PREM STARS BRING THEIR CLASS
There are around two hours to go to kick-off in South Shields’ key Evo-Stik North promotion clash. Their Mariners Park home should have that notable, peaceful pause that an empty football ground has before exploding into life with the arrival of supporters.
But instead it is already buzzing with activity and excitement.
The tills are ringing at the merchandise stalls, the bar is quenching the thirst of supporters and flags from both clubs are already fluttering in the light breeze.
There is a buzz of expectancy that is normally reserved for those thrilling final moments before kick-off. It is all a long way from South Shields’ time playing in front of doublefigure crowds in Peterlee, 18 miles away from their hometown, when a small band of hardy souls kept their beloved Mariners alive.
The arrival of local businessman Geoff Thompson heralded an upturn in fortunes. Since his entrance in 2015 the club have won two league titles, three cup competitions, and have taken over 18,000 supporters to Wembley.
One key factor in the club’s renaissance has been the additions of former Sunderland midfielder Julio Arca and former North Shields manager Graham Fenton.
Arca was seen as a novelty signing by many cynics, shrugged off as a publicity stunt and washed-up Premier League footballer.
But the cynics have been proven wrong!
The recent 3-1 defeat to Scarborough was Arca’s 100th appearance for the club.
Arca sat alone in the home dressing room after the game and described his two years with the Mariners as “an incredible journey”.
“It was hard to predict what was going to happen at that time,” admitted the Argentinean.
“It has been a fantastic time here; two years now and we aren’t used to getting beat. It has been an incredible journey for myself and for the club, it is a different place.
“The town is behind us, the players know that and we really enjoy having their support”
The past 12 months have seen the renaissance click into over overdrive.
Graham Fenton crossed the Tyne to become the Mariners joint-manager alongside Lee Picton in September 2016. Since his arrival they have won the Northern League title and a hat-trick of cup competitions, including last season’s FA Vase.
A tough journey, but an enjoyable one according to Fenton: “We have lost a couple of games in the year so it could have been better. The lads are a pleasure to work with and they have been top class at times. Going into a season and winning four trophies, it’s almost unprecedented, but we enjoyed every step of the way last year”
They have taken to life in the Evo-Stik North with ease and currently sit second on goals scored.
The Mariners don’t shirk away from the fact that promotion is their aim, with an eye on climbing through the divisions in the Non-League pyramid.
Fenton said: “This year we went into the unknown, stepping into a new league.
“The lads have handled it really well and we had some joy in the FA Cup too, which was fantastic for the club. We were happy to finish 2017 at the top of the league but we want to be there at the end of the season.”
Those sentiments were echoed by Arca, with the former Argentina Under-23 star believing that an Evo-Stik North title win would be as big as their quadruple last season.
“I have said many times before, what happened last season was unique. I can’t see any team doing what we did for a very long time.
“This season, the main thing is the league. I think everyone wants to win the league and that is our aim as a club.
“That would be as big as what we did last year.”
PREMIER LEAGUE EXPERIENCE: South Shields’ inspirational captain, Julio Arca and joint manager, Graham Fenton