Few – if any – clubs have endured a rollercoaster decade quite like Newcastle Thunder.
From the highs of promotion out of League 1 in 2008, to the financial crisis which engulfed the Thunder (then, of course, known as Gateshead) a year or so later, to the long, arduous task of rebuilding the club in the third-tier: which included an incredible 64-match, winless run throughout 2011 and 2012.
Yet one man has been on that journey every step of the way – and on Saturday afternoon, Jason Payne will lead Newcastle out against Doncaster as head coach of the club he has served with pride, with many believing the new-look Thunder are finally ready to return to the Championship.
With their season-opener against the Dons being played alongside Toronto’s Championship clash with Widnes, a crowd of almost 2,000 is expected at Kingston Park to see two of the favourites for promotion from League 1 do battle. For Payne, it will be a proud moment.
He told TotalRL: “As someone who’s been at the club and seen it when it was Gateshead, with 100 people sat in the stands, to where we are now both on and off the field is remarkable. There was nobody playing the game at junior levels and now, we’ve got such a good pathway. We’ve a dominant North East catchment area.
“I’ve been through some unbelievably tough times with this club. People talk about West Wales last year, but I think we were in a much worse state than they were a few years ago. Sometimes I have to pinch myself now to see where we are – and while that comes with pressure and expectation, I’d much rather be in this position and targeted promotion believing we can do it.”
The Thunder are rightly billed among the favourites given their impressive recruitment drive. The likes of Liam Finn, Keal Carlile and Misi Taulapapa have all dropped down at least one division to sign for Newcastle – and add to this their impressive community and junior development work, and it’s easy to see why their story is rightly championed heading into the new season.
“We’re confident,” Payne admits. “The boys have trained hard, worked hard and we’ve got great blokes, which is the most important thing. I’m excited to see it come together. It’s an un usual place to be in because we’re normally underdogs, but we’re trying to keep our heads down and enjoy the ride this season.
“We shrug off the favourites tag. The best way to deal with that is by getting results, but what people think we might do doesn’t mean a great deal when you cross that white line. We’ve enough experience in the squad to not get carried away with people are doing.”
Finn is arguably their marquee signing, and Payne admits he brings plenty to his squad. “The enthusiasm of the club is infectious and I think he’s been bitten by the bug,” he said.
“We’re ambitious, we want to get up into the Championship, and beyond that, and I think he sees what we’re trying to do. He’s bought into our vision and he’s been outstanding as a leader for us. We’ve just missed that element in the past; he looks like he’s doing nothing at times but in reality he’s doing absolutely everything. We’ve got a great relationship with him.”
Payne will also use the dual-registration link with Wakefield to his, and the Thunder’s advantage this season, but on Saturday, all eyes will be on Newcastle’s own players as they aim to start the season with a bang – catching the ever-growing eye of the public in the region, as the club continues to make great strides both on and off the field.
“It’s a great way to start the season,” Payne said. I’ve spoke with Richard Horne and neither of us are sure if it’s a good thing or a bad thing to play each other first up, but it’ll be a tough game. We want a big crowd to kick-start what will be a great League 1 season – and helpfully a memorable one for Newcastle Thunder.”