Former Hartlepool Utd player Phil Turnbull set for Wembley with Gateshead

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WHEN it comes to playing Top Trumps with his twin, Phil Turnbull now defintely holds the stronger hand.

However, he’s hoping Happy Families is the card game of choice this weekend.

It’s been a while since Turnbull was able to win a game of ‘who’s had the best football career’ with his brother Stephen, but tomorrow should see him pull out the ace in the pack.

For if running out at Wembley with Gateshead in their play-off final against Cambridge doesn’t come out on top, then nothing will.

The South Shields brothers were both at Hartlepool United together as teenagers, but while Phil’s only first-team appearance was in a Football League Trophy game against Rotherham, Stephen went on to play 22 times, meaning bragging rights were his.

Neither have played at Wembley, however. Phil, the older twin by 60 minutes, only made his first trip to the national stadium a few weeks ago to watch Sunderland in the Capital One Cup Final.

It will all change tomorrow, however, as he realises a boyhood dream.

“As a kid I always used to play on the Tech field at Harton College, and Jack Clark Park. I grew up playing on there and we used to play Wembley singles and Wembley dubs, and now I can say I’m actually going to Wembley.

“My twin brother Stephen and I were both at Hartlepool together and if we’re ever having a daft argument he’ll say ‘25,000 Notts Forest, away’.

“But now I’ve got a trump card in Wembley. He can’t beat that. It’s the home of football for the world and touch wood, I can say I’ve walked out there.

“My girlfriend is from Sunderland and a friend managed to get us tickets for the cup final. I joked with them that I would be back here in the summer. I’m a Newcastle fan but it was a great day, the Sunderland fans were brilliant and it was red and white all over.

“But it will be a totally different experience going as a player.”

Not only is it Turnbull’s first game at Wembley, it’s Gateshead’s too. Add into the mix the fact the Skrill Premier (that’s the Conference in old money) play-off final represents their chance to return to the Football League after a 54-year absence then it’s clear just how big a day it is.

The Heed have come a long way, as has Turnbull.

He started playing as a youngster in the West Park League for the Panthers, run by his dad, before spells at South Tyneside and Jarrow Boys. Sunderland took notice, and he spent a time as a schoolboy there – “I hated it” – before being released at 15 and eventually joining Hartlepool a year later with Stephen.

Three years and a scholar and one as a pro ended with just the one first-team appearance, despite starring for the reserves and youth team under the guidance of Paul Stephenson.

It still leaves a bitter taste, and the fact that Gateshead could be playing in the same league as Hartlepool next season adds a greater incentive to tomorrow’s tie.

“I love Hartlepool as a club, they were unbelievable for me, the youth set-up and all the people down there,” said Turnbull. “It’s a great little club.

“But I felt robbed and I felt robbed for my twin brother because Stephen was absolutely flying down there, and then Danny Wilson came in.

“It’s sometimes just one person in football – if your face doesn’t fit – and he got rid of him.

“I remember playing games in the ressies and absolutely bossing it and thinking ‘I’m going to be in the first team on Saturday’ and I just never got a look in.

“To be fair, when I got released I was bitter as there were players there who, in my personal opinion, weren’t as good as me but were getting a chance every week.”

Turnbull was soon snapped up by York City, then in the Conference, but a dislocated shoulder hampered his progress and he had to drop another couple of levels down to Gateshead.

Now, he’s on the verge of becoming a Football League player again.

He added: “It knocks your confidence because you think ‘am I good enough?’. I think I was good enough to play in Football League but when you fall out of that, especially coming three levels below it, you never think you’re going to go all the way back up there.

“I was travelling down to York every day from Shields and not making the squad and Ian Bogie rang me and asked me to come. I was reluctant at first but after two games I thought ‘happy days’ because he loved playing football properly. I signed and thank God every night it was the best decision I made.

“Gateshead were two steps below York and I was going part-time. It was a gamble.

“I’d only known pro football but we were passing the life out of the football and winning all the time, and I went straight into team and did well. We got promoted that season, I was made captain the following season and we got promoted again and I’ve never looked back.

“You look at teams like Hartlepool and their players, and I’m more than confident we could go there and compete if we get up there. The hardest thing is actually getting in there.

“I’d love to be able to prove people wrong in the sense that I should be playing at that level but I don’t have an ill-feeling towards Hartlepool because they taught me my trade and I loved it there.

“I loved representing Hartlepool but I would love to prove to some people that I should have been given a better chance.”

The 27-year-old has nothing to prove to his family, however. They’ll be backing him in their droves tomorrow, with his folks having put on a bus of 50 from South Shields to cater for the demand.

One person who won’t be there, however, is man who Phil will have bragging rights over now.

“Stephen’s doing marine engineering at college – and he goes away to sea today, the day before the game. I’m absolutely devastated.”