It has been three titles in as many years for South Shields, but in chasing a fourth successive promotion this season, the Evo-Stik Premier has been stubborn and sometimes sobering. The rapidly-moving Mariners have had to adapt, though for one half of their management duo, former top-flight player Graham Fenton, compromising their foundations has never been on the table.
The beginning of Geoff Thompson’s chairmanship in summer 2015 ushered in a remarkable new era of success and progression at South Shields. With Jon King delivering promotion from the Ebac Northern League Division 2, Graham Fenton and Lee Picton took the managerial reins in September 2016, and two further league titles have followed in as many seasons.
Wembley in May 2017 was an especially unforgettable extra, as Shields, backed by over 13,000 supporters, brought the FA Vase back to South Tyneside in a season of quadruple success (with the Northern League Division One, Northern League Cup and Durham Challenge Cup also won). On the way up to the Evo-Stik Premier, a former Premier League name or two has passed through, though arguably none with more distinction than Julio Arca.
The ex-Sunderland and Middlesbrough man’s retirement last summer was an undoubted blow as they headed into the seventh tier, while injuries have robbed them of key figures like striking duo Gavin Cogdon and Carl Finnigan during the season. It has heaped ever more emphasis on spreading the goals around, with Robert Briggs, the midfielder with an eye for the spectacular and the stomach for a pressure penalty, emerging as top scorer.
The Mariners have taken some hits, with rocky league form in the early months of 2018/19, but with one game to go, they remain in contention for that one precious automatic promotion spot. Mariners Park has been something of a dreamland for those of a claret and blue persuasion in recent years, though joint-manager Graham Fenton is slightly too well-versed in this game to be overly surprised at this season’s eye-opening experiences.
“Yeah, there’s definitely been challenges this year,” the former Aston Villa and Blackburn Rovers man said. “I think the main thing is we’ve been very staunch in how we want the lads to play, over the last two or three years, and with some of the pitches we’ve come up against this season, we’ve had to be adaptable.”
“It’s a very good league, though, and I’ve certainly been impressed with the standard of teams in the division.”
The one-time Leicester City player has been reminded a few (thousand) times that he remains closely associated with the two late goals he bagged for Blackburn to sink Kevin Keegan’s Newcastle United, his boyhood club, as their title challenge ebbed away in April 1996. A couple of decades on, he is at the forefront of a club with English football’s higher reaches unashamedly in their ambitions, with Shields putting an identity to those plans with the launch of ‘Project EFL’ back in early-October.
Three more promotions will get them there, and the race for a National League North place swung back towards the Mariners recently, as North Ferriby United’s sad demise saw the club’s results wiped from the records. Having lost to North Ferriby in August, Shields were subsequently boosted, as their title rivals had gained more points against the Villagers.
Still it is Farsley Celtic who top the tree, however, chalking up eight league victories in nine. Shields have made rescuing points at the death a habit of late, and it was no different last time out, with Scarborough Athletic in town.
At 2-2, and with the visitors sending goalkeeper Tommy Taylor up for an injury-time corner to try and keep their faint play-off hopes alive, Shields broke upfield. It was Luke Daly who sent the majority of the 2,061 crowd into raptures on Easter Monday as he eventually tapped home. With Farsley still three points clear, it all comes down to this Saturday (27th April), with Shields at Gainsborough Trinity, and Farsley hosting Marine.
Given their rival’s near-flawless form, the odds seem stacked against the Mariners lifting the title instead of entering the play-offs, but their joint-gaffer knows they would likely be out of contention already if not for their 1-0 home win over Farsley on 19th January. Dillon Morse’s header stole the points in stoppage time, and Graham marks it down as a decidedly pivotal moment in 2018/19.
“We would have been really struggling if we’d have got beat in that game. It was just the whole thing of bringing everybody together as well.
“Tough game; they were probably the better team first half and we managed to turn it around and get a late winner. So to put us back into the title chase really, it was huge, but it was the whole thing surrounding it of bringing the whole squad together and realising that we’ve got a really good chance of trying to get automatic promotion instead of play-offs.”
Moving up the divisions, there is a fine art to strengthening a squad without losing something very valuable in pursuit of one or two added difference-makers. Shields’ team ethos continues to be embodied by the likes of captain and former Sheffield Wednesday man Jon Shaw, and club stalwart Barrie Smith, sidelined long-term but every bit an integral part.
A number of players remain from previous seasons, while the signings made this year have had a calculated feel. Certainly there has been no chasing of a big reputation or a player on a sharp descent looking for that archetypal ‘last pay day.’
For the managers, ability alone won’t quite cut it for a prospective signing, as Graham explains.
“They have to be technically proficient. They also have to fit into the dressing room, because if any player thinks they’ll come into Mariners and have the wrong attitude, they won’t last long.
“It’s just good being around our group of lads, because they’re a really good bunch.”
A one-time England Under-21 international, Graham had led the Mariners’ neighbours North Shields to the 2015 FA Vase. Alongside Lee Picton, his stock as a manager has been steadily rising at South Shields, and the pair signed new five-year contracts last May to continue overseeing both the first team and the club’s full-time academy.
The North East’s importance to English football is colossal, though it is a region typically given precious little in the way of on-field success, and economically overlooked. There has been a discernible freshness to the Shields story in recent times. Predominantly winning football undoubtedly helps – a lot – but a Mariners Park match day is a routinely buoyant one all-around.
At home games and on away-day coaches alike, the songs from Shields fans have formed an irrepressible side of the club’s culture. Along with the players, Geoff Thompson, (vice-chairman/groundsman) Gary Crutwell and even a select few individual supporters have their own song.
For the managers, it’s ‘Glad All Over,’ the Fenton and Picton remix. Although he cannot quite recall when he first heard it, it is always a lift for Graham when it rings out on a match day.
“You’d be lying if you said you didn’t want to hear songs like that. Of course it gives you a boost yourself.
“We love some of the songs that the supporters sing about some of the players, they’re hilarious. It’s good craic.
“The supporters have been brilliant with myself and Lee.”
With the success since 2015/16, and with strong backing given by Geoff Thompson, there is undoubtedly added expectation for the managers. When results go against the team, questions tend to be asked, as is the case for clubs in competitions all over the world.
Given the rapport Lee Picton and Graham have established and enjoyed with supporters during their tenure, was Graham surprised or even disappointed by the reaction from some during tricky spells this season?
“Well I’m not on social media, but if you took notice of what every single person said you’d never get anything done really. We laugh about it, to be honest.
“You don’t know if some of them are even Shields fans who say some of these things; maybe they are, maybe they aren’t. The support myself and Lee have had since we’ve been at the club has been fantastic.”
Of course, to experience life as player and manager at various levels over the best part of three decades (Graham turned professional with Aston Villa in 1992) gets you well acquainted with the rough and the smooth. Playing almost a century of Premier League games, Graham also featured in the entirety of the 1994 League Cup final, as Ron Atkinson’s Aston Villa beat Manchester United 3-1.
The Wallsend-born, Whitley Bay-raised attacker would join Blackburn Rovers as a 21-year-old for £1.5million in November 1995, though he still very much pays tribute to the club where he began in the professional game.
“I enjoyed Villa all the way through. It got to the stage where Big Ron had left, Brian Little had come in and said that he wanted me to sign a contract with the club, but I was more or less right on the fringes of the first team, playing quite regularly, and the offer wasn’t particularly good.
“I said I wasn’t going to sign a contract on those terms and then within a couple of days I get a phone call off Ray Harford saying that he’s interested in signing us. When you’ve got the champions of the Premier League knocking at your door, it was an option I couldn’t turn down really.”
After almost two years at Blackburn, it was on to Martin O’Neill’s Leicester City in 1997. Graham helped the Foxes reach the League Cup final in 2000, but he was not involved in the Wembley win over Tranmere Rovers and it was an admittedly arduous time in his career.
“I enjoyed it at Leicester but that was for the social side! The likes of Tags (Gerry Taggart), Neil Lennon, Steve Walsh, Frank Sinclair, Muzzy Izzet; there’s honestly too many to mention.”
He also picks out his 2000 stint at Stoke City, at the time in Division Two (now League One). There is, though, some regret that it never became a lasting association.
“I really enjoyed my time there. It just didn’t work out for me to stay longer; it was just a little bit of a false promise really.
“There were a couple of people at the football club saying ‘if you come in and impress then we’ll offer you a longer-term contract,’ so I kind of took myself and my wife down, stayed in the Stoke area, really enjoyed my time and felt like I’d done well enough. Then they came and offered us a second month when I found out they’d already signed an Icelandic centre-forward.
“It just looked like they were trying to pave the way, using me for another month, and I just said ‘you either offer me something permanent or that’s it.’ It just didn’t work out that one, but I really enjoyed my brief time at Stoke.”
Having also played for West Brom and Walsall on loan some years apart, Graham went on to represent St Mirren, Blackpool and Darlington (loan) before moving into non-league and back to the North East permanently with Blyth Spartans in summer 2003. That was where his coaching endeavours ultimately began, as player/assistant manager to Paul Baker and latterly Harry Dunn, with a stint as caretaker gaffer in between.
Player, assistant boss and manager during several seasons at North Shields, Graham has been a number one (or jointly) for the past seven years now. While taking the good sides from those he played for, he considers whether there is anything he saw a manager do in his playing career that he is always keen to avoid repeating.
“I think it’s just with the hierarchy you get at clubs where some managers think they’re better than you, as a player. That was never something I particularly liked seeing.”
The ‘long-term project’ is frequently referred to by chairmen and managers, but it often appears foolhardy in a modern game that seemingly has anyone on the brink after a few adverse results. Change is inevitable in some form, yet at the same time, South Shields want continuity.
The Fenton and Picton era has been quite the ride to date. Along with the trophies and promotions, who could forget the last-gasp 3-2 win over York City in the FA Cup third qualifying round in September 2017?
They had National League Hartlepool heading the same way in the next round for a time, too. At a sold-out Mariners Park, with over 2,800 packed in, those cup games made for a rousing glimpse into what the club can go on to create.
The wider plan is being put into motion a piece at a time, though most immediate is Gainsborough Trinity on Saturday. For Shields’ gaffers, covering all angles is the way, which naturally doesn’t leave all that much room for Graham away from the game.
“When do I get a break from football?” he laughs when asked of any other interests. “Football and family.”
“I used to play golf a lot but I’m one of these people where if I do something, I have to be fully into it. If I tried to play a round at the moment, I’d be all over the place!”
Each manager in The Bosses’ Lounge also takes on a unique Q&A…
When did you want to start coaching/managing? When you became player/assistant manager to Paul Baker at Blyth Spartans?
Yeah, that was it really. No aspirations at all, I just went in to play, more local football and moving back to the North East to be closer to the family. Within a year, Paul had offered me the assistant manager’s job. He obviously saw something in us that he liked and I just kind of drifted into the coaching side of things and I’ve never really looked back. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the last, what has it been now? 13, 14 years?
Which training sessions do you enjoy leading the most?
I do a lot of work with the strikers, so that’s a side of it I definitely enjoy.
Will you ever take part in training (in terms of actually being in the sessions as an active part, like an extra player)?
I can’t move! I used to a bit, but the body’s falling to bits when I try now. That’s more Lee’s side of it.
Favourite ground (other than your own) that you’ve visited or would like to visit
The Nou Camp would be one, to see a game; I’ve been there on the tour before. I actually trained at the San Siro with Villa before we played Inter in the UEFA Cup (September 1994) and that was brilliant.
Favourite player to watch (past or present)
There’s two for me. Gazza (Paul Gascoigne) was definitely one. Richard Money coached me at Villa and he said ‘who do you want to try and emulate?’ For me, it was actually Mark Hughes, which might be surprising.
And how would you sell the club to those two, if you were trying to sign them for Shields (in their prime)?!
How do you try and sell anything to Gazza?! I think it’d just be what we say to any player; we’re always honest with them about what we expect and where we see them fitting in. We’re ambitious, and if anyone’s coming into our dressing room, it’s crucial that they’re the right type of character to fit into the environment we’ve created.
Pre-season tour anywhere in the world
I think I’d say the States. The game’s obviously continuing to grow over there and the facilities are usually great as well.
Most challenging/frustrating part of your job
It’s time; time with the players. It’s three sessions a week – it just depends on whether you’ve got a midweek game – so it’s Saturday game time, Tuesday’s either game or training, and Thursday training. We might do 45 minutes of video work within that, so if we’re training twice during the week, we might get possibly about two-and-a-half hours out on the pitch with the lads, which is obviously a short amount of time to get everything you want done. That’s the one frustration. You think if we had more time to work with the lads, it’s safe to say we’d probably do even better.
Funniest player/coach you’ve worked with, or just one of the funniest
Dean Saunders at Villa. He’s obviously on talkSPORT now, so I enjoy listening to some of the stuff he comes out with.
Most embarrassing moment as a manager/coach/player
There’s one that sticks in my mind. I missed from two yards for St Mirren against St Johnstone. It was one of them where you just want the ground to open up.
Your routine on a match day
We arrive around about quarter to 1. The preparation’s generally done during the week; the work that Lee does with the lads out on the pitch is usually done Tuesday/Thursday, or just the Thursday if we’ve had a game Tuesday. Then it’s just a case of getting the lads in the right frame of mind for a positive performance.
One singer/band or song you would sneak on to the team playlist
Well I definitely don’t get involved in it here; some of it’s horrendous. I’m old-school, so I like Oasis, The Beatles. One song to get it going would be ‘Mr. Brightside’ (The Killers).
Advice you remember getting that’s stuck with you
Just treat people how you want to be treated. Dad sat us down once and told us that; nobody’s any better than anyone else, and even The Queen has to go to the toilet like the rest of us!
If you could have some time with any manager, past or present
Definitely Pep (Guardiola). Why wouldn’t you wanna pick his brains?
How have you changed since you first started coaching/managing, or what’s the biggest lesson you’ve learned?
I think I’ve mellowed a bit. I used to be a bit hot-headed; I still am a bit, but I’ve learned to calm it down more.
Any misconceptions about you as a manager/personality/club, myths you’d like to dispel, or something you wish people could understand a bit more?
I don’t read social media or too much into it all to know what the conceptions are really, but as long as myself and Lee and the people around us know what we’re all about, that’s good enough for me.
And finally, what’s the best thing about having this life around football? When you wake up and football’s your focus for the day, do you still get that same buzz as you always did?
It’s a different type, isn’t it? When you’re playing, yes you’re in a team environment, but you’re looking after your own performance; it’s almost like a very selfish thing. You’re obviously contributing towards a team performance, you’re trying to do your job to the best of your ability, whereas when you’re coaching and managing, you’re responsible for a lot more than yourself. So the challenges come on a daily basis. It’s never a dull moment, but it’s thoroughly enjoyable at the same time. What we have done well since we’ve been at South Shields is make sure that the environment we’ve created, or helped to create, has been with people we want to spend time with. We won’t tolerate people who are, not ‘bad eggs,’ but just people who you don’t really want to spend time with. We’ve got a dressing room full of people who you enjoy spending time with, and again, that’s probably another reason why we have been successful over the last three years or so.
Interview/article by @chris_brookes
You can also read this extended interview with South Shields chairman Geoff Thompson, as well as this one with skipper Jon Shaw