Ex-Sunderland legend Kevin Phillips' pledge to South Shields' fans and why Mariners will have to deal better with expectation

Bouncing back from their play-off defeat won’t be easy, but Kevin Phillips is determined to finally get South Shields over the line this season.

Losing on penalties to Warrington Town was a sombre end to a season that promised much for the Mariners, who were back playing in-front of crowds for the first time since the Covid-19 pandemic hit.

Following that game, Phillips, who took charge of Shields following Graham Fenton’s departure in January, vowed that his team would come back stronger this season.

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Earlier this month, after putting his team through their paces, on what was the hottest day of the year to-date, Phillips sat down with the Gazette to explain his hopes for the season ahead and reiterate the pledge he made following their playoff heartbreak.

South Shields manager Kevin Phillips

“It won’t be easy because, again, we have to deal with expectation because it’s South Shields; everyone wants to beat us.

“We’re seen as the ‘big timers’ in the league because we’re full-time and we have to handle that which, at times last season, I don’t think we did.

“But the experience we’ve added to the squad, coupled with what we’ve already got means I think we will cope with it and deal with it a lot better.

“But ultimately you have to set goals and I said to them from day one, I’ve given them targets and ultimately it’s promotion.

Kevin Phillips has pledged that his team will the 'fittest' in the league next season

“I’m not going to shy away from that and I know that I’m under pressure to deliver and if we don’t deliver that and we don’t get promotion, then it’s highly likely that I probably won’t be sitting here talking to you next season. That for me is how important [promotion] is.

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“I can’t stress it too much to the players because football is that old cliche of ‘one game at a time’ and you have to compete with what comes up in-front of us and worry about the next game after that.

“It’s going to be a long season, possibly fifty plus games if we have cup runs, so everyone is going to play their part and we just have to make sure we get the balance right throughout the season.”

Phillips continued: “I said it at the end of last season, I didn't think we were fit enough and I made a promise to everyone at the club that we will be the fittest team in the league this season and we’ve got no excuse not to be.”

Phillips has placed a big emphasis on the work his players do during the off-season in order to be prepared for when that first game against Stalybridge Celtic comes around on August 13.

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But it isn’t just his playing squad that have been strengthened this summer.

Additions to his coaching staff have been made, as has investment in technology to track progress - all things that Phillips believes could prove vital and give his side the edge next season.

“You have to assess the squad when they first come back just to see who has been doing their programme and who hasn’t - you can pretty much tell straight away who hasn’t.

“We’ve been very lucky this season that we’ve been able to bring in strength and conditioning coach Lee Moore who has been a massive help for us.

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“In the first couple of days we were testing, doing the usual that every football club does, the ‘yo-yo’ or ‘bleep test’, just to give us a rough guide to where they are and their levels of fitness.

“And after that, it’s really just about getting some yards and mileage into their legs early on and increasing that each day.

“As pre-season goes on, that distance comes down and it’s more about intensity of training which, once we get the GPS vests that are coming this week, that can help us even more by monitoring how far they run.

“It’s really just about getting a balance of everything.”

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Shields start their campaign at home to Stalybridge in less than a month’s time and expectations will be high that they can finally seal the promotion that has eluded them for so long.

But with expectation also comes excitement, excitement that Phillips, having been given a whole pre-season to work with his squad, can deliver on those expectations.

To do that, Phillips wants his whole squad to be fit and raring to go for the clash with Stalybridge and hopes for a few good selection headaches when that match approaches.

“Really excited [to get going]. It was great to play our first game [against Berwick].

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“As a player there’s only so much training you can do, you just want to play. There’s no substitute for playing a proper game, whether that’s a pre-season game or an actual proper game when the season starts.

“It’s a necessity and it’s a long six weeks but now the games have started, the weeks will fly by and we’re playing Saturday-Tuesday now virtually all the way until the start of the season and we will be prepared come August 13.

“We will have covered everything we need to cover, the players will be fully fit and the biggest thing for me now is not picking up any daft injuries - there are no heroes in the first week or two weeks of pre-season.

“I want everyone fit for the beginning of the season. It will give me a bit of a headache come that first team but I’d rather have that than scrambling around trying to put a team together.

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“I’m excited and looking forward to it and the players are buzzing now that the games are coming thick-and-fast.”

It remains to be seen if Phillips and his squad can deliver on the promises of pre-season, but it’s clear that, once again, they have sky-high hopes and expectations to match.