The Mariners will learn their FA Vase semi-final opponents today as they took a huge step towards a trip to Wembley with a blistering demolition of Newport Pagnell Town on Saturday.
None of the sides left in the competition will want to be drawn over two legs against the Mariners.
In truth, this was as one-sided a Vase quarter-final is likely to be. Take no notice of the five-goal margin – it could quite easily have been double figures.
It shouldn’t be too surprising. Shields, now, are no longer an ordinary Northern League team. On some level, they’re barely an amateur side. So much of what they do has a whiff of professionalism about them, from the preparation behind the scenes during the week to what happens on matchday.
A record 3,161 packed into Mariners Park on Saturday. To put that into context, it was higher than all but one National League game (Wrexham), more than Rochdale got in League One and just a couple of hundred behind League Two games at Hartlepool and Blackpool.
Shields have a number of players who have experience of the pro game. Julio Arca is the obvious one but he’s not alone.
Craig Baxter started his career at Newcastle United and helped Gateshead to Wembley a couple of years ago; Jon Shaw is another Gateshead old boy with a spell also at Luton Town. New boy Darren Lough has been playing as a pro in Iceland while David Foley still holds the record for Hartlepool United’s youngest ever player.
Despite all that experience, Shields remarkably had stuttered in their two biggest games of the season so far, losing in front of more than 2,600 people when North Shields crossed the Tyne, and then fluffing their lines in the infamous Morpeth Vase clash.
But any concerns of freezing on the big stage again were blown away inside a stunning firstsix minutes.
Pagnell had rightly had a goal chalked off for handball after 90 seconds, before Foley picked the ball up some 40 yards out, danced past a defender before unleashing a stunning left-foot strike which crashed into the net off the post.
Three minutes later and it was 2-0. Pagnell again failed to close down a shot from distance and Wayne Phillips’ left-footer arrowed into the corner of the net from 25 yards.
Pagnell looked shell-shocked. Foley continued to torment them with his quick feet and direct running as Shields attacked from all angles. Craig Baxter went close with another effort from distance but on 25 minutes it was three when Dillon Morse was left unmarked to head home a Phillips corner.
Satisfying for Graham Fenton who had spent Thuursday’s training session working on set-pieces.
His fellow co-manager, Lee Picton, claimed Robert Briggs’ goal 90 seconds later was the pick of the bunch after he rounded off a flowing team move – which went from right to left and back again – by powering a rising shot into the top corner. It would be hard to argue against it, although Foley’s gets my nod.
Pagnell had trailed 2-0 to Sunderland RCA at half-time in the last round, before mounting a spirited comeback, but 4-0 at the break against Shields was never going to be pulled back.
Indeed, after the break, it was just a matter of how many Shields wanted to score. Gavin Cogdon must have been kicking himself at not being on the scoresheet but the little forward changed that with two goals in three minutes after the hour mark.
His first was a dubious penalty after he raced clean through and appeared to get the ball stuck under his feet before falling to the ground. Referee Anthony Blackhouse awarded a penalty, however, which Cogdon stepped up to convert.
if there had been any doubt about that one, there was no disputing his second, however. A quick excahnge with Andrew Stephenson on the edge of the box was finished with a beautifully controlled volley into the bottom corner.
Shields eased off again, Stephenson, Carl Finnigan and Alex Nicholson all wsting opportunities to inflict further misery on the visitors.
Pagnell kept going though and got a consolation when Elliott Sandy twisted and turned in the box before finding the top corner.
It wasn’t enough to stop those other Sandies from celebrating when the final whistle blew just seconds later.