British sport, by and large, doesn’t share the American obsession with finding a winner every time. There’s a certain nobility in sneaking a draw – often, the less deserved the better – and a grim satisfaction in denying a stronger opponent victory. Then there’s the blow-for-blow battle, where neither side deserves to lose. The narrative drama of the game feels complete in itself, with no need for the artificial resolution of sudden-death overtime and penalty shoot-outs.
But South Shields’ prospective title decider against Morpeth Town felt like a rare example of a game where a winner on the day would be preferable to the 1-1 draw that ensued. Not because of a lack of drama. On the contrary, when Morpeth substitute Mark Davison headed home a corner in stoppage time, he created one of the classic results: a draw that felt like a victory or a defeat, depending on your colours. No, the problem here was the bigger picture.
A Shields win would have sealed the Northern League title. Carl Finnegan’s second-minute goal set up that outcome, and by the time Davison tied the scores, the league secretary was already preparing the trophy for the ceremonial handover. Moments later, it was back in its box. The season was still alive, even if Morpeth greeted the South Shields team with a guard of honour before kick-off.
Only just. Morpeth, with three games left, trail South Shields by seven points. Theoretically, the Highwaymen could still snatch away the title; a betting man wouldn’t seriously entertain the prospect of the Mariners running aground in their remaining fixtures away to mid-table Ashington and relegation-haunted Guisborough. A Morpeth win, though, would have meant a four-point gap and a chance to get claret-and-blue nerves jangling. A dramatic climax would still be in prospect, and may the best team win.
Instead, a draw. Glory all-but assured for South Shields, but no prizegiving and no airing for Freddie Mercury in front of a home crowd of more than 2,000. Shields have five more games left – three of them cup finals – but no more at Mariners Park. Set against the prospect of lifting four trophies, it’s a trivial concern, but the passing of an opportunity to raise a cup in front of their own fans is a mild frustration.
Now the talk is of ‘finishing the job’. The end of a 32-game winning streak – five better than the world record that Welsh Champions TNS took from Dutch giants Ajax earlier this season – could be a blessing in disguise if it lifts a bit of statistical pressure from the team’s shoulders before May’s appearance in the County Cup, League Cup and FA Vase finals. With promotion to the Evo-Stik league already guaranteed, the South Shields story is going to feature many more chapters in the coming seasons. But, for once, the neutral fan could be forgiven for seeking a more decisive outcome to Saturday’s championship showdown.
Mariners Park, South Shields, England
Northern League Division 1, April 15, 2017
South Shields 1 (Finnegan) Morpeth Town 1 (Davison)