It’s all about roots, traditions, the essential essence of the game, and preserving a place for those with dreams of bigger things.
I guess it all started round 1963 and 1964 the year that Sunderland ended six seasons in the old Division 2 and won promotion back to the top flight. I came from a family of red and whites and they held a row of ten season tickets in the main clock stand at Roker Park, of course there were always games when one uncle or grandfather couldn’t attend, so that’s when I got my chance to go and sit next to my dad and watch the professional game.
My love of football had started at Barnes Road school in South Shields kicking a tennis ball around the playground behind a tall wall and fence facing South Eldon Street. I played in the back lanes with lads a few years older than me and twice as tall, and to my surprise I was chosen to play for the school team back in the days of woolen jersies and toe capped leather studded boots (mine were second hand). It was fascinating to wonder why so many lads climbed the fence or hung over the gate at school during morning play times, but I soon learned that South Shields’ legendery striker Len Smith lived directly opposite and that he would cross the road to sign autograph books – remember them? – when he nipped out for his morning paper at Johnny Foster’s shop.
My dad, and a neighbour, who was the son of another local legend George Lillicrop, had regaled me of handed down stories of The Mariners playing at Horsley Hill Stadium on Wednesday afternoons when they were in Division 2 of the Football League in the 1920s, and with a little persuasion a friend and his father agreed to take me to see South Shields playing at Simonside Hall on Newcastle Road one Saturday afternoon. Sunderland were playing away from home that day and my father always travelled to away games (I was too young to go with him), so off we went to see The Mariners instead, and it became a regular thing whenever Sunderland played away.
I have very fond memories of Simonside Hall the first being the odd feeling of getting so close to the players as they walked from the Hall, a big house behind the ground which held the club’s office and changing rooms, through the trees and into the small ground. Its two very small stands on the opposite long sides of the pitch were supplemented with terracing which could be easily accessed with a stroll around the perimeter, something which was not possible at Roker Park! Entry was by means of purchasing a programme outside of the ground at a little booth adjacent to a Minchella’s ice cream van, although there were many times that I witnessed youngsters burrowing underneath a fence, or climbing over the wall at the Newcastle Road end, or even climbing a tree and sitting in the branches for the duration of a match.
The great thing about the experience for a young lad was the ability to see top level footballers close up on a regular basis. South Shields were then playing in the North Eastern League and the North Regional League in 1967 -68, remember that England had just won the World Cup (in black and white in this town) and that attendances at games everywhere were on the up. From 1968 until 1974 they played in the Northern Premier League against teams like Gateshead, North Shields, Workington, Northwhich Victoria, Sunderland Reserves, Hull City Reserves, Hartlepool Reserves, Middlesbrough Reserves and Carlisle Reserves too. Professional football was rather different then than it is now, and if a player became injured or suffered a loss of form, he’d be pitched into the reserve team to prove his fitness, regain some form, and force his way back into the first team. There was no such thing as a first team squad system such as that operated by Premier League teams now! So it was a great opportunity to see the likes of Jim Baxter, Colin Suggett, Stan Anderson and other top name players battling it out at Simonside Hall in these regular local “derby games”.
I had my own South Shields favourites as a lad: goalkeeper Bert Garrow, who never quite looked the right shape, winger Gerry Donohue, who never looked quite tall enough but he had blistering pace and a great cross, and striker Len Smith, who was also a super opening bat at cricket. What was even better was the chance to rub shoulders with them if they were shopping in Frederick Street, or bump into them buying records at Saville’s under the bridge in King Street. It added value to the experience, and served as a lifelong reminder that non league club football is a community experience woven into the fabric of smaller towns or suburbs of larger places. It saddened me enormously when South Shields’ directors (who included at least one local councillor) decided to sell the ground and “upped sticks” moving the whole club to Gateshead in 1974.
After all, parts of our dreams were born at Simonside Hall: we had seen schoolboy international games there, floodlighting and seating had come from Roker Park after the 1966 World Cup, we had seen Sir Stanley Matthews playing there for Port Vale,cthe Mariners get into the “proper” rounds of the F.A. Cup and huge gates for matches against York City and Queens Park Rangers. They even reached the semi final of the FA Trophy in 1974, the year the club and its fans wer esold out. Following that debacle, I never watched South Shields again for a long time; I felt that the town had been betrayed.
Luckily a new club was formed to represent the town and it played at Jack Clark Park for a while, it still hadn’t captured my imagination though. Its chairman was Martin Ford, who I knew well as the licensee of the Adam and Eve in Frederick Street. 17 years later the club under new chairman John Rundle got its hands on Filtrona Park, close to its spiritual home in Simonside and the flame was flickering once again. After some ups and downs and disappointing seasons, and Rundle’s threat to fold the club once more, they have now re-established themselves under new management and are holding their own in the Northern League.
It was time for me to return, and interestingly my first few games at Filtrona Park found me chatting with a number of old friends, some of whom I hadn’t seen in years! The cameraderie was excellent and reinforced the community feeling that had been missing for some time. This is the great thing about the Northern League, and non league football in general, so many people are friendly, it is great to mix with the few travelling away supporters and chew the cud with them, the banter is infectious, and it is heartening to see so many local people giving their time voluntarily in and around the club to keep it alive! I’ve now been to quite a few games when Sunderland are playing away, just as I did when I was a lad, and it is starting to feel just as good. I have met young lads hoping to play for South Shields one day, they have the seeds of ambition growing in them, I have seen young Adam Rundle achieve some of his ambitions by playing professional League football (I believe he is now at Gateshead), and I have seen the club’s own ambitions begin to bear fruit. There is a strong sense of bonding at Filtrona Park and I sincerely hope that the Mariners can use their time in the Northern League profitably and start to climb the pyramid of non league football and reach again for League status one day.
Football is not all about the mega rich prima donnas of the Premiership with its ridiculous ticket prices and £5 programmes. It needs to have its grassroots nurtured and fertilised, the clubs at the bottom of the pile need to get some benefit from the riches flowing into the top of the pyramid, and young players need to have a small stage to show their talent. Without the Northern League, and others, our game would suffer hugely, and we would all lose a small sense of our identity and damage our communities in a small but tangible way. If you have a spare Saturday afternoon then go out, take your kids, and enjoy a bit of non league football in your town, you might just sow the seed in them and help your team to continue playing for many years into the future.
I have a gallery of pictures taken at a South Shields vs Penrith match starting here, just keep pressing the right arrow to see the next picture.