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Mike Williamson exclusive: Rebuilding Gateshead, Newcastle aura & Kompany sympathy

'Iron Mike' was a moniker made famous two decades ago by former world heavyweight boxing champion Mike Tyson, known for his strength and ferociousness in the ring.

While Mike Williamson didn't slug people in the jaw, Newcastle United supporters awarded him the same title for the courage and selflessness he displayed at St. James' Park for five Premier League seasons.

Now 36, Williamson faces a completely new challenge in his footballing career as player-manager of National League North side Gateshead F.C.

Not only did the Englishman enter his first full season in management this past summer, but he did so with a club teetering on the brink of extinction.

The tumultuous single-year ownership of Hong Kong-based Indian businessman Rangan Varghese ended with Gateshead demoted one league, their playing squad completely bare, essentially evicted from their stadium and a reputation in tatters.

Of course, for someone like 'Iron Mike', taking on the challenge was never a concern.

He told "It actually wasn't as worrying to come in and takeover because I knew what the club were capable of and they promised certain things and they followed through with that straight away.

"I knew that I could trust them and as soon as I built that trust with them it was just a case of accepting the challenge, which I'm all about. I really enjoy a challenge and trying to push forward in the next step of my career so it fitted perfectly with me and my family."

In the final months of Varghese's ownership players' salaries and rent on The International Stadium went unpaid. The club was in turmoil and only survived when a consortium lead by Neil Pinkerton and Trevor Clark eventually brought down Varghese's reign.

The unstable situation lead to a mass exile of the playing squad in the summer, except for Williamson, who took on the unenviable task of piecing everything back together.

"When I was meeting players they were still questioning the stories of last season, so we had a lot of people very doubtful and didn't want to commit to a club or a team that wasn't secure.

"And the fact that we had zero players, nobody signed on, it made it a little bit more difficult because everyone was saying, 'well you've got no players so how can they see the vision that we are trying to build?'"

With the club remaining full-time and a return to the International Stadium, a number of old players were quickly brought back. Williamson then filled out the squad with a mixture of free transfers and loan signings from clubs in the Football League, including Dom Tear (Huddersfield Town), Brad James (Middlesbrough) and Joshua Kayode (Rotherham).

Williamson says much of the credit must go to his assistant for Ian Watson, who he calls the "heart and soul" of Gateshead.

"Basically it was just a case of selling our vision and get them to buy into what we are doing, and once we got a couple to come in and re-signed a few players from last season so they already knew how we operated and how we worked and how we were looking to build.

"Once we got a few to commit it was easier to sell because the momentum started building and people were buying into to what we were doing.

"[Ian Watson's] been brilliant, he is like an unsung hero at the football club. He's the heart and soul. And because he's a North East lad he's got a lot of connections. 90 per cent, probably 95 per cent of the recruitment was him.

"Having just moved back to the area and not being so familiar with the lower leagues, it was difficult for me so it was on Ian to do a lot of the recruitment.

"We sat for many hours and were talking through different players and possibilities and he worked tirelessly."

Another pull for Williamson was the option of remaining in the North East, which he says is a special part of the country.

"You've probably got to experience it to really understand it because there's a lot of lads that are south-based, London-based, my friends who have moved up to play for the football club and ended up staying up here.

"It's a beautiful part of the country, it's really, really stunning. It's got a lovely coastline, a lively city and a lot of different elements to it, wonderful people and it's a sports city.

"My family love it up here and we were desperate to come back as soon as we could."

The role of player-manager has become far less prominent in modern football given the increasing demands for each task.

Vincent Kompany's struggles at Anderlecht this season has only strengthened the opinion that the dual role is detrimental at the highest level.

And Williamson says he can sympathise with the difficulties that Kompany has faced.

"It's very difficult. It's a completely different set of skills to be honest, playing and managing. Just because somebody has been an outstanding player and played at the level that Vincent Kompany has doesn't mean that it's a natural progression.

"And also the difficulties between the two, the transitioning between the making sure you're physically and mentally right to go out and perform on a Saturday and making sure you've got everything else covered behind the scenes and you're making the right decisions.

"When you're on the pitch you're obviously leading by example you're also liable to make mistakes as well, where as a normal manager very rarely makes mistakes.

"It is a minefield at points and obviously the level that he (Vincent Kompany) is at the minute it would far more intense than where I'm operating at, but I'm really enjoying it so whilst that continues I want to keep pushing myself."

With Gateshead sitting mid-table, Williamson is still far from achieving his pre-season goal of winning promotion, but he remains determined to develop into the best version of himself in this new role.

"It's something that I love and that I'm intrigued by. I couldn't really read the future but I'm very passionate about it and I'm enjoying every minute of it and I can't see myself coming out of it anytime soon.

"In terms of ambition of making right to the top, I want to be the best version of myself and I want to push my limits, whatever that may take me we'll see in the future but because I'm enjoying it so much it makes me believe it could be in management."

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Andrew Maclean
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