For only the second time since we started this ground-hopping journey back in January of 2022, we are going back to a stadium we have previously visited. The first stadium we have been back to was Hartlepool United‘s Victoria Park, the scene of our first Hop. This time, we would be returning to Mariners Park (or the 1st Cloud Arena for sponsorship purposes) for the big FA Cup game between South Shields and Forest Green Rovers.
This would be the biggest game in South Shields’ modern history, or I should say, their most prestigious game in modern history.
South Shields – A Potted History
Although this is a club very much on the rise, they have been higher in the football pyramid than they are right now. There have been a plethora of previous club names, including, but not limited to; South Shields Adelaide Athletic, Gateshead A.F.C., South Shields Adelphia Argyle, South Shields Albion and Gateshead United.
The history of South Shields FC is one that is inextricably intertwined with that of neighbouring Gateshead. Teams have been formed, collapsed and reformed under different names, relocating between the two towns since clubs in these towns were first founded.
The first South Shields team was formed in 1888 and played mostly friendlies for a few years before joining the Northern Alliance League. However, following World War I, South Shields were elected as members of the Football League Second Division in 1919.
They were relegated to the Third Division North in 1928-29 and after moving the club down the road to Gateshead in 1930, they adopted their new town’s name and remained members of the Football League as Gateshead AFC until 1960. They were replaced in the league by Peterborough United. The club then played in local leagues until folding in 1973.
Meanwhile, a new South Shields team had been set up in 1936 to replace the team that had moved to Gateshead in 1930. They now became Gateshead United and replaced Gateshead AFC. In 1974, they moved to Gateshead and then they also folded just three years later.
They were subsequently replaced by the current Gateshead FC which now plays in the National League.
Confused? Yeah, me too…
The Current South Shields FC
Meanwhile, South Shields Mariners FC had been formed and were plying their trade in the Wearside League at Jack Clark Park. This was basically a Sunday League set-up that prevented the club from progressing.
In 1992, the redundant and vandalised sports club and ground of Filtrona FC became available for purchase. It was eventually purchased by the then chairman, John Rundle. As years went by, the ground was improved upon and the club gained promotion to the Northern League.
In 2013, the 125th anniversary of the first recorded public appearance of a team bearing the name of South Shields was celebrated. It was a dark time for the club though, despite the celebrations. The lease on the ground expired and they were forced to relocate to Peterlee, some twenty miles away. This exile lasted two years, with a battle for survival a stark reality.
This is where fortunes started to improve for the club as they went through a transformation that brought instant success. Geoff Thompson, the current chairman, arrived on the scene and bought back Filtrona Park. It was renamed Mariners Park, which is still the stadium’s unsponsored name.
The club signed Julio Arca, the former Sunderland and Middlesbrough player, who was brought out of retirement. The signing proved to be an inspiring one and Arca remains a legend in South Shields. He helped the club gain three consecutive promotions as well as cup silverware as they progressed rapidly up the league system.
By 2018/19 South Shields competed in the Northern Premier League Premier Division, the same division that the previous incarnation of the club left behind in 1974 and also the highest level of non-league football that the current incarnation of the club had ever played at.
2019/20 saw the club holding a twelve-point lead with nine games left to play when the pandemic lockdowns brought a close to the season. Incredibly, the league season was declared null and void, which meant the club would remain in the NPL Premier Division for another season, despite their commanding lead.
2020 also saw the club start a scheme which allowed fans to buy shares in the club via Seeders, with over 1,000 investors snapping up shares. A new main stand was built and the foundations for further success and progress are now firmly within the club’s reach. For the 1921/22 season, another huge step was taken as the club turned full-time professional. I believe South Shields are the only club at this level to have that status but I stand to be corrected.
The move almost immediately paid dividends but ultimately Shields were pipped to the league title by Buxton. There was also a change of manager, with Sunderland legend Kevin Phillips replacing Graham Fenton midway through the season.
This brings us quite nicely to the current point in the club’s history, where we would be taking in their big game against Forest Green Rovers. Rovers are currently sitting near the bottom end of League One, four tiers above the Mariners.
South Shields – Journey and Stadium
With this being a 12:00 pm kick-off, our journey time was much shorter than normal. We set off around 9:00 am, with a bus to Gateshead. We picked up our connection to South Shields just before 10:00 and arrived about thirty-five minutes later.
At this point, I should probably mention the club isn’t based in the town of South Shields itself. It is located close to Jarrow and if arriving by Metro, you should get off at the Bede stop. From there it is just a short walk to the stadium. Getting off the bus left us with a similar short walk after crossing the busy A185.
Our usual routine of finding a pub for lunch and a pint went out of the window with the lunchtime kick-off, so we were happy to go straight to the ground and grab a pre-match pint there.
Up the Mariners
At this point, I would like to say a big thank you to the ‘Up The Mariners‘ social media account (find them on Twitter via the link). Knowing that tickets were likely to be hard to come by, I messaged the owner of this account (who prefers to remain anonymous) and asked if he could help secure me some. Although not able to help directly, he did have a friend who was able to do so and to both of them, I would like to say a big thank you for that!
Please check out their website from the following link Up The Mariners, for all things South Shields related. He is also running a World Cup prediction competition that I’m sure he would be delighted to have you join in with.
We had our print-at-home tickets checked off at the turnstiles and entered the 1st Cloud Arena. We bought an excellent quality programme at the turnstile at a cost of £3.00. Once through the turnstile, to our right we could see a 3g pitch that is enclosed by a high mesh fence and I assume it is an all-weather training facility for the club.
With the game being televised, a BBC camera drone was using this area as its base, repeatedly flying up and down to get pictures from a bird’s eye viewpoint. Just beyond and to the left of this facility, is a fanzone which offers food and drink and a place to sit and mingle with other fans.
This is actually something that South Shields does extremely well. Aside from this fanzone there is a permanent marquee that offers a warm, dry place to sit and enjoy a drink. There is also the Alum Ale House, which has a downstairs and upstairs facility.
No shortage of places to enjoy a pint or two!
South Shields – The Stadium
Beyond the fanzone, we came into the ground itself. To the right of us is a low, covered terrace known as the Sima Shed. This would be the end that housed the Forest Green Rovers supporters at the far end of it and the noisier section of South Shields supporters at the nearest end. The segregation split is just on the far side of the goal, meaning South Shields fans had the bigger portion of it.
To our left and ahead of us, is a hotchpotch of buildings and stands that make up that side of the stadium.
First, is the marquee that houses a drinking area. Beyond this is a small two-tiered stand with a small number of seats in the upper part and a low terrace beneath. This particular structure runs from approximately the edge of the eighteen-yard area to the halfway line.
Past the two-tiered stand is a gap to allow the players to enter the field from a tunnel that leads into the dressing rooms. These are housed in a brick building behind another small covered terrace. Also housed in the brick building, is a function suite which is for hire to the public for birthdays and weddings etc.
Following the building along its length, we next come to the Alum Ale House. This is another bar and this one also has an upstairs area with an outside balcony. We stood at the other end of the stand during the game, so I’m not sure if it remains open during the game but if it does, I can see that being a much-coveted spot to watch the game from.
All the bars were doing a brisk trade, with long queues for beer in each facility. This may have been helped along by the club opening the gates at 09:30 and happy hour extending from opening until 11:00. There were a few happy people wandering around.
This brings us to the other end of Mariners Park, which is another low, covered terrace that is less than half the depth of the Sima Shed end.
The New Main Stand
The final element that makes up Mariners Park, is the brand new Main Stand. According to the club’s shares pitch on Seeders, this stand was funded by chairman Geoff Thompson and completed as recently as 2021.
In addition to the improvements made this year, the Chairman, Geoff Thompson, is funding the build of an exciting new stand, through another of his companies, Stella Property Investments Limited.Seeders Pitch
This new main stand is a two-tiered structure that runs the length of the pitch and is the centrepiece of the new-look 1st Cloud Arena.
Overall, this is a fantastic stadium in relation to the level of football South Shields are currently playing at. It has a capacity of 4,000 and today was a club record attendance with a sell-out crowd of 3,800. The missing 200 spaces being accounted for by segregation between the two sets of fans and the TV camera gantries.
A special word for the floodlights at Mariners Park, too. There are four floodlights, one in each corner of the ground but what makes them stand out is both the shape of them and the coloured circles around each one. Two of the floodlights have a maroon ring and two have a light blue ring to match the club’s colours. I can only assume that these colours light up along with the lights themselves but I can’t say that for sure with this game being an early kick-off and the floodlights not being needed today.
Today’s game had been chosen for live TV coverage by the BBC and there were cameras everywhere. Aside from the drone I’ve already mentioned, there were six different cameras dotted around the perimeter. There was one at each end of the side where the players enter the field, as well as one in the middle, by the players’ tunnel. Another was perched up on the roof of the end opposite the Sima Shed, with further cameras at each end of the Main Stand.
In addition to this, Mariners Park was hosting the lovely Alex Scott, with Ashley Williams and Chris Waddle completing the punditry team for the day. There was also the presence of the trophy that everyone wants to get their hands on at the end of the season – the FA Cup itself sat on a pedestal at the pitchside.
Mrs Hopper disappeared into the Alum Ale House (the sponsored name. The original name of the bar is Julio’s) to get us a drink, while I stayed outside and wandered around taking further photos and a video, which I will share below.
With this done, I went into the bar to join Mrs Hopper in the queue. While moving at a snail’s pace to the front, it gave me time to take a picture of the Julio Arca tribute on the wall (picture near the top of this article) and watch the thrilling end of the England v Sri Lanka T20 cricket match on the TV.
We finally got our drinks and decided to take them outside (we were given plastic South Shields FC pint glasses) and find a decent vantage point before it got too crowded. We decided to stand down by the marquee tent, next to the TV gantry.
We were told by someone standing next to us that we weren’t supposed to have our drinks by pitchside at that time, due to regulations. Nobody officially told us though, so we stayed where we were, reluctant to give up our vantage point as more people started to take their places around the perimeter.
The atmosphere was building up nicely in the Sima Shed as game time approached, with both sets of fans trying to outdo each other. We were even treated to a little pyro show by the Shields fans as the drum set the tempo for their songs. Forest Green Rovers brought about 120 fans on the trip up from Gloucestershire, with the supporter coaches leaving at 04:30 in the morning.
That’s dedication for you!
With our drinks finished and memento plastic beakers stashed in Mrs Hoppers’ bag, the teams entered the pitch to the serenade of the fans and the flag-waving kids either side of the tunnel. We then witnessed one of the shortest minutes silences I’ve ever seen at a game. The referee blew the whistle to start the minutes’ silence in memory of the fallen soldiers, only to blow it again just five short seconds later, leaving the players and fans in confusion.
I’m not sure if this is a problem in other parts of the stadium but where we were standing, the loudspeaker system couldn’t be heard. Something for the club to consider as they push forward with improvements, maybe?
South Shields – The Game
The visitors kicked off the game and everyone focused on the possible giant-killing potentially unfolding in front of them. Forest Greens’ away form was poor coming into this match, while South Shields’ home form is impressive. Let’s not talk about the four divisions that separate the two teams…
The visitors were the stronger side throughout the first half but South Shields were not being outplayed. The biggest difference between the two teams for me was that the Mariners maybe showed the visitors too much respect and sat back when they could have pushed forward and attempted to exploit Rovers’ fragile confidence levels.
However, I’m a football fan, not a manager and Kevin Phillips set up his team to keep them in the tie and maybe sneak a goal on the break.
In the early stages, the home side certainly looked capable of matching Rovers but seemed a little lacking in the final third of the pitch. This, despite the busy efforts of Dylan Mottley-Henry, who had already scored five goals in the club’s four FA Cup games up to this point in the competition.
It was Forest Green with the first real chance to take the lead though. Their right back, Corey O’Keeffe curled a shot from the right side of the area towards the far post, drawing a great save from Myles Boney in the 7th minute. Five minutes later, it was O’Keeffe again putting in a cross that saw Harvey Bunker’s header saved in the centre of the goal.
By the fifteen-minute mark, it was obvious that Forest Green was the better side and South Shields were doing their best to compete and stay in the game.
In the 21st minute, it was Rovers again putting on the pressure and this time it culminated with an ambitious bicycle kick attempt from Regan Hendry. However, his bicycle had a wobbly wheel and the shot went wide of the post.
It was apparent that Rovers’ tactic was to get the ball down the flanks and provide crosses for the impressively beefy-looking, one-time £10m man, Connor Whickham. A player familiar to people in these parts for his time at Sunderland and he would turn out to be the undoing of the Shields’ defence.
In the 28th minute, it was the two likeliest men on the pitch combining to open the scoring. O’Keeffe put in a pin-point cross for Whickham to nod home from close range, leaving Boney with no chance of saving it. TV replays suggest it may not have been quite the clean-cut header it appeared at the time but neither Whickham nor his team’s fans would have cared too much about that!
0-1 Forest Green Rovers!
At this point, I feel the need to apologise to the man who was standing next to Mrs Hopper and I. Her glasses had been giving us trouble for most of the morning and they finally gave way just before this goal was scored. This meant that while Whickham was leaping like a slightly bloated salmon approaching a waterfall, Mrs Hopper and the gentleman next to us were searching the ground for the left arm of her glasses and missed the goal!
Don’t worry, I saw it and told him how his team had conceded the first goal! 😳
Within two minutes, South Shields had their first shot at goal. Martin Smith fired a long-range shot from about thirty-five yards, just wide of the left-hand post. Unlucky!
With the first-half action drawing to a close, it was only fitting that the visitors had the final shot at goal. A corner kick was played to the edge of the box, where the unmarked Armarni Little fired his shot wide of the left-hand post.
This action brought about the end of a first forty-five that South Shields will want to forget. A very lacklustre performance in the biggest game a lot of the players will have played in and one that will surely get the manager changing things around at half-time!
In fact, the only thing that came up shorter than South Shields’ first-half performance, were the shorts of Forest Green’s number 3, Dom Bernard! A real throwback to the early eighties and he must have spent some time in the dressing room manipulating them into that shape! Was it part of their tactics to put Shields off their game? I’m not sure but it certainly put Mrs Hopper and a lady she was giggling with off their game.
Half-time – South Shields 0 Forest Green Rovers 1
As the players trooped off the pitch, I messaged the Up The Mariners admin and arranged a meet outside the marquee tent. We were supposed to meet before the game but I completely forgot to arrange it with him. DOH!
After forcing his way through the crowd, he finally managed to get his way from the Main Stand round to where we were standing and I got a chance to thank him for the tickets, face to face. Because of the time it took for him to reach our side of the ground, we unfortunately only had time for a brief chat about the first half and Shields’ prospects in the second forty-five.
Before leaving to get back to his seat, he surprised me by gifting me a South Shields scarf which was incredibly nice and generous of him. I have to say, it will take pride of place in our growing football memorabilia collection!
Thank you, sir!
The Second Half
It didn’t take long for it to become obvious that South Shields weren’t going to play the second half in the same limp fashion they played in the first.
Just four minutes in and the Mariners went close. Conor Newton put in a lovely cross which was met by the head of Michael Woods but his header was agonisingly wide of the woodwork. Still, this was more promising and the crowd were roused from their nap (Sima Shed enders are excepted from that statement!)
In the 56th minute, Shields again went close from a header. A corner was partially cleared to the touchline where Conor Newton retrieved the ball and played it back to the corner taker, Mackenzie Heaney. He put in a lovely cross which found Dillon Morse in the six-yard area. His header was pretty tame though and Lewis Thomas in the Rovers’ goal, gratefully dived on it on his goal line.
This was much better from the home side and it appeared that Kevin Phillips had tweaked his 5-3-2 system into more of a 5-2-3 with the forward line seeming to have more support now.
It was Shields going close again in the 68th minute in a real reversal of dominance from the first half. A good pass down the left flank sent Blair Adams free and he arrowed into the box and attempted to slot his shot from a narrow-angle past the keeper. Unfortunately for him, he put the effort just wide and into the side netting.
At this point, it would have been more of a surprise if Shields didn’t equalise!
The next chance came from a direct free-kick which was put just wide of the Rovers’ post and another one I managed to get on video.
It was all South Shields now and they looked dangerous on a number of occasions, going forward time and again with Rovers seemingly unable to stop them. They didn’t take advantage of the dominance though and with time running out, Forest Green made them pay. More accurately, Connor Whickham made them pay.
Deep into injury time, with Shields attacking once more and players piling forward, the ball was headed clear to Kyle McAllister, who played it forward to Whickham on the halfway line. The experienced centre forward took a look up, saw the keeper off his line and sent an audacious shot over the despairing keepers’ full-stretch dive and into the roof of the net.
What a goal!
0-2 Forest Green Rovers!
I may have been in with the South Shields fans but I couldn’t help myself from clapping such a great goal and to be fair, a few people around me started clapping too. It was literally the last kick of the game and what a way to end a pulsating match.
For the home side, this goal may have signalled the end but they could be proud of that second-half performance. South Shields now need to regroup, take the positives out of the loss and try to focus on the real objective… promotion!
Forest Green had kicked a potential banana skin from under their feet and they will happily move on to the second round for another cup adventure. They will also be hoping to take some of this form back into their faltering league campaign.
Full-time – South Shields 0 Forest Green Rovers 2
Attendance – 3,800
Entrance Fee – £15.00
Programme – £3.00
South Shields – Match Highlights
South Shields – After the Game
Following the game, we made our way back the short distance to the bus stop, running (ok, I slowly jog-stumbled) the last fifty yards because there was a bus just pulling in. Great timing!
With the first half of the journey home already starting at 14:10, we pulled into Gateshead Interchange just over forty minutes later. The transport gods were smiling upon us for once and five minutes later, we were on our bus home, arriving around 16:00 and back in time to catch the second half of the 15:00 kick-off matches around the country.
It was great to get back to proper FA Cup action with a potential giant-killing in the offing. It may not have happened in the end but the FA Cup is still football’s darling mistress and without it, romance would die a death in football. I hope clubs remember this as they strive for more and more riches at the top end of the game and forget the things that put them there in the first place.
Next week, we are back in Scotland and a stadium that I have wanted to visit for a long time, Celtic Park!
Onto the next!