer embargo, player sales, manager departures and various other ‘complications’ threatening to derail their season on an almost weekly basis.
While defeated, Gateshead’s performance of professionalism, endeavour and pride at Eastleigh summed up what the team have been about this season.
“After going a goal down, I thought it was all us,” Barrow continues.
“We played some really good football and showed a lot of energy, a lot of desire but it’s the same story again – we just can’t hit the back of the net.
“We had chances but they just didn’t fall for us. I think we deserved at least a draw but it’s another loss and we just have to keep going and make sure we pick up a few wins to end the season.”
After losing their top two goalscorers in Luke Armstrong and Scott Boden in January, Gateshead were left with just one senior striker in the tireless Steve Rigg.
The Tynesiders have scored 12 times in their 12 games since both Boden and Armstrong departed compared to 41 in 29 games while the pair were still at the club.
Somewhat consequently, left-back Barrow found himself as a key attacking threat at the Silverlake Stadium on Saturday.
“It was nice to have a few chances today, just frustrating they didn’t go in,” adds the Welshman, who has netted four goals for the Heed over two seasons.
“I had a free-kick where I saw the keeper going one way so I thought I’d go the other but it came cannoning off the post which was just my luck!
“I had one from the edge of the box which I put over the bar by miles and few others to work the keeper. One forced a good save from the keeper from 30-yards, one got blocked and then one with my right foot at the end which I thought was going in but the keeper made another great save.
“We created enough chances to get something and it wasn’t just me, Whitey (Tom White) had a few shots.
“Mike Williamson had a shot from 20-yards which just went wide – I was shocked to see him shooting!
“At the moment, we’re just not putting the ball in the back of the net and that’s the story of the past few weeks really.
“We’re not going to give up, we’re going to keep going. We’re at home to Chesterfield next week so we’ve got to break the duck, get a win and just look forward to the remaining games.”
After previously going eight games unbeaten under new manager Ben Clark, Gateshead are now without a win in the six games since, five of those being defeats.
Despite the drop off in form, Barrow feels the performance levels haven’t necessarily dipped in recent weeks – it’s just a lack of edge and experience beginning to show.
After supposedly being victims of so-called “s***housery” on occasions throughout the season, Clark suggested his young side are perhaps a tad “too nice” and “too honest” at times.
“Clarky is right,” Barrow nods.
“We need to learn how to grind out wins and be scrappy. We play some great stuff but that doesn’t get you points and I’d take a scrappy 1-0 any day because that’s what gets you where you want to be.
“Lately, we’ve been playing very well for large spells but not getting our just rewards. Bar the last half hour at Sutton and match at Braintree, we’ve played as well as we have all season, really.
“Sometimes experience shines through ahead of ability, not playing well and still winning is something we haven’t done enough of this season.
“We’ve lost (18 games) this season yet there’s probably only been four or five times where we’ve played badly and only maybe a couple of them we’ve been able to win or draw.
“We put in a performance every week and sometimes it comes off and we pick up three points and it looks excellent but other weeks we play so well yet have nothing to show for it, but that’s just the nature of football.”
If there’s anything Barrow and his Gateshead teammates shouldn’t be short of this season, it’s excuses. The various obstacles have been well documented yet seldom mentioned by players when things haven’t gone their way.
“We could make all the excuses in the world but we’ve never really done that,” says Barrow, visibly drained from another mammoth away journey – the penultimate trip of a remarkable yet tiresome campaign.
“I do think everything is starting to catch up with us now,” concedes the Heed skipper.
“We’ve got a ridiculously small squad of 13 or 14 outfield players and unlike other clubs, we can’t really rotate things that much and get fresh legs out there.
“We’re short of numbers in each position and I think that fatigue is just starting to catch up with some of the lads now.
“Myself, having to play through an injury, it is catching up with me a little bit.
“A lot of the younger lads, their first season at this level having to play week in week out in a very, very tough league so I do think it is taking its toll now.
“Still, we don’t let it stop us. At Eastleigh, we kept going right until the 93rd, 94th minute we still had the energy because we don’t want to give up and just let the season dwindle away.”
With a seven-point deficit from the play-offs with three games remaining, many would concede that Gateshead’s play-off dream is over. But not Barrow.
“We’ve got three games now and who knows what could happen,” he adds.
“I was in a situation with Macclesfield where we were seven points from the play-offs with three games to go and we ended up winning two, drawing one and ended up just missing out on goal difference.”
Gateshead’s superior goal difference to Eastleigh gives them a slight glimmer of hope though they would still have to win all three of their remaining matches and hope the Spitfires to fail to win any of their matches against Dagenham & Redbrdige, Maidenhead and Boreham Wood respectively.
The Tynesiders would also need to better Sutton United’s results while also relying on Ebbsfleet, who sit 8th, to win no more than one of their three matches against Bromley, Dover and already relegated Havant & Waterlooville.
It’s an unlikely scenario, though Barrow insists, “anything can happen.”
“Now we’ve just got to make sure we do our job right on Friday against Chesterfield, pick up three points and see where we stand after that.”
Barrow joined Gateshead in the summer of 2017 and went on to be named the club’s Player of the Season for the 2017/18 campaign as the side finished 17th in the National League while also reaching the FA Trophy semi-final.
An uncertain summer followed as the former Macclesfield and Newport left-back admittedly came very close to leaving the club before finally “putting his own happiness first” and agreeing a further one-year deal at the International Stadium.
The Welshman was handed the captain’s armband for what would prove to be one of the most remarkable seasons in Gateshead’s recent history.
With the season now drawing to a close, Barrow glances around Woodall service station – a regular retreat for Gateshead at 9:30pm on Saturday evenings – as a small group of his teammates queue for a McDonalds (much to the dismay of Gateshead’s proud vegan assistant manager Ian Watson) and smirks before saying: “Captaining this team has filled me with so much pride.
“What we’ve been through together, there’s still football to be played and, as I say, anything can happen. But whatever happens, I think we can all look back on this season with our heads held high.
“I was speaking to Eastleigh’s manager before and after the game and he was telling me that the players, staff and everyone here were an absolute credit to themselves and the football club before wishing us all the best.
“Football is such a competitive sport so it means a hell of a lot for a rival manager to go out of his way to say something like that.
“We’ve said it all year, players, staff and fans, just how good the group is but it’s really nice to hear the opposition give us credit for how we’ve handled things, the way we play football and how we haven’t given up because it has been very, very tough.
“We’re rivals at the end of the day but I think it says an awful lot when you get opposing players, fans and managers praising us and saying they hope everything gets sorted.
“Now, we just hope it does!”