South Shields are comparative giants in Northern League football; not necessarily for their exploits on the pitch, as they were positioned only marginally higher than ourselves in the League table prior to today’s game – but because of the size of the population. At around 85,000, South Shields is more populated than Macclesfield, Shrewsbury and even Burnley who were Premier League inhabitants only a couple of years back. Perhaps the moral is that South Shields is a club with potential; slumbering giants of the Tyne and a side that played league football in the early years of the last century. By Northern League standards, South Shields are well supported with crowds just shy of two hundred. They brought a healthy away contingent to the game today on a crisp, clear October afternoon where the calm atmospheric situation made for perfect playing conditions.
In terms of star quality, two names sprung out from the South Shields team sheet as I cast my eyes over it before the game – Davey Southern and Alex Benjamin. At one point, perhaps seven or eight years ago, I remember Southern as the scourge of our visits to Dunston, where he then plied his trade. He was quick, incisive and had great awareness. Southern was one of the leading lights in the Dunston side which dominated the early parts of this decade. Alex Benjamin is renowned for his Northern League goalscoring feats and it was a surprise to me that he left Bedlington in the close season. With these two players as the fulcrum of their side, there was no doubting that the visitors could be very dangerous.
Several years on, Southern’s role at South Shields appears an altogether different one. Rather than haring down the wing, he now plays in a less advanced role. He was nevertheless central to everything that Shields did; he would lay the ball off, switch play, float the ball into gaps and invariably take every free-kick and dead ball, more often than not very effectively. Benjamin is a strong, direct and traditional centre forward and one of the first contributions he made was to stroke the ball with precision into the bottom corner from the penalty spot as South Shields took an early lead. The chief architect in winning the penalty was the fresh-faced Yanis Galas, whose pace was a constant threat.
Despite this early set-back, Guisborough soon settled into a clear pattern of play. The evergreen Willie Boland would pick the ball up from goalkeeper or centre half, draw a challenge and play the ball into a forward or fellow-midfielder’s feet. More often than not, it was to the feet of Luke Bythway who was at his effervescent best. Bythway created panic as he ran at defenders and whilst Shields looked dangerous as they sprung forward at pace, they looked equally as likely to be undone by speed and running themselves. An equaliser soon followed. Bythway swung in a perfect free-kick from the left and Austin Johnson applied a deft headed flick into the roof of the net. The delivery of the free-kick was nigh on perfect; it was almost impossible for the centre half to get in front of and left the hapless (and totally blameless) visiting keeper stranded and exposed to any diversion from either attacker or defender.
Momentum is everything in sport. Capitalising on this momentum is crucial. Before long Guisborough had taken the lead. Brimming with confidence after his hand in the first goal, Bythway embarked on a mazy dribble towards the visiting goal. As defenders backed off, Bythway kept going and as still no real challenge was made as he entered the area, he wrong-footed the keeper to complete a great piece of individual skill. Guisborough soon had a two goal cushion courtesy of an own goal and having fallen behind early on, could not have wished for a better half time scoreline.
Credit here has to go to South Shields; they came out for the second half rejuvenated and for the first ten minutes of the second period they virtually camped in Guisborough’s half. They had more corners than the Pentagon and such was the intensity of pressure, it felt a matter of time before they pulled a goal back. Had they scored, South Shields would very much have had the momentum and may have gone on to secure at least a point from the game. But on several occasions, the ball was scrambled away and shots went narrowly wide. The real turning point was when Goalkeeper Norton somehow spooned the ball over the bar as he flung himself down low, akin to Gordon Banks’ 1970 World Cup save from Pele. At every set-piece Shields looked dangerous and Southern’s free-kicks - floated across on some occasions as though he had used a nine-iron and whipped across at pace at other times – caused serious problems. Yet the home defence stood firm and gradually the early second-half thrust and energy of the visitors petered out. Guisborough’s Onions had the chance to seal it as his relentless running put him through, but his tired effort fell wide.
This was a fiercely competed and enjoyable encounter between two well-matched sides. It’s amazing what a difference a week makes – in the space of two games, we have doubled our points tally with back to back wins. With games in hand, the picture looks brighter. We now have the small task of taking on Whitley Bay on Wednesday night as they travel just a few miles more than Shields from the other side of the Tyne. The talk is that Whitley Bay’s derelict amusement park – The Spanish City – is all set for renovation. Like the infamous Spanish City attractions, Wednesday evening will no doubt throw up lots more twists, turns, thrills and spills.