Wednesday, 4 May 2016

Northallerton Town 0 South Shields 1

Northern League, second division
Attendance: 185

A lot’s been happening in Shields. To the north of the Tyne FA Vase holders, North Shields, are drawing 350+ spectators a week, the first division’s highest average while on the other side of the estuary and a division lower South Shields are drawing crowds of 600+, surely unprecedented for a non-phoenix, step six club. Why? Well, in the south it’s down the support of local businessman, Gary Thompson, who owns a utility management company. He bought the club last summer and relocated it back to the South Shields after a period in exile in Peterlee. The Shields ground had been closed due to disputes with the then landlord.

Thompson has since invested in the club by, for instance, substantially improving the  clubhouse and signing ex-Middlesbrough and Sunderland star Julio Arca. (He didn’t play today but still came along). Certainly, the club’s profile has changed hugely since I last saw them two years ago. Backed by a large town with a population of 80,000, The Mariners sailed away at the top of the table. Where and when will it all end? Who knows – the owner is targeting the National League and a new stadium – but, for the moment at least, all aboard to enjoy the ride.

I’d been planning to jump on the bandwagon last December at the Vase tie against Morpeth Town but when the match was finally played at Consett after umpteen postponements I couldn’t make it. Subsequent opportunities past me by and so it was I finally got to see Shields in their last match of the season against my most local Northern League side and their first opponents back in August.

Last week I watched Tadcaster Albion win the Northern Counties East League wrapped up in the five layers, a hat and gloves. “I should’ve worn pyjamas under my trousers,” said one spectator. “What?” replied his mate. “Do you fancy a nap at half-time?”. Thankfully today conditions were just as you’d expect them to be when contemplating fixtures in late April or early May. Spring is here.

The talk on the terraces was about that team beginning with ‘L’. In truth whichever match fans chose following the thrilling weekend Premier League double-header it was going to be something of an anti-climax and so it proved. Furthermore, Shields, starting the match following seven straight wins, had secured promotion five games ago and Northallerton had lifted the Ernest Armstrong Memorial Trophy two days earlier. Accordingly, the attendance was lower than it would’ve been had the fixture been played on the original date in January.

Having nothing to play for didn’t stop a vocal knot of about 20 Northallerton teenagers chanting for most of the match, a rare sound at step six. They call their side just “’Allerton” which is what you might have thought was the full name of the club judging from the sign on the grandstand when I visited previously in 2004 (see above). The ground remains unremarkable. “If you all hate Geordies hold a shoe,” jested the fans, footwear in hand. The Shields fans replied when their side scored the only goal with 12 minutes to go: “Get your shoes off for the lads”.

As the sky turned orange at sunset the Shields manager urged his players on for the last time this season: “Come on. Just half an hour then you can have a rest.” At the end the Shields fans jokingly booed the ref as he approached the tunnel. He responded with a theatrical bow, smiling. The gesture was fitting. I’d caught up with Shields in time only for their curtain call. I shall have to take my seat earlier next season for the Shields first division derby perhaps. Now that will be a tasty encounter.

Programme notes: A ‘thought for the day’ was a passage from the gospel of John and it’s always useful to be reminded when a game (or, at least, it’s original date) coincides with the Cambodian New Year.

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