HE HAS captained England at three age levels.

He has scored against Bayern Munich on a wild Pittodrie night. Yet, when Josh Walker walks out to face Cambridge United tomorrow, it will be the biggest game of his career.

This is a story that began 54 years ago. It starts with an ending. Gateshead AFC had spent 30 years in the Football League when they were expelled in 1960. In different guises, the town had been represented since the 19th century but there were grumblings, from clubs in the south, that the distances to travel were too bothersome, too expensive.

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In the late 1950s, the four clubs that finished bottom of the newly formed Fourth Division had to reapply to keep their place, an oft-unused fail safe to kick out underachievers. But, at the first time of asking, Gateshead AFC were voted out, cast out to the wilderness in favour of the conveniently-based southern club, Peterborough United.

With England's back turned, the club shifted its gaze across the border. Berwick Rangers, they supposed, had found a home in the frozen north, why not us? Friendlies were arranged with the likes of Partick Thistle, as the club flirted with its Scottish neighbours. A bid to join the Scottish Football League, though, was rejected.

A life spent in regional leagues proved unsustainable. They sank. The first team replaced their reserves in the depths of the Wearside League. Forced to leave their stadium, liquidation followed.

Twice, in the 1970s, a phoenix rose briefly from the ashes - Gateshead Town, Gateshead United - but was shot down before it could spread its wings. A third attempted revival, following a third insolvency, has somehow, against all odds, stuck.

Trouble, though, has never been far away. Alan Shearer and the town's most famous son, Paul Gascoigne, have both had to ride to the rescue. Gazza - who played for the local boys' club - spoke at a sold-out dinner. "Seven hundred and fifty tickets at 30-odd quid a head in 24 hours," said John Gibson, the former chairman, this week. "He peppered my steak, spiked my drink, caused chaos. Bless him, I didn't mind one bit."

Shearer also did his share of fund-raising. Gibson ran in to him once, sweating and exhausted, after Shearer had scored a hat trick at St James' Park. "Here, mate," the striker said, taking off the soaked No.9 shirt and tossing it over. "Use it to help Gateshead."

Now, after flip-flopping for nearly 30 years, plummeting down several divisions, clinging on by goal difference, back up the cliff then back off the edge, Gateshead FC are at last on the verge on rejoining the Football League. The Conference Premier play-off final against Cambridge tomorrow could bring to an end a half-century of hurt. They are underdogs, but they like it that way. This is a 'Journey' - one that ends at Wembley - to make Rangers fans thank the gods for their luck.

"You can sense the excitement building in the town," says Walker, himself from around these parts. "We had over 8000 supporters for the semi-final [against Grimsby Town], three or four hundred fans making eight-hour drives to Salisbury. For a Conference club . . ."

It is better than many SPFL Premiership sides manage. But the people behind the scenes have been canny in exploiting the club's links to the area's giant, Newcastle United. "We're not a rival, we're the second team to support," says Walker, and Graham Wood, the club chairman, has struck upon a clever concept in selling discounted tickets for those with a season-book at St James' Park.

Apathy in the north-east, as Newcastle trailed off to late-season despair, has no doubt contributed to the increasing crowds at the smaller club, as locals tired of heavy defeat. "It's not what you want to see," says Walker, a Newcastle fan first.

"There have been protests against the owner. [But] our chairman is brilliant, pumping money into the club to keep it going. With us, you can see it's a team that's challenging and wanting to go places."

Walker spent just half a season on loan at Aberdeen, at 18, but looks back on it fondly. "It was my first time away from home," he recalls. "I always think about it, really."

And that goal? How well does he remember it? "I'll never forget it for the rest of my life," he declares with a grin, before taking a deep breath.

"We had a free-kick on the half-way line, Scott Severin's played it up, Zander Diamond has challenged for it, it's fell to Lee Miller, he's flicked it back in the box, Sone Aluko's laid it off to me, I'm 20 yards out, a Bayern defender comes out running, I've placed it round him and it's found the corner. I can't remember the celebration, but I remember that!"

There are not many, in a football-daft north-eastern town, who can remember watching their side play in England's big leagues.

That may be about to change.