Halfway between two moribund Premier League cities, lowly South Shields are the Tyne & Wear success story of the season. Andy Potts reports.
With Sunderland and Newcastle engulfed in failure, football in the North East is hardly thriving.
But ten miles and nine promotions away from each of them, South Shields FC of Northern League Division 2 provide a ray of hope. It’s not just the team’s rampant form – though the most recent league outing, the 9-1 thrashing of Tow Law Town, makes it 17 wins on the spin. It’s not even the ambitious boardroom plans for a 5,000-seater stadium, fit for league football should it return to this corner of South Tyneside. What impresses most are the four-figure crowds for this level of football where it’s not unusual to have more people on the field than cowering on the touchline from the wind whipping in from the North Sea.
The Tow Law game, admittedly on a day without Premier League football, attracted 1,412, a league record. Heavy rainfall even put the fixture in doubt and provided a damp and muddy experience for anyone who couldn’t smuggle his way into the small covered stands. Many preferred to stay in the bar, enjoying the action with a beer in hand. Behind one goal, the next generation of Shields fans diverted themselves with a strenuous kick around of their own. It isn’t quite like this in the Premier League.
Two seasons ago, all this would have been unthinkable. The club was up for sale, the lease on its Filtrona Park home had expired and South Tyneside Council couldn’t find a suitable local alternative. The team decamped half-an-hour away to Peterlee Newtown, whose ground provided spartan protection against the inevitable sea frets. Attendances hovered around 70 and the club’s long-term future was in serious doubt.
That all changed almost overnight thanks to non-league oligarch Geoff Thompson. The new chairman, 56, made his fortune as founder of energy consultancy Utilitywise, spending what he describes as a ‘seven-figure sum’ to purchase the Filtrona Park site, rename it Mariners Park and bring the team home.
Big signings followed. Julio Arca, once a Premier League star with Sunderland and Middlesbrough and since settled in the region, is still eager to play when his youth coaching commitments allow. In a league where ‘experience at a higher level’ usually means a season at Blyth Spartans in the Northern Premier, this former Argentina under-20 international provides classy link-up play to the midfield and has curled in the occasional wonder goal. Forward Warren Byrne has belied his less-than-athletic physique by scoring 18 goals in 22 appearances. Tricky winger Adam Sakr torments down the right and veteran captain Leepaul Scroggins (ah, non-league football!) provides a mixture of bite and finesse in the centre of the park. Arca’s poise adds a final flourish.
Thompson is now preparing to plough in a further £1 million to help the club to a higher level. Last week, the refurbished clubhouse was officially opened by Alan Shearer, though the weather stymied the proposed derby clash between Sunderland and Newcastle under-15s. Redevelopment also entails a new stand and an artificial pitch behind the current playing field, enabling the club to attract other local teams.
The clubhouse accommodates its first league game on Saturday, November 28 when South Shields take on Crook Town.
With Newcastle fans streaming out of St James’ Park before the final whistle of Saturday’s debacle against Leicester, more and more locals are taking an interest in events at Mariners Park. There is even talk of cherished season tickets being chucked in favour of climbing aboard the claret and blue express.
Many have tried to lure supporters away from the big two. Though the current non-league club only dates back to 1974, football in Shields has a long pedigree. The wonderfully named South Shields Adelaide, formed in 1899, dropped its exotic moniker in 1905 and won a place in the expanded Football League Division 2 in 1919. Reports suggest 20,000 turned up for the opening game, a 1-0 defeat at home to Fulham, but the team never managed better than sixth in the second tier and spent its last two seasons in Division Three (North) before being taken over by Gateshead FC in 1930.
In later incarnations, the team has faced professional opposition in the FA Cup, playing York City and QPR among others. It also reached the semi-finals of the FA Trophy in 1974, before losing its ground and being reformed up the river in Gateshead.
Even amid the current excitement, there’s always a note of caution. Many non-league clubs have announced big plans; some, such as Rushden & Diamonds or Gretna, have even achieved them, albeit fleetingly. But the question remains: if the money runs out or if the club becomes becalmed in mid-table higher up the pyramid, what next? Thompson’s greatest challenge will be to find the answer.