BY MARK GODFREY

Newcastle United and Sunderland may utterly dominate the football landscape of the north east of England, but theirs is not the only rivalry spanning the physical dividing line of the river Tyne.

The towns of North Shields and South Shields share not only part of their names, but also plenty of history – roughly 800 years’ worth, in fact. The pair lie on opposite banks of the Tyne; not strictly at the mouth in North Shields’ case – rather at the front of the palate, to use anatomical parlance – and quite obviously, the river and the adjacent North Sea have played a huge part in shaping their respective socio-economic, political and geographical development.

Other past commonalities include shipbuilding, glass production and coal mining, while North Shields still retains a link to the fisheries industry despite the decline and extinction of most other traditional commerce associated with the famous old north-eastern waterway.

These two very distinct conurbations are undoubtedly far less interdependent as they once were as local importance has increasingly flowed towards the regional hubs of Newcastle and Sunderland, but there is still a friendly rivalry between them, as there would be with any neighbours who relied on each other as much as they vied with each other. One old saying even goes as far as to describe North and South Shields as ‘the money side, and the sunny side’ although which one is which is unclear, and probably depends entirely on personal bias.

In these days of the extensive Tyne and Wear Metro system and – since the end of 2011 – two road tunnels under the river, it’s rather quaint that a ferry service, that has operated in some form or another since the 14th century, still connects the two towns, shuttling back and forth every 15 minutes on a daily basis. It’s barely a couple of hundred metres, as the crow flies.

Some bonds are meant to remain unbroken.

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The recent record of Northern League teams in the FA Vase – the knockout cup for non-league clubs in levels nine to eleven of the English pyramid system – is quite extraordinary. In the last eight renewals of the competition, the trophy has returned to the north east on seven occasions including a hat-trick of victories for Whitley Bay and a North Shields triumph in 2015 under Wembley Stadium’s great arch.

While this sustained run of success has several contributing factors, two of those can be described as key: money and promotion – and specifically the avoidance of the latter.

It may seem an alien concept for any club to forego the chance to progress up the leagues when the opportunity arises, but that’s exactly what various champions of the Northern League – including Marske United, Shildon and Newcastle Benfield – have done for one financial misgiving or another.

The Northern League – founded in 1889 and the second oldest in the world after the Football League – was only incorporated into the English pyramid system in 1991 after years of reluctance to becoming a feeder league to what has most commonly been referred to as the Conference. It’s a continued display of stubborn independence born of relative isolation that persists to this day.

With a few exceptions – most notably Darlington (1883), the reformed league club who were dissolved in 2012, and renowned FA Cup giant-killers Blyth Spartans – the record of former Northern League clubs that have stepped up to the next level (the Northern Premier League) is sketchy. And for the most part, poor finances contributed greatly to the complications suffered by Whitley Bay, Durham City and the bankrupted Spennymoor United since the turn of the century.

As examples of what can go wrong for otherwise stable, well-established clubs that show any kind of ambition, theirs are cautionary tales; although as any Northern League follower will tell you, promotion – and the associated extra costs – was not necessarily the cause for those calamitous experiences at the higher level. However, one thing must be made clear about this situation that makes it more peculiar: promotion is not compulsory and is not enforced by the Northern League.

As a consequence, clubs – and the Northern League as a whole – have been able to retain the services of a large proportion of the better part-time players in the region by being able to offer favourable pay packets compared to that of the likes of Blyth, Darlington and Gateshead who operate in higher divisions. Add to that a greater convenience to everyday life that travelling less to play football can offer, it’s easy to understand why the players, as well as the clubs, are satisfied with the status quo. This situation may not be unique in English non-league football, but if it is occurring elsewhere, they’re not doing it anything like as well as they are up north.

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There is no doubt that the towns of North Shields and South Shields have seen better days. Decades of financial pressures have taken their toll, and while they’re not quite the same post-industrial wastelands created by the stringent pruning of traditional economies by successive Conservative governments’ in the 1980s and 90s, regeneration schemes have only done so much to help.

In 1991, the Meadow Well council estate in North Shields came to national prominence after rioting caused millions of pounds worth of damage. The place was already a virtual no-go area when two local youths driving a stolen car were killed during a police chase. This sparked looting, arson and violence on the estate which then underwent £66million of improvements in subsequent years.

More than quarter of a century on, however, very little has changed in the town as a whole. Like so many other places in working class, northern England the only boom sectors are that of the pound shops, pawnbrokers and payday lenders, and as Ian Cusack so eloquently put it in Issue 7 of The Football Pink: “North Shields is a crazy town; a former fishing port with an endemic culture of heavy drinking, soft and hard drug use and every single indicator of social deprivation you can imagine turned up to 11. This is a town of hard men who hate authority with a passion; they literally do what they want.”

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Photo credit: BBC

Across the river in the former seaside resort of South Shields, things are no less grim; just Google the term ‘What is South Shields like?’ and very soon that ‘money side and sunny side’ quote begins to look misguided at best, a cruel jibe at worst.

Yet, these beleaguered towns do presently have a pleasing parallelism that goes beyond geography and societal circumstance in the form of their respective Northern League clubs who have both flourished while their more illustrious neighbours at St. James’ Park and the Stadium of Light have struggled in recent times.

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North Shields Football Club began life in 1896 as North Shields Athletic and played – perhaps appropriately – in the South Shields and District League for four years until moving on to the Northern Combination. Around the same time as this first of several switches of leagues, they took up residence at Appleby Park which became one of the leading amateur stadiums in the country – despite recurrent issues with subsidence, a legacy of the area’s coal mining past – and had a capacity of 15,000. It’s much missed by those who frequented it and would have been a must on the schedule of the modern day groundhopper had it survived. Sadly, when North Shields ran out of money in 1992, the land was sold off to make way for a new housing development and Appleby Park was consigned to history. Not surprisingly its record attendance (12,800) came against South Shields in 1936.

1992 – Her Majesty the Queen’s ‘annus horribilis’ – almost turned out to be the ‘annus ultimus’ for North Shields. With their ground sold off to pay creditors, they also had to dispense with paid playing and coaching staff and drop five tiers on the pyramid system, finally ending up playing on the other side of the Tyne in the Wearside League on various council owned pitches. A new company – helped by two members of the Geordie rock band Lindisfarne – was formed to protect the club from vanishing completely into oblivion.

After a short period of nomadism which saw them play home games on pitches in nearby Wallsend, North Shields set down roots at their current home Ralph Gardner Park (the Daren Persson Stadium since a 2010 sponsorship deal). The club’s ‘Ultras’ (more of them later) know it better as “The Morgue”. In 2004, they returned to the Northern League (division 2) ending a 15-year absence.

Until recently, the greatest achievements in North Shields’ history came in the 1968/69 season. They won the Northern League, edging out close rivals Whitley Bay by a single point and – in their first Wembley final – defeated Sutton United 2-1 to win the FA Amateur Cup, the forerunner of the FA Vase which also had a great tradition of success among clubs from the north east. The North Shields players were given the honour of an open top bus parade on their return home from London.

While Newcastle United were defeating Újpesti Dózsa of Hungary to win the Inter-Cities Fairs Cup in 1969 – to date the last major piece of silverware to pass through the doors of St. James Park – the Robins embarked on a mini European adventure of their own.

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Photo credit: Wikiwand

As the Amateur Cup winners, they participated in the two-legged Anglo-Italian Amateur Cup against Almas Roma, their counterparts from the Eternal City. The competition – which ran from 1968 to 1976 – was actually called the Coppa Ottorino Barassi after the football administrator who not only helped to organise the 1934 World Cup held in Italy, but secreted the Jules Rimet trophy in a shoebox under his bed during the Second World War to prevent it from falling into the hands of the Nazis. The 2-2 aggregate result saw the cup shared by the two clubs.

More recently, North Shields’ fortunes took an upward trajectory following the appointment of the former Blackburn Rovers and Aston Villa striker Graham Fenton in 2012. His previous playing and coaching experience up the coast at Blyth Spartans stood him in good stead for his first managerial position and within two years he got his team promoted to the first division of the Northern League. That was far from the end of it, though.

In September 2014, they began that season’s FA Vase in the first qualifying round, with 289 other teams, in the North Yorkshire town of Northallerton. A narrow 1-0 victory sufficed, and once Stokesley SC, AFC Emley, Sunderland RCA, Seaham Red Star, Consett, Phoenix Sports and Erith & Belvedere had all been vanquished, a two-legged semi-final with Highworth Town of the Hellenic Premier League was assured. In front of crowds well over a thousand for both fixtures, Fenton’s side comfortably booked their place at Wembley – the club’s second visit to the national stadium for a showpiece occasion – where they met Glossop North End, who had lost the 2009 final to the great Vase kings, Whitley Bay.

North Shields had battled for nine months through all nine rounds of the competition (Glossop only seven) to be one the pair left standing from the 536 who participated – that’s just 200 less than the far larger FA Cup.

Glossop went ahead in the second half but were pegged back close to the end by Shields’ goal machine Gareth Bainbridge. An extra time winner by substitute Adam Forster gave manager Fenton his second taste of Wembley Cup final glory, 21 years after the first, when as a raw 19-year-old he helped Aston Villa defeat Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United in the 1994 League Cup thus denying them an unprecedented domestic treble.

One year on and North Shields were again winning silverware; a humdinger of a Northumberland Senior Cup final over Blyth Spartans from two steps above on the ladder, but this proved to be Fenton’s swansong. Just a few months later he resigned his position on the north bank of the Tyne to take up the recently vacated role at the helm of a certain ambitious, high-spending club on the opposite side of the river, therefore adding extra spice to future Derby matches.

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The South Shields FC of today is the third to carry that name; the previous pair – one formed in 1889 and the other in 1936 – were both uprooted and supplanted to nearby Gateshead. The original club went on to become the Gateshead that can truly claim to be ex-members of the Football League while the modern version was only created in 1977 after the original went bust. South Shields 2.0 lasted until 1974 – the year it reached the FA Trophy semi-finals – before becoming Gateshead United, a venture doomed to last just three years before they disappeared forever.

Having come through the Wearside League and then crossed over to the Northern League, South Shields bounced between the latter’s two divisions for the best part of two decades before a recent upswing in fortunes coincided with the arrival of new chairman Geoff Thompson. The previous incumbent – John Rundle – had twice threatened to close the doors on the club.

Thompson took control after buying South Shields’ home ground Filtrona Park (now Mariners Park) in 2015. For the previous two campaigns the Mariners were exiled to Peterlee – 18 miles to the south – their lease having expired on them.

2015/16 was quite the year on South Tyneside. Not only did South Shields go home, they also won the Northern League Second Division for the first time in their history, with an incredible 107 points and +91 goal difference. Their achievements came under a wider spotlight thanks to two players with very contrasting backgrounds.

Julio Arca arrived in the north east of England back in 2000 when Sunderland’s then manager Peter Reid charmed the 19-year-old Argentine midfielder into swapping Buenos Aires – and Diego Maradona’s first club Argentinos Juniors – for the Stadium of Light and the Premier League. After more than 350 appearances combined – all in England’s top two tiers – for the Black Cats and subsequently at Middlesbrough, the ever popular Arca was forced to quit the professional game in 2013 due to a toe injury. Before long, however, he was pulling his boots back on – for The Willow Pond, a Sunday League pub team from Sunderland.

Photo credit: Twitter

A friend asked him to turn out on muddy, council pitches to add some class to the usual rudimentary kick-and-chase game favoured by the overweight, out of shape, and often hungover exponents of the game at its lowest level. Remember, Arca – aside from his exploits at Sunderland and Middlesbrough – captained Argentina’s World Cup winning under-20s side that included Fabricio Coloccini, Willy Caballero and Javier Saviola.

His spell with The Willow Pond prompted previous South Shields manager Jon King, and the ambitious new chairman, to sign Arca up for their promotion push. It was a gamble that paid off handsomely. He was a key part of their Second Division title win and has continued into the current First Division campaign at the age of 35.

Warren Byrne, on the other hand, was turned away from professional football at 16 when he failed to earn a place in Middlesbrough’s youth set up. That didn’t stop him becoming well known on the Northern League scene for scoring goals – and plenty of them. Prolific though he may be, the part-time player/full-time labourer would hardly have been a recognisable face outside of north east semi-pro football circles. That all changed thanks to one stunning strike in April 2016 against Tow Law Town.

Controlling a slack defensive clearance on his right foot, flicking it high and over his own head, he swivelled his body and then volleyed a cannonball of a shot into the keeper’s top left-hand corner with his left foot from 25 yards out. Just a few hundred hardy souls were on hand to witness this piece of brilliance first hand at Tow Law’s often maligned Ironworks Road ground (the word cold doesn’t really do it justice) but thanks to social media, the footage went viral and was seen by millions of people around the world. It even won Budweiser’s 2016 Dream Goal competition which netted South Shields a £50,000 windfall – a veritable Lottery win at Northern League level.

The worldwide exposure, coupled with promotion, reinforced chairman Thompson’s commitment to fund the club’s ambitions for the future. After Graham Fenton was lured across the Tyne in September 2016, South Shields stoked the flames of a very local Derby and a North/South title race that promises to go right down to the wire.

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Rivalry (noun); competition for the same objective or for superiority in the same field.

The state of the Shields ‘rivalry’ is not that easy to define. Firstly, both sets of townsfolk have prospered and suffered in equal measure, fostering a sense of solidarity rather than resentment. Secondly, and more pertinently, the two football clubs have rarely featured in the same league and therefore have been unable to build up years’ worth of rancour between themselves. In any case, North Shields would likely call Whitley Bay their true local rivals while South Shields could say the same about Hebburn Town or Jarrow Roofing. It’s not really a North and South Tyneside thing; nor a Geordie versus Mackem affair either. North Shields, unsurprisingly, is staunch Newcastle territory. The situation in South Shields, however, is far less black and white, if you’ll excuse the rather obvious pun. Until the days of Kevin Keegan and his ‘Entertainers’, the Sand Dancers – the colloquial term for the people of South Shields – were split roughly 50/50 in their allegiances to St. James’ Park or, as was then, Roker Park. Nowadays, straw polls on various fan forums of both clubs indicate that sixty to seventy percent now align themselves with the Magpies. And while the Tyne – Wear derby enmity is largely absent from the relationship between the two Shields clubs, both have attracted more local interest and support from those disaffected by the various travails suffered while following the big two.

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Photo credit: Consett AFC

The crowds at the Daren Persson Stadium have been bolstered in recent seasons by the flowering of an ‘Ultras’ style support. Referring back to Ian Cusack’s Football Pink article, he likens their terrace behaviour to that of the boys in William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, “where the absence of a defined external set of absolute moral values causes those at the centre to create their own parameters, which may be unacceptable to others.” Harsh, perhaps, but this raucous, brooding mob of a couple of dozen or so turning up the worse for drink at various Northern League venues like something from Green Street hardly ingratiate themselves to some of the regulars of the region’s non-league scene. As Ultras go, North Shields are very much the yin to Dulwich Hamlet’s yang.

Mark Carruthers, host of Made in Tyne & Wear TV’s excellent local football show Football Matters, is a little kinder in his assessment of the growth in support for the Robins: “The North Shields rise has coincided with a turbulent time at Newcastle United. As Mike Ashley played with the emotions of supporters many walked away. North Shields is a heavily working class area, where every penny is vital. People couldn’t afford to shell out a load of money to watch Newcastle and it was easier to look elsewhere.

“At North Shields they found a young, hungry side that were giving them value for money at an affordable price. The supporters found a bit of a home and the bandwagon rolled on.”

While the combination of apathy at the state of Newcastle United and simultaneous on-field success for North Shields has swelled numbers through the gate there, at Mariners Park the picture looks even brighter since the arrival of the new Chairman. Attendances often top the 1,000 mark – numbers you’d normally expect to see at clubs two or three levels higher up the pyramid, which is handy because that’s exactly where South Shields have their sights set. Here’s Mark Carruthers again: “South Shields are in an interesting geographical location. The town itself is a fair size but they are right in between Newcastle and Sunderland, meaning they have benefitted from the poor performances of both clubs.

“Probably through fortune rather than judgement, South Shields have timed it right. Their ambition, coupled with the disillusionment with the “big two”, has pricked the attention of supporters from both Newcastle and Sunderland. It’s an exciting club to be around.”

While the rivalry between the fans of North and South Shields is certain to reach its zenith in 2017 as the two clubs go toe-to-toe for the Northern League title – and with the recent switch from North to South by manager Graham Fenton still fresh in the memory – it’s a relationship that, for the time being at least, is fleetingly intense.

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A quick glance at the Northern League Division 1 table indicates exactly how tight this season’s title race is between the two clubs, and barring a spectacular collapse by either, it’s entirely possible that the trophy’s ultimate destination on April 22nd won’t be known until 4.45pm that afternoon at the conclusion of the last round of fixtures. North Shields are at home while South Shields are playing 40-something miles away at Guisborough Town; which, sadly, scuppers the romantic notion of it bobbing up and down in the middle of the Tyne on the deck of the Shields ferry waiting to be offloaded and driven the short distance to either side’s home ground for its immediate post-match presentation.

The defining point of the league campaign surely rests on the meeting of the two teams at Daren Persson Stadium in the penultimate round of games, although South Shields’ quest to reach Wembley and uphold the Northern League’s outstanding recent record in the FA Vase could prove somewhat of a double-edged sword in that respect.

When the two met at Mariners Park on Guy Fawkes’ Day, there were only proverbial fireworks. 2,651 – a new record attendance by over 800 – watched North Shields snatch a late victory which came totally against the run of play. It ended a 21-game unbeaten run for South Shields who will be desperate to inflict a similar, potentially fatal wound on their hosts in the return fixture.

Should North Shields hang on to their slender lead in the table then it would cap a superb few years, which peaked with their successful day out at Wembley in 2015 in the FA Vase final and would give the club only their second Northern League championship, 48 years after the first which was captured by the great FA Amateur Cup winning team. Yet, promotion – like for other Northern League clubs before them – is not a viable option should they win the league.

Despite the astute planning and recruitment that has got North Shields to this point, it has all been done on a very tight budget, one that does not allow them to progress with any degree of security or sustainability. And crucially, the Daren Persson Stadium does not meet the standards required by the Evo-Stik Northern Premier League Second Division.

Photo credit: South Shields FC website
Photo credit: South Shields FC website

South Shields, on the other hand, have no such concerns. They have already lodged their application for promotion, and even if they come up just short in the title race, they’re guaranteed to start life in the higher division next year provided they finish ahead of the only other applicants with the required ground rating, Bishop Auckland (a virtual certainty given the points difference at time of writing).

So, while North Shields are likely to dominate the Northern League for a little time yet, the greatest potential undeniably rests with South Shields so long as they remain backed by Geoff Thompson’s ambition and money. Everything is in place for them to rise through the next couple of divisions; a ground ripe for development; a young, enthusiastic coaching staff; a hugely talented squad of players capable of making the step up in grade.

For the time being though, North and South Shields – and their respective sets of fans – have their attention firmly fixed on each other. Only theirs looks destined to be a brief dalliance; like ships passing in the night – an apt metaphor given the shared maritime history of both towns.

And when the season concludes and the prizes are handed out, it may all become a little clearer as to which is the money side and which is the sunny side on the banks of the river Tyne.

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2 comments

  1. Total rubbish about Shields ultras not being welcome on the road. Other than Shildon I can’t think of anywhere that we have been made to feel unwelcome.

  2. Interesting read. There’s a parallel with the Welsh pyramid which has become overly-represented at its top – the Welsh Premier League – with teams from north Wales. One factor, like the Northern arrangements, in this is the reluctance of teams in the south Wales feeder below – the Welsh League – to opt for promotion and/or invest in the criteria to be eligible for it; though the criteria themselves have come into criticism in this.

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