Analysis: Julio Arca shows how much Wembley means to him as South Shields take slender FA Vase advantage
He had just been approached, as he so often is, by a Sunderland fan desperate for a word and a handshake with his hero.
This time, the fan in question was a Coleshill committee man, proud as punch that the Argentine had graced their modest ground, regardless of the fact that Arca’s performance in South Shields’ dramatic 2-1 win could result in his side failing to appear at Wembley in the FA Vase Final.
Arca, modest and gracious as ever, said he looked forward to seeing him at Mariners Park for the second leg. One game at a time, the Shields captain insists.
But by his own admission, Wembley is hard not to think about, and for the last 20 minutes at Pack Meadow on Saturday he played as if it was the one thing driving him on.
When Shields needed leaders, they got them in the form of Arca and Jon Shaw. While many of their team-mates have experienced playing at the national stadium for the likes of Spennymoor, West Auckland and Dunston UTS, these two – for all their great careers as professionals – have yet to taste that delight.
They showed just how desperate and committed they are to achieve that dream. Arca, scrapping and scurrying, yet still calm enough to produce an outrageous nutmeg inside his own half in the dying moments; Shaw organising, heading everything away amid a late bombardment; both digging in when the going got tough.
And boy, was it tough at times.
Shields weren’t at their best and at times it wasn’t pretty. That’s 23 wins in a row and they won’t have had to fight harder in many of them.
But it was that sort of game. Tense, absorbing, end to end in the second half but strangely lacking in any real quality.
Lee Picton and Graham Fenton had done their homework on Coleshill over the last two weeks, warning their players of the threat of frontman Jordan Nadat and the direct style of their opponents’ play.
It was excatly how they predicted. Nadat was a constant threat as the Midland Premier League went long to him at every opportunity. With his back to goal and muscular frame, he caused the Shields defenders problems and was unlucky not to add to his first-half opener.
It was an intriguing battle of styles, with the Mariners determined to get the ball down, build from the back and through midfield and use the pace, movement and trickery of a front three of David Foley, Stephenson and Michael Richardson.
Without Carl Finnigan or Gavin Cogdon, both on the bench after recent injuries, Shields lacked that cutting edge up front, especially in the first half. Too often they were restricted to long-range efforts from Foley, who also saw a good chance blocked by Andre Gonzales.
The final through ball was just not precise enough at times, and the one occasion it did find its mark, Richardson appeared to be pulled back as he raced through, only for the referee – poor throughout – to wave play on.
It added to the frustration from both fans around the pitch – an estimated 500 from South Shields – and in the dugout, feelings not helped when Nadat put Coleshill ahead on 45 minutes.
The striker had already been denied by Liam Connell, and the Shields goalkeeper almost broke Nadat’s heart again with a sensational first save from close range, only for the forward to put home the rebound.
It was no more than Coleshill deserved, but harsh on the excellent Connell who had dealt with everything the home side had thrown at him, making smart stops from Josh Quaynor and Rob Evans while dominating his box from a flurry of long throws and crosses.
Shields had contribued to a lot of their own problems in the opening period; sloppy in possession at times, they’d once again looked nervous, but the tough words from the management duo at the interval had the desired effect.
There was more intensity and attacking purpose in the first two minutes of the second period then there had been for the first 45, culminating in Foley bundling the ball home inside the six-yard box after Stephenson’s vicious angled effort was parried by Coleshill goalkeeper Paul Hathaway.
For the next 15 minutes, it was all Shields as they looked like overwhelming Coleshill, but a second goal didn’t arrive and the home side clawed their way back into the game.
Still, Shields looked dangerous. Finnigan, on as sub, almost put them ahead in the 70th minute as Hathaway denied him after a great through ball by Robert Briggs.
Coleshill went straight down the other end and sub Jesse Race was desperately unlucky with a left-foot effort his namesake Roy would have been proud of which crashed off the inside of the post and was then headed off the line by Michael Richardson.
Just when it appeared the two teams would meet at Mariners Park on Saturday all square, Shields prouced one last moment of drama.
Probing and patient down the right, Foley and Craig Baxter combined to slip the former into the box. Left-back Darren Lough somehow found himself unmarked at the back post in injury time but mishit his close-range effort only for the ball to strike Stephenson and end up in the back of the net to the delirium of the travelling fans who had adorned the hoardings behind the goal with a multitude of flags.
It was harsh on Coleshill, but Shields won’t care. It’s bits of fortune like that which are vital on cup runs. With Wembley on the horizon, it doesn’t matter how you get there.
Scrap, survive and succeed. Just ask Julio Arca and Jon Shaw.