Ambitious South Shields FC chairman Geoff Thompson has revealed that he plans to build a 5,000-seater stadium at Mariners Park – and target Conference football.
Mr Thompson today outlined his aims in an exclusive interview with the Gazette as he looks to restore the club to its former glories.
The millionaire businessman, who founded energy firm Utilitywise, took over the reins at the ex-Football League outfit in the summer, buying their former ground which enabled the team to return to South Shields after spending two years playing in Peterlee.
But not content with that, Mr Thompson now plans to make the club one of the major forces in non-league football in the country, turning their Mariners Park home into their own Theatre of Dreams along the way.
In an in-depth interview, he revealed:
• Architects have been contracted to look into creating a 5,000-10,000-seater ground.
• Plans for an £800,000 artificial pitch that will be used by the whole community.
• That he wants to make a club that the borough can be proud of.
Mr Thompson, who was born and raised in South Tyneside, took over the club in June after being initially approached for sponsorship by a member of the club’s committee.
He acquired Filtrona Park from previous owner John Rundle and changed the name to Mariners Park, before investing heavily in ground improvements and a refurbishment of the bar and function rooms.
Success on the pitch has followed, with Shields racking up 15 straight wins to blast to the top of Northern League Division Two, with crowds of more than 1,000 flocking to watch them.
It has convinced Mr Thompson to continue driving the club forward – and to set his ambitions high, despite Shields being five rungs below Conference football level.
He said: “We need to make ground improvements as we don’t have much shelter. We’re going to be investing in stands and creating a mini stadium.
“We’ve appointed an architect and we’re getting professional advice and we’re looking to see what this facility could house.
“We’re taking a specification of league grounds. What would a Conference facility, or the league just above, require?
“Everything that we’re doing is aimed at that. It might sound a little bit ambitious, but that’s what we’re setting our stall out at.
“All the investments that we’ve made today, there’s no point doing it on a kind of piecemeal basis, doing something that isn’t right for the next league up or the league after that.
“We’re trying our best to have a long-term plan and spec the improvements that we have down here to reach that aspiration of conference football.
“That may seem a bit of a pipe dream, but why not?
“At the end of the day, there’s 100,000 people who live in South Shields. We’re a big town and we have the conurbation around, and a lot of people who are Shields born and bred who may live elsewhere.
“We’ve got a good potential fanbase, so why shouldn’t we create a facility that can support Conference football, something in the region of a 5,000-10,000 seater stadium?
“That’s going to take some time and we have to succeed commercially, and we most certainly have to succeed on the pitch. There’s no point in having a 5,000-seater white elephant.
“The vision will take us some time but we’ve started really well. We’ve got a plan and we’re going about it in the right way.
“The club has to be commercially viable, it has to form a central part in the community and be backed by the community, and if we can achieve all that and keep on improving, my hope and desire is that we can eventually get to Conference football.
“It might take us a while and there’s a way to go, but why not?”
One of the main strands of the plan to establish the club as one that serves the community is the development of a 3G pitch.
The 11-a-side artificial surface will be housed behind the main pitch and provide a facility that can be hired out and by junior clubs, local teams and five-a-side players all year round, regardless of the weather.
Mr Thompson sees that development – along with the refurbishment of the bar and function rooms – as being key to giving the club some longevity.
“We’ve done a lot of work in the clubhouse ,which I’m really really pleased with,” he added.
“The reason why we did that was that we need to get this facility used by not just the football club and the juniors and sponsors, but also used by the community.
“Whether it’s a birthday party or an engagement or 40th or whatever it might be, the idea is from a business planning point of view we’ve spent the money to create this facility, let’s get it used.
“The income that we generate we will reinvest and then really if you look at what is going on the football club, we’re getting great success and bringing in bigger crowds.
“It’s a combination of the commercial activity through the clubhouse plus the success that we’re having on the field that drives people to come and watch us. All of that will help us get the club to a point where commercially, it’s washing its face and performing.
“We’re executing a plan to create a 11-a-side 3G pitch here. We’ve got to get planning approval for it because it will be floodlit facility, and make sure it will be positioned correctly so it’s not causing any problems for our neighbours.
“That will represent approaching an £800,000 investment. We’re hoping to get some grant funding from Sport England and various grant authorities. We’re doing our best to try and recover some of the capital costs from that project.
“I think that’s quite an important part of the jigsaw puzzle because we will have the activity on a matchday, secondly we will have the functions, but that 3G pitch, if we get it right, will be used by the community.
“Everyone will have an opportunity to use it and obviously there will be fees involved but that makes South Shields FC, as a community club, commercially viable..
“At that point, we’ve really got a football club that has got some longevity as it’s not dependent on me personally spending my money, it’s about the club succeeding as a commercial organisation and being a facility that the community can use, and hopefully everyone will feel proud of what we’ve started.
“That will take us through, at best spring early summer next year. Certainly by the start of next season I’d like to think we’d have that in place.”
• See more of our exclusive interview tomorrow.