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The Rebirth of South Shields, Julio Arca and Non-League Football in the North East

Not too long ago, South Shields FC were down on their luck and Julio Arca was playing pub football. Having teamed up in the interim, they – and non-league football in the North East – are flying high.

by Dan Robinson
05 April 2017, 10:55am

Photo provided by Peter Talbot

On a Tuesday night in South Shields over 1000 people have filed into Mariners Park, just around the corner from the Bede Metro Station. They've come to see their side take on Newton Aycliffe and hopefully reduce the 14-point gap (still with four games in hand) on league leaders and local rivals North Shields.

But for half an hour it looks as though the game might not even be able to go ahead. A third of the floodlights aren't showing any sign of life and kick off is delayed. After 15 minutes the situation doesn't seem to be improving and an announcement is made that, hopefully, we'll be ready to go at 8pm.

Eventually, the game does go ahead and Shields make light work of the visitors. It finishes 4-0 and the Mariners win for the 27th time in a row.

The blackout wasn't the first at Mariners Park this season. In the fourth round of the FA Vase, South Shields were 4-2 down to holders Morpeth Town with ten men and only ten minutes left to play. Then the lights went off and the match was abandoned.

Conspiracy theories filled the following week's chatter around the league. The timing of the blackout, the score and the fact that Morpeth had an extra man meant that they were all but through. Both clubs issued strongly worded statements.

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South Shields refused to forfeit the tie and so it was replayed at Craik Park, Morpeth's ground. South Shields won 4-0, and have gone on to make it all the way to final, which will be played at Wembley on 'Non-League Finals Day', held on 21 May.

The Northern League has held something of a monopoly over the FA Vase in the last decade. South Shields have become the tenth finalists in the last nine years to come from this particular block of the English football pyramid.

The league, made up of two divisions of clubs from around the North East (and Penrith, the sole Cumbrian outfit) was established in 1889 and sits in the ninth and tenth tiers of the league system.

"We're very proud to be the second oldest football league in the world, having celebrated our 125th anniversary a couple of seasons ago," Northern League spokesperson Mike Snowden told VICE Sports.

"That history means that many of our clubs have been part of their local communities for decades."

Julio Arca and co. show their appreciation for the fans // Photo provided by Peter Talbot

Attendances across the league have risen significantly this season. South Shields often command crowds of over 1000, Consett are averaging around 450 fans at each home game, Whitley Bay and reigning champions Shildon are also consistently bringing in hundreds of fans, while the top-of-the-table Shields derby between South Shields and North Shields attracted a crowd of 2651 back in November.

These are figures you'd expect to see at the very top end of non-league football – not four steps below the National League on the footballing ladder. So why is there so much interest in these clubs and this league? The North East is famous for the fervent support of its bigger clubs in Newcastle and Sunderland, but could it be a case of disillusionment with the state of those clubs over the last decade that has enticed fans to express their passion for the game at this level?

"I think a lot of new spectators are pleasantly surprised by the quality of the football on offer," Snowdon said. "It's a very competitive league, with several strong teams competing at the top of both divisions.

"One of the main attractions for our clubs compared to Sunderland and Newcastle is that there's a closer connection between the fans, clubs and players – the fans are much more part of the club and they're watching local lads."

South Shields themselves have benefitted from an incredible transformation over the last two seasons. Local businessman Geoff Thompson took over in May 2015 and pumped significant amounts of investment into rebuilding a club that was on its knees.

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Shields had been forced to play in nearby Peterlee for two years owing to the club being unable to renew the lease for their home ground, Filtrona Park. Thompson bought Filtrona Park, renamed it Mariners Park and leased it back to the club in time for the start of the 2015/16 season.

Thompson didn't stop there. Former Sunderland and Middlesbrough cult hero Julio Arca joined after spending the previous season playing for local pub side Willow Pond FC, and South Shields made easy work of claiming the Northern League Division Two title.

"I retired when I was 32 because of an injury. I had an operation and they told me it would take 18 months to recover, and I decided then that it would take too long for me to come back and play professionally," Arca told VICE Sports.

"So after a while, I started playing Sunday League with one of my friends. Obviously we weren't playing on good pitches so it was a good test for my foot, and after a full season it was feeling better. Following that season, I got a phone call from the [South Shields] ex-manager, Jon King – he talked about the new chairman taking over and how it was a fresh start for the club."

This season, the Mariners have continued to recruit the best of non-league North East talent and, as well as putting together that incredible run of consecutive wins, have made three cup finals.

Photo provided by Peter Talbot

On taking over, Thompson said that the aim was for South Shields to be competing at National League level before long, and the new facilities at the club as well as the budget, talent and fanbase at their disposal certainly make that a realistic ambition. "The chairman's got big plans and they want to go as far as they can," Arca said.

"It's a process and every process takes time. I think they have to go step-by-step. This year was about getting promotion – we haven't done anything yet but we've put ourselves in a great position to hopefully win more than one trophy.

"We're on a great run at the moment, we're in three finals. Wembley is the one everybody's looking forward to but the other two finals are just as important, and we've still got a chance in the league so everybody's excited about what's happening here."

Speaking about the North East's dominance of non-league football, Arca believes that the trend is only going to continue. While his former clubs are having miserable seasons, the region's semi-professional scene is as strong as it's ever been.

Besides the South Shields story, Gateshead are in contention for promotion to the Football League for the first time since they were voted out in 1960, Blyth Spartans look to have the Northern Premier title tied-up while two young Northern League players – Jack Devlin of Newcastle Benfield and Lewis Wing of Shildon – have earned Premier League moves to Stoke City and Middlesbrough respectively.

"The Northern League has some really strong teams," Arca said. "Obviously last year Morpeth went all the way and won the Vase, and if you look at the last ten years Northern League teams have either made it to the final or won it. That shows you how strong the non-league teams are up here, and the quality of player we've got in the North East.

"What we're doing here is fantastic and obviously our success is doing a lot to attract people, but I think the support for the Northern League in general is growing because there's good players, good teams and there's a lot of money being put into the clubs as well, so it's getting better and better."