One year on from this blog’s last visit to South Shields, plenty has changed at Mariners Park. New turnstiles, new covered stands down one side, much more hard standing and a shiny new 3G pitch next to the immaculate grass playing field. Merchandise and snacks now come from purpose-built huts, while the ticket office does a brisk trade ahead of the table-topping, river-hopping South vs North battle of the Shields on – inevitably – fireworks night.
Attendances remain impressive, to the point where the announcement of 1,060 at Saturday’s FA Vase clash with Runcorn Linnets felt like a bit of an anti-climax. The visitors, a fan-run phoenix club, brought about 120 with them and it looked like every family had taken a banner along for the day.
The Linnets were formed from the wreckage of Runcorn FC Halton, the final incarnation of the old Runcorn team that once won the Alliance Premier League and rubbed shoulders at the top table of non-league football. Their decline was a sadly familiar tale of ambition trumping tradition: the loss of the much-loved Canal Street ground and a financially ruinous move to the impressive Halton Stadium just across the Mersey in Widnes unwittingly triggered a downward spiral that saw the old club collapse in 2006. The Linnets hatched that year, nesting in the North West Counties League and building from scratch. With average crowds of around 350, they’re the best supported in that competition but four years of runners-up finishes has slowed the club’s flightpath.
The Mariners, meanwhile, are buoyant on a wave of ambition. The smartened-up ground is a beginning rather than the end of the transformation of old Filtrona Park. The team, radically reshaped even in the space of 12 months, is going well in the Northern League despite the upheaval of dismissing promotion-winning manager Jon King and luring Graham Fenton across the Tyne from North Shields. Prior to kick-off fans were debating the odds of a North vs South Wembley final come May, and some even dreamed of the prospect of a Tyneside full house beneath the arch.
But if they get there, South Shields may well reflect that this first-round tie was the hardest step on the road to Wembley. Runcorn, whose fans brought a wider-than-average repertoire of songs with them, were no whipping boys. Well-drilled defending frustrated the hosts in the first half, and things got worse on the stroke of half-time when club talisman Julio Arca turned an Anthony Hickey cross into his own net.
Fenton’s half-time team talk might have made interesting listening; Shields were back on the pitch early for the second half and played with noticeably more verve after the interval. Gavin Cogdon, a Wembley winner with Spennymoor, made it 1-1 and had a decent shout for a penalty. New signing Andrew Stephenson, also ex-Spennymoor, should have done better than putting a close-range header high over the bar. Extra time was looming when a cross into the box wasn’t properly cleared and Robert Briggs forced it home at the second attempt. The coaching staff spilled onto the pitch, jumping for joy. The crowd roared – relief as much as delight.
But goalie Liam Connell, another Vase winner in his Dunston days, was the true hero. Deep into stoppage time he pulled off the finest of three fingertip saves, sending a flailing arm to claw a close-range header out of the top corner. Runcorn, whose impressive Paul Shanley also bounced a shot off the top of the bar, were finally beaten.
Mariners Park, South Shields, England
FA Vase Round One, Oct. 22, 2016
South Shields 2 (Cogdon, Briggs) Runcorn Linnets 1 (Arca og)