From 12 paying punters to 15,000 at Wembley: meet the men who kept South Shields FC alive
Estimation suggests that South Shields could take around 15,000 fans to Wembley on May 21. It's a far cry from the 12 paying punters who turned up at Peterlee to watch the Mariners against Esh Winning four years ago.
A whole new world for the Mariners and those who kept them afloat in choppy waters.
A hardcore committee helped the club after they were left homeless in 2013, when Filtrona Park owner John Rundle informed them they could no longer play at the ground, their home since 1992, if they were unable to buy it off him.
With possible venues exhausted, Shields were forced 25 miles down the A19 to Peterlee’s Eden Lane ground. It was a trip too far for many fans, but not that committee of then-chairman Gary Crutwell, Bob Wray, Philip Reay, David Fall, Bob Scott and Richard Bailey.
Their tireless, voluntary work in getting Eden Lane up to Northern League standard, manning the turnstiles, selling beer cans from a second-hand fridge and flogging raffle tickets just to help the club survive is now being rewarded ten-fold.
It did get scary at times through.
“The real bad time I remember was a Tuesday night against Esh Winning when I was on the gate,” said Bob Wray.
“We had 12 paying punters and that was the low point.
“It was soul-destroying. I was nearly in tears. How had it come to this?
“It was then we actually began to think in terms of next season, is this actually going to happen. The name of the game was survival.”
For Crutwell – at times chairman, at other times ballboy at Eden Lane – there were some difficult questions he had to ask.
“How long can we sustain it? How long can we keep it going? Esh Winning was the low point.
“But as long as lads were willing to keep going, keep raising money through whatever means, we’d keep trying.”
And it’s a good job they did. Fast forward a couple of years and Shields are back at Filtrona, now renamed Mariners Park. Twelve paying fans has been replaced by a crowd of 3,464 for their FA Vase semi-final second leg against Coleshill Town last Saturday, a game which saw the club reach Wembley for the first time in its history.
It’s just one step, hopefully, on the road to Conference football under the ambitious plans of new chairman Geoff Thompson, who brought the club back home. Promotion to the Evostik League is the next aim and there was a ground inspection yesterday to make sure Mariners Park was up to standard.
A newly-built press area is the latest addition to a ground that has been redeveloped beyond all recognition in the last 18 months, something the committee could never have dreamt of when they were getting their hands dirty at Eden Lane.
David Fall takes up the tale.
“The ground itself was in good nick but the stand was condemned – but we got that sorted.
“There was a lot of work from the lads, wire-brushing the steelwork to get rid of rust and coats of paint.
“There was a clubhouse adjacent to it, like a CA, and we managed to get one room where we would sell cans of beer that we’d bought from the local shop at the bottom of Peterlee and sold for £2.50 a can. That’s where we had to get funds from.”
Hard work, especially for those in their sixties and seventies, but work that desperately needed to be done.
“It was a pleasure,” said Bob Scott. “It was hard work but you enjoyed it. When you went home you felt you had done something.
“Even prior to Peterlee and Geoff the work we’d done (at Filtrona) on the pitch, cutting turf with a bread knife. I was on my hands and knees cutting pieces of turf with a bread knife as we had no money to do anything else. That bread knife should have been framed as a memento.”
Thiose Peterlee days may be well gone, but little things keep jogging the memory, constant reminders of how far they have come.
Match programmes were printed surreptitiously by a supporter at his work, then put together on David’s dining room table on a Friday night. They’d print a maximum of 20. On Saturday, against Coleshill, 800 copies were sold.
The pace of change has been staggering. And for those who have seen it all, they have to keep pinching themselves.
The last word goes to Bob Wray, 70 years of watching his hometown team.
“The transformation from then until now, it’s a new club and a new era,” he says. “All our dreams and aspirations and ambitions are being laid out now and we’re on that journey.”