There is a cautious optimism about Lee Picton, joint manager of South Shields FC. “There’s certainly been bigger shocks”, he tells Palatinate ahead of their trip to Cheltenham in the FA Cup First Round.
He has good reason to be, too. He’s about to lead his side to their first ever appearance in the FA Cup First Round proper since its reformation in 1974. It is the latest in a string of milestones that the club have achieved in recent years under the ownership of Geoff Thompson.
The Mariners have enjoyed a rapid ascent up the pyramid, having been in the Northern League Division Two as recently as 2016. Picton describes things as “going in the right direction”, though that is perhaps an understatement.
Recent years have seen an FA Vase and a Northern League title, as well as having narrowly missed out on promotion to the National League North in the past two seasons, in part due to the impact of Covid-19.
Shields were 12 points clear at the top of the Northern Premier League when football was abandoned in March. There is still a hint of bitterness, with Picton describing it as “a tough pill to swallow”, but is clear that they are in no mood to rest on their laurels.
“We’ve got no option but to just refocus and push on because otherwise the only people that suffer are yourselves”, says Picton. “We made a point around saying that last season counts for nothing moving forward, as harsh as that sounds.”
It is an attitude that underlines the ambition that is clearly at the core of the club. It has been moving towards a professional set-up over the last 12 months and have a long-term target of reattaining Football League status.
The joint manager, who has been at the helm alongside Graham Fenton for four-and-a- half years, is pragmatic about what such an achievement will take. “We’ve still got three promotions to go in order to achieve that. You’ve got a whole host of teams with aspirations themselves to achieve the same thing with just as much resource.”
This pragmatism is something that comes through in Picton’s approach to their FA Cup opponents, Cheltenham. The Robins currently sit at the top end of League Two, three tiers above South Shields, and Picton is under no illusions about the size of the task.
“It’s going to be a really tough test for us, no doubt about it. Going away from home, a long trip for us, league opposition who have got a bit of momentum themselves. The odds will be stacked against us.”
But this is by no means a defeatist attitude. South Shields are a side that are used to winning in recent years and go into the tie having already defeated higher tier opposition, having dispatched National League side Halifax in the previous round.
“We’re very confident and we have a strong belief in the group that we have. This squad stacks up really well against the squads that we’ve been on runs with in the past.”
It is a big occasion not just on the pitch, but off it too. While Picton is aware of the exposure and glamour that can come with these ties, there is an acute awareness of the financial impact too.
“The financial ramifications for the club are huge. It massively helps us.” The financial struggles of football clubs up and down the country due to Covid-19 have been well documented, and the Mariners have been hit particularly hard. Average crowds are around 2,000 at the 1st Cloud Arena, meaning the current 300 spectator limit has had “a huge material impact on the financial health of the football club.”
These financial woes are compounded by the fact that the decision to deny the Mariners promotion last season has meant that they’ve missed out on financial support from the government. “We’re left, in our opinion, in the lurch because we’ve now got a financial blackhole to fill, which is unachievable.” The club’s efforts to professionalise have come with greater costs, based upon the strong crowds that are no longer there.
Regardless, those at the club are “determined to work through it”, and the FA Cup has been a major part of that as the club’s “primary revenue source since the season started.” Despite prize money being reduced this year, and the tie not being selected for television, the funds are warmly welcomed on south Tyneside.
It is important, however, that the financial side of things does
not overshadow what is one of the biggest days in South Shields’ history. Despite the lack of crowd, and it being away from home, it is a representation of just how far the club have come in such a short space of time.
Picton speaks with real pride about the “consistent, attractive, winning football” that is served up on the pitch, as well as the “very friendly, community-based feel” off the pitch. It is a combination that epitomises a club that is doing things differently in non- league and is an approach that may not see them remain there for too much longer.
The club is all set up to give Cheltenham a run for their money at the weekend, hopefully setting up a “special” tie against Sunderland in the next round. All that is needed is a bit of FA Cup magic.
Image: Kevin Wilson