Football in Tyne & Wear was pretty miserable in 2015. Sunderland and Newcastle continue to underwhelm, Gateshead’s brief flirtation with the Conference promotion race has faded back into mid-table obscurity and a damp winter has wreaked havoc throughout the lower-league programme.
But there’s one bright spot: the revitalised South Shields FC. Despite playing in Northern League Division 2, the 10th tier of English football, the Mariners have been pulling four-figure crowds on their return to the club’s traditional home, the former works pitch for the Filtrona factory on the Bede Industrial estate, a short distance from where the Venerable Bede studied at Jarrow Priory and wrote perhaps the first scholarly work of English history.
It’s not all that long since Shields themselves were in danger of being consigned to the history books. Two years ago the lease at Filtrona Park expired and the team was forced to relocate down the A19 to Peterlee where the windswept prospects of Eden Lane did little to attract crowds of more than a few dozen.
Redemption came in the summer of 2015 when a new owner, Geoff Thompson, pumped some of his personal fortune into the club. Step one was buying up the Filtrona Park site and renaming it Mariners Park (the old guard sometimes describe fans who talk of Mariners Park rather than Filtrona as ‘Sky boys’; it’s partly tongue in cheek). Step two was investing in an impressive Northern League roster with serious non-league experience leavened by a touch of class from former Sunderland and Middlesbrough favourite Julio Arca. The Argentine u20 World Cup winner has moved in off the left wing to pull the strings in the centre, but his signing is no gimmick: Arca doesn’t play like a prima donna, is as liable as anyone else to a bawling out from the touchline, and gallops through games with an infectious grin on his face.
Admittedly, a 20-game winning streak would put a smile on anyone’s face and that kind of form has got the club planning for greater things. Step three would see Thompson, who reckons he’s already sunk “a seven-figure sum” into Shields, bankroll a redevelopment of the stadium. A new clubhouse, opened by local hero Alan Shearer in November, is only the start. Ambitious plans would see the current pitch moved and a new stand built behind one goal. A capacity of at least 5,000, and possibly 10,000 could follow; the club hopes for Conference-level football.
Fans are buying into it. It’s not just the numbers coming to game (a bleak, wet afternoon in November, albeit with no top flight football taking place, saw 1,400 watch the visit of Tow Law Town). The banter around the ground is also all about people falling in love with football once again. It’s not hard to find someone explaining how he’s had a season ticket at St. James’s Park or the Stadium of Light but gets more joy from the humble pleasures of Northern League 2. Apart from a winning team, people increasingly value the lack of Premier League pomposity. Turning up at 3 o’clock (weather permitting – the recent rains have turned the non-league grounds in the North-east into quagmires), paying out a fiver to stand wherever you like, enjoying a beer while watching the game from the panoramic window of the Mariners’ Club bar and not getting stung by long away trips re-arranged at short notice for TV are all helping fans to reconnect with what initially drew them to the game back in the day.
Meanwhile, Sunderland are playing football of last resort in a bid to stay up. Newcastle ponder a team consistently less than the sum of its modest parts. At Shields a thumping 9-1 home win sends everyone away happy. It’s not that Tow Law, Northern League legends in their own right, are poor – the Lawyers took an early lead and could have extended it before hitting the self-destruct button midway through the first half. It’s more that Shields enjoyed one of those afternoons where everything seemed to come off. Captain Leepaul Scroggins, one of Whitley Bay’s FA Vase heroes of yore, roams with menace through the midfield, Adam Sakr wreaks havoc on the right and the bulky frame of top scorer Warren Byrne gives Tow Law a handful. A raking long range effort from Arca to complete the rout seems like a fitting conclusion.
On land where Bede once walked, history also matters. Locals recall how two previous Shields teans ended up relocating to Gateshead in murky circumstances. The nearby Simonside housing estate was home to the second of them, a team that reached an FA Trophy semi-final in 1974 only to have its ground sold out from underneath it. Earlier still, the gloriously named South Shields Adelaide shed its exotic moniker to join the expanded Football League Division 2 in 1919 but lasted barely a decade before dropping into Div 3 (N) and eventually being taken over by Gateshead FC. After surviving a third brush with extinction, the current South Shields seems to be on a far more stable footing.
The question now is whether this can be sustained. The leap from Northern League to Northern Premier has stretched many clubs in this region – in recent seasons Newcastle Blue Star and Durham City both sought to step up but were scuppered by other circumstances. When the travel increases and the crowds, by and large, remain static, teams hit trouble. Once the excitement of promotion races subsides into the comfort of mid-table at the natural limit of what a town can sustain, it’s hard to stave off a slow decline. Moreover, those redevelopment plans would wipe out much of the open ground behind one of the goals, currently colonised by groups of young lads playing their own game in parallel with the first team action. To bring the club’s ambitious dreams to life, someone needs to ensure that a bigger stadium doesn’t obliterate the club’s roots. That could well be Thompson’s biggest challenge as the sugar daddy of South Shields.