The Return – Not For The First Time – of South Shields FC
It would be easy to glance at the league tables that appear in Sunday newspapers and make the automatic assumption that football in the north-east of England is undergoing one of its periodic times of crisis. At the time of writing, there is a very real possibility that the region could have no Premier League representation at all next season, with Sunderland and Newcastle United both labouring near the bottom of the table and Middlesbrough making considerably harder work of securing a return to the top flight than we might have expected a couple of months ago. At the very foot of the football firmament, however, one club showing signs of stirring after having died, being born, dying again, and being reborn again. South Shields Football Club are on the up.
The original South Shields FC was founded in 1889 and was voted into the Football League in 1920. The club spent ten years in the Football League, reaching a highest final league position of sixth place in Division Two at the end of the 1921/22 season before being relegated in 1928. Financially hamstrung to breaking point by low attendances, in 1930 the club – which had never finished below tenth place in Division Three North of the Football League – moved itself lock, stock and barrel to Gateshead, changing its name to Gateshead AFC en route. This club would retain its Football League place until being voted out in 1960 in favour of Peterborough United, and struggled on more than a decade before finally folding in 1973
Six years after the original club upped sticks and left the town, however, a new South Shields FC was formed. Joining the North Eastern League, the new club won this league title in 1939 and 1958, bouncing around various different leagues during the 1960s before coming to rest in the Northern Premier League upon its formation in 1968. The early years of this new era seemed likely to be successful for the club, which finished in fifth place in its first two seasons in the Northern Premier League, and in the 1969/70 season the club beat Football League clubs Bradford Park Avenue and Oldham Athletic in the FA Cup before losing to Queens Park Rangers in the Third Round of the competition. In 1974, the team was beaten by Morecambe over two legs in the semi-final of the FA Trophy, but at the end of that season the club underwent something of a case of history repeating itself as it confirmed that it would be moving, lock, stock and barrel to – you guessed it – Gateshead, and changing its name to Gateshead United.
Those amongst us with a passing interest in poetic justice may be interested to know that Gateshead United lasted just three seasons in the Northern Premier League before folding, but that was likely of little concern to those back in South Shields that were left without a club for a second time in just over forty years. After two years in the Northern Alliance and having made the quarter-finals of the FA Vase in 1976, the club joined the Wearside League, and in 1992 it moved into a new ground provided by chairman John Rundle by the name of Filtrona Park. Rundle, however, had limits to his munificence. During the 1999/2000 season, with the club adrift at the bottom of Division One of the Northern League, Rundle threatened to fold the club in the event that it was relegated at the end of the season. Rundle reversed this decision at the end of that season, but a repeat of this in 2006 ended with the club being taken over by a new committee.
Despite this, Filtrona Park remained owned by Rundle and his family, and a failure to agree an extension to the lease in 2013 led to the club being forced out of the town, this time to play at nearby Peterlee. Attendances collapsed down to two figures, but last year the club’s fortunes changed yet again when Geoff Thompson, chief executive of North Tyneside-based energy consultancy firm Utilitywise, agreed to buy Filtrona Park, lease it back to the club and become its chairman. The ground was renamed as Mariners Park – a nod to the club’s nickname – and the club started this season with its sights very much set on getting some way back up the football pyramid.
It’s worth mentioning at this juncture that the club began this season in Division Two of the Northern League. It can be difficult at times to get a handle on the various complexities of the English league system, but in short this division is at step six of the non-league game. In other words, it’s as far removed from a place in the Football League as a club in, for example, a club in Division One North or South is removed from a place in the Premier League. It’s six promotions away. It’s with this in mind that average attendances this season of almost 700 – more than four times the next highest average attendance in the division and with several matches having attracted crowds of more than a thousand people – should be considered. The club earned itself some national headlines in September by signing the former Sunderland and Middlesbrough midfielder Julio Arca, and six months on Arca – who also played for Argentina at the 2001 World Youth Championship in a squad that contained, amongst others, Javier Saviola and Maxi Rodriguez – is still with the club.
Arca’s involvement at the club may have piqued the interest of some disaffected supporters of other north-eastern clubs, and with South Shields being roughly geographically equidistant between Sunderland and Newcastle-upon-Tyne, it might be argued that there has been plenty of disaffection to go around in that part of the world over the last couple of years or so. The appeal of more affordable football during an era of increasing disquiet at rising ticket prices at the upper levels of the game may also have worked to the club’s advantage. Performances on the pitch will also undoubtedly have had their impact upon attendances, though. At the time of writing, South Shields have won their last nine successive league matches and are seven points clear of Division Two of the Northern League with games in hand on the teams below them in the league, and Geoff Thompson has already stated his intention for the club to aim considerably higher than the Northern League.
Such a statement might merely be considered a platitude elsewhere in the country, but this ambition carries a special significance in the Northern League, where in the past clubs have turned down promotion out of concern over the cost of travelling the sort of distances required in, say, the Northern Premier League or because players might not be willing to make the time sacrifice required to be able to do so whilst holding down other jobs. In an interview with the Shields Gazette in November, Thompson confirmed plans to develop Mariners Park to have a minimum capacity of 5,000 – it currently holds a somewhat more modest 2,000 – and for a floodlit 3G artificial pitch to be installed behind the ground’s main pitch to provide a facility that can be hired out by junior clubs, local teams and five-a-side players all year round. Such forward planning hints at a more solid foundation towards building a sustainable club than merely throwing money onto the insatiable bonfire that is players’ wages, although, of course, the club’s future prosperity will come to depend as much on the execution of such plans and the extent to which the community is willing to support the club as the nature of the plans in itself.
For now, though, South Shields FC is definitely on the rise again. There will, of course, be significant challenges ahead, but with its home back in the town secured and the club attracting such highly impressive attendances for the level of the game at which it plays, the scope to fulfill the ambitions of its new chairman certainly exists, and with South Shields being a town of 100,000 people there should be no reason why it shouldn’t be able to support a club playing at a substantially higher level of the non-league pyramid. If it can achieve this growth sustainably while coming good on the chairman’s stated intention of being at the the absolute heart of its community, then, while the sky might not necessarily be the limit for this club, a place considerably higher up the non-league pyramid than that which it currently holds seems more likely than not to become a reality over the next few seasons. And more importantly than anything else, this time around, South Shields FC should be for the people of South Shields rather than for the people of Gateshead.
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