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Official Review by James Nickels, Stadium Journey Special Correspondent
South Shields FC, like most non-league football clubs in England, have endured a tumultuous history. After forming in 1888 they have been forced to relocate to nearby Gateshead and Peterlee, some 11 and 21 miles away respectively, and languished in debt for much of the last three decades. Since the 2009-10 season however, the fortunes of the club have taken a turn for the better, winning the Brooks Mileson Memorial League Cup against Ashington. Following this success, the Mariners defeated Spennymoor Town in the J.R. Cleator Cup - the Northern League equivalent of the Community Shield –-and secured a respectable mid-table position. During the summer of 2015, non-league oligarch and founder of energy consultancy Utilitywise, Geoff Thompson, took over as club chairman, set optimistic aims for National League football and returned Shields to their long-time home Filtrona Park, renaming it Mariners Park.
This stadium is a classic, lower-league English football stadium which may not be as impressive as the sanitized Premier League grounds, but the cramped, voracious atmosphere, classic scent of beer and pies and pitch-level terraces are typical of classic English football’s charms. Drawbacks such as poor sight lines, lack of amenities and choice, poor stadium access and even power failures are outweighed by the idiosyncrasies. I visited Mariners Park on 5th November, 2016 for the heated River Tyne derby against North Shields, with the supposed 1,800 maximum attendance dwarfed by over 2,650 supporters turning up for a match in the eighth tier of the English football pyramid.
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The stadium itself does not have traditional turnstiles many football fans will be accustomed to - but this does not necessarily mean the food and beverages will be instantly unmarked. Just behind the main terrace is the 'Mariners Club,' an extremely friendly, recently refurbished sports bar at relatively low prices - between £3.00 and £3.50 for a pint of lager. It is open for two hours before and after each match, with the excellent function rooms upstairs - opened in a grand ceremony by Alan Shearer - a useful spill-over area for the packed downstairs bar. The speed of service is quick enough on match days, and the bar also offers carveries on a Sunday at £6.95 per person.
Although not the usual football function room, the sports bar is a great place for a pre-match or post-match drink, with the Birra Moretti on draught a personal recommendation for only £3.20. Yet, despite all these positives, the whole building lost power under the stress of a double-capacity crowd, practical gale-force winds and severe rainfall, and many fans did not even get served whatsoever. I expected a longer wait due to the unprecedented attendance - the club's highest in over forty years - but to not be served at all was a disappointing experience.
Mariners Park is one of few non-league stadiums without terraces that still maintains a vivid, voracious atmosphere, with genuine support from the sidelines embodying ultras across the globe, not just an old man with a dog shouting at the opposition. The stadium has only one large stand, placed alongside the sports bar. A small, standing area is flanked by four to five rows of seats, the only seated area in the whole stadium.
The rest of the ground is encircled by the typical non-league "white fence." Usually able to hold 1,800 spectators, the vast majority of whom take position by the edge of the pitch, the enlarged attendance today forced the touchline rows of people to number at least six or seven. Naturally, because of this traditional structure, sight lines to the pitch are difficult due to the lack of elevation. Action at the opposite end of the pitch is easily available to see by the naked eye, but lack of perspective causes some confusion.
The playing surface is to a high level considering the league South Shields are situated in, with the ground firm and dry. Although, due to the lack of drainage in the area - the stadium is situated between various warehouses in an industrial estate - and probable lack of under-soil heating means the stadium could suffer under heavy rainfall. Although sitting on the elevated seated terrace may sound appealing, the best place to watch football and experience the unique atmosphere at Mariners Park would be pitch-side.
The club is situated in the outskirts of South Shields, in a borough of South Tyneside called Jarrow. The ground itself is flanked on either side by Bede Industrial Estate, named after the famous seventh-century monk, the Venerable Bede. This industrial estate is situated a mere five-minute walk from Bede Metro Station which offers cheap rides into both the town centre and the city of Newcastle. Although relatively close to a metro link, the local facilities in the immediate neighborhood are poor due to the ground's location in the centre of an industrial estate. The only local shops or pubs nearby are a pair of fast food restaurants and a Tesco just under a 10-minute walk away.
The atmosphere, led by fans with numerous claret and blue flags, ensures any match played at Mariners Park will be met with a cacophony of boos for the opposition and die-hard support for their own, typical of all football in the northeast of England. Many of the attendees seem to be locals with a fondness for their local "second team," turning up in a variety of Sunderland and Newcastle shirts, which does hinder the atmosphere somewhat, as many do not know the verses to the Mariners' songs.
Although typical European "ultras" culture does not really take precedent in England bar a few notable exceptions, support in the English lower leagues is still vociferous and incessant. One tradition in English football is to twin the sport itself with celebration, usually through the form of copious amounts of alcohol. As such, the lowered tolerances of fans usually allows for a better atmosphere and removes nerves, but can also act as a double-edged sword. Northeast football fans are famously passionate and die-hard, but this can often translate into an easiness to sway support into exaggeration and at times outright anger. This is seen less so through Shields fans due to the successful nature of the team, at the time of viewing on a twenty-game unbeaten streak and top of their division.
The away fans were low in number - not as high as Shields themselves usually bring to matches according to a few locals - but did nevertheless provide a useful outlet for some singing back and forth throughout the match, and even invaded the pitch at the end of the game, which was quite humorous. South Shields' fans are a bastion of a club on the up, with a huge fan base relative to their size only becoming more and more optimistic and voracious year on year.
I used the local metro system to travel there, and much like the New York Subway or London Tube is usually a reliable service, until you factor in the famously dire northeast weather. The metro was delayed by twenty minutes, and thus almost doubled my journey. By car, the route would be quite easy, with the ground relatively close to a major dual carriageway. Despite travelling by metro, I was made aware by other fans that parking access in the area is limited at best due to both the lack of space in the surrounding industrial estate, and the inflamed attendance on the day.
Tickets prices are £6 for adults, £4 for concessions and £2 for children. A South Shields home match is nothing but value for money, with the feel-good factor present in all nooks and crannies of this small but mighty stadium. The confectionaries on offer at the ground could be cheaper and more widely available, but this is par for the course when attending games in England away from the over-sanitized and commercialized Premier League.
The club's match day programme, The Mariner, is a very good read considering the level South Shields play at. Although it is quite short - only 32 pages long - it includes interviews with the owner, manager, players and numerous features on the match, opposition, history of the team and records of the team's results and academy results for the season. The programmes apparently sold out quite quickly, over an hour before kick-off, but I was able to grab one as I arrived early to take notes and photographs before the ground filled up. Despite the effort put in, compared to Premier League clubs the £1.50 read is some way behind, but nevertheless a good read and commendable.
The attendance for the match I went to is now the record at Mariners' Park at 2,650, but they couldn't keep up their unbeaten streak, losing 1-0 as star player Julio Arca saw his early penalty saved. A mere two seasons ago the average attendance was 300 spectators. South Shields are a club on the up, with back-to-back promotions likely, and an attendance averaging club's way higher up in the league pyramid than themselves. Although their current ground is a nostalgic throwback to English football grounds of old, I wonder how long the Mariners will stay at the Old Filtrona before they angle for more.
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2 Sea Road
South Shields, NE33 2LD
14 Mile End Road
South Shields, NE33 1TA