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Jack McGraghan
Author: Jack McGraghan

21st August 2023

This feature is taken from issue 208 of HeedLines, sold at our National League fixture against Ebbsfleet United.

In a matter of months, Aidan Rutledge has become the subject of great intrigue within the local non-league scene.

In a world where the vast majority of players are cycled through the Premier League academy system in an almost disposable fashion, the 22-year-old has taken the unconventional route into professional football, even if a little unintentionally.

Rutledge instead found his home in grassroots football, never delving into the professional side of the game until a 61-goal haul in 43 games for Birtley Town last season caught the attention of Mike Williamson and Ian Watson.

His announcement on Twitter alone amassed over 1,300 likes from all corners of the region – support which Rutledge can only describe as ‘crazy’.

“I knew my family would be going crazy but to see the reaction it got was overwhelming,” he said.

“All of the lads from Birtley, the Fell, the cricket club and the university were all bigging me up.

“It went berserk – my phone didn’t stop!”

Making football his livelihood had been a dream of Rutledge’s as a youngster, like many across the North East, though he much to learn before that would become a reality.

“I was always the one getting told off for not passing the ball and trying to do everything myself!” he laughed.

“The older I got, the more I realised that it’s harder than you think. When you’re a kid all you think is ‘I want to play professional football’.

“I’m happy with the route I took, not being in academies. My Dad always wanted me to put school first, so if was one of those lads who got released at 18 I had something to fall back on.

“He was the one who got me into football as a kid – he played himself for North Shields and Consett.

“He took me to see my first Newcastle game when I was about five, and then I just got addicted.

“I had a season ticket for four years when I was a teenager and I’d come and watch a few games at Gateshead – I went to Wembley for the play off final against Cambridge.

“Then when I started playing football on a Saturday, I missed so many games that there was no point in me paying that sort of money.”

Fast forward to 18, and the idea of professional football was by no means at the forefront of Rutledge’s plans.

He took up a Sports Science and Coaching degree at Northumbria University, allowing him to stay close to his family and work towards his idea of moving into education for a living.

“I wanted to be a PE teacher in secondary school,” he recalled.

“Primary school is too young – secondary you can have a bit more of a conversation!”

The old adage of things in life only coming your way when not looking for them came to fruition though, with Rutledge’s football career kick starting.

He turned out for Team Northumbria at university as vice-captain, where he had ‘the best four years’ of his life, before also joining Birtley Town under former Gateshead player and academy coach Paul Bryson.

Rutledge would sometimes play three games a week – Tuesday and Saturday for Birtley, and Wednesday for Team Northumbria – which helped his form skyrocket.

“There was a spell in the season where Birtley played Boldon away and I scored a hat trick,” he said.

“On the Wednesday I got one for the university team, and on the Saturday I got another two for Birtley, so I’d scored six goals in one week.

“My confidence was through the roof and I was scoring every week, and the next thing you know the university and Birtley were both going for the league title.”

It was at Birtley where his best footballing memory would be made, finishing the season in fifth place in the Northern League’s second tier before defeating Horden CW and Billingham Town on penalties to reach Division One for the first time in the club’s history.

“Playing at Birtley was something I’ll never forget,” said Rutledge.

“The community they’ve got down there, the committee members and all of the volunteers are amazing – I’ve got so many memories.

“Having that last day in the play-off final, winning it on penalties after doing it the semi-final, and scoring ten out of ten penalties with all of the lads together was amazing.”

One day after the play-off final is when Gateshead came calling, with Rutledge picking up the phone to the news that his hometown club wanted him to come and train with the first team as the club prepared for the FA Trophy final.

“My eyes lit up – although I was a bit rough!,” he said.

“There was rumours of the likes of South Shields looking at me, and I’d see people on the sides with different club badges on their jackets.

“I knew people would be interested, but I didn’t realise how high up the level would get. I thought the highest that would come to watch would maybe be a club like Morpeth or Marske.

“At first I turned up thinking, this is National League standard and they’re about to go to Wembley, so they’re going to be a lot fitter than me.

“It took me 10 or 15 minutes to realise that I do belong here – It was something I had to get my head around.

“I felt like people might look at me and think ‘who’s this kid from Birtley who has come up five leagues.’

“After that first day I thought, ‘I want to do this’, and luckily Mike and Busted liked me and said they were going to offer me something.”

Rutledge signed on the dotted line this summer, leaping five divisions to join Gateshead in the National League.

His goalscoring form continued in pre-season, netting against both Dunston and South Shields, and he was handed his National League debut as a second half substitute at Hartlepool United.

He is admittedly still adjusting to life as a professional footballer, though but he is confident he – and Gateshead – will reap the rewards.

“Coming in on Monday and training every day, it’s an adjustment for the body,” he said.

“I’ve started fuelling my body with the right things and eating properly – I think moving back in with my Mam has helped!

“I want to score every game, people might think that’s unrealistic but it’s what my aim is.

“I want to help this club get to the Football League.

“Being from Gateshead and knowing what it means to everybody around here, there’s no reason why we can’t do that.”

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