It doesn’t get much better than this.
Maybe one day, if South Shields are ever promoted to the Football League, the feeling among fans might come close to what they’ve experienced this incredible weekend.
But for now, for a club with such a long and proud history, this is their greatest day.
Northern League, Durham Challenge Cup, League Cup champions. And now, FA Vase holders.
They partied hard, long into the night at their Ealing hotel, a soiree arranged by the club to thank the players, coaching staff, committee and their families for a season that will live long in the memory.
There was no better place to round it all off than Wembley Stadium, either. Fittingly, South Tyneside lads Carl Finnigan and David Foley were on the scoresheet, while another, Wayne Phillips, was named man of the match.
But it would be churlish to single any player out. This was a group effort, as it has been all season.
There have been some great highs, particularly over the last month or two, but this was all about one last game. A historic day in the sun for the Mariners, their first trip to the famous stadium.
And nothing was going to stand in their way, certainly not Cleethorpes Town.
From the moment Finnigan casually rolled home the penalty in the 43rd minute, the result was never really in doubt, even if it took until the dying embers of this game to make it completely secure.
Shields were far from their best, but they didn’t need to be. Class told in the end.
Shields had started well, bossing the game for the first 10 minutes but were unable to find the breakthrough.
Finnigan had been chosen ahead of Michael Richardson to play at the tip of the diamond, and while his performance at times lacked fluency, he was a constant threat, ghosting into the box in the spaces vacated by Foley and Gavin Cogdon.
It was a set-piece that almost brought the Mariners the opener. Wayne Phillips’ fifth-minute delivery was met by Andrew Stephenson but Finnigan couldn’t bundle in the loose ball when it dropped inside the six-yard box.
The forward then could – and should – have done better when put clean through by Cogdon but Higton came out to block his shot.
Gradually, Cleethorpes began to get a foothold in the game. They disrupted the Mariners with a series of niggly tackles and some downright awful challenges. Two lunges from Liam Davis in particular, were horrible – any later with them and they’d have been in the FA Trophy game that followed the Vase final.
It worked, for a spell, however. Cleethorpes had chances, with top scorer Brody Robertson denied by the fingertips of Liam Connell while Marc Cooper squandered a glorious opening when he couldn’t sort his feet out.
Shields just needed to get the ball into Cogdon and Foley’s feet, with the Owls’ defenders unable to cope with their pace and trickery. And so it proved on 43 minutes, when Cogdon ran at the back four and as he advanced into the box, was felled by Tim Lowe.
It was a clear penalty and up stepped Finnigan to send Higton the wrong way from the spot, wheeling away with one arm raised Alan Shearer-style as he’d promised he’d do.
If Cogdon’s effort on the stroke of half-time had gone in, rather than rebounding off the post from Higton’s save, the game could have been over by the interval. Likewise with David Foley’s rasping 30-yard drive five minutes after the restart which hit the crossbar after a the Cleethorpes goalkeeper somehow got his fingertips to it.
Shields continued to press but, surprisingly for them, lacked the killer instinct that has served them so well for most of the season. They were fortunate that Cleethorpes, despite the season they’ve had, were so limited in their play, although it needed a stunning last-ditch block from Alex Nicholson to deny Robertson when he pulled the trigger.
Shields kept probing. Boosted by fresh legs in the form of Robert Briggs and Michael Richardson, they pushed on looking for that killer second. Cogdon was denied by Higton again, this time with his legs, before Foley got the ball stuck under his feet as he tried to pull the trigger.
For all the fine approach play, though, it needed a set-piece to kill the game off. Not that it should come as a surprise. Meticulous planning has gone into movement, blocking and delivery from free-kicks and corners all season, including a special session at Aston Villa’s training ground en route to Wembley on Saturday afternoon.
It paid off. Dillon Morse and Jon Shaw both found themselves free at the far post from Briggs’ 80th-minute inswinger and the former headed home to send the Shields fans into raptures.
Five minutes later, Foley raced through from Richardson’s pass and sent Higton the wrong way to continue his form of scoring in the biggest of games.
The Shields-born striker then sealed the victory with a 25-yard effort which nestled in the bottom corner of the Wembley net, his 35th goal of an incredible campaign.
It was a fitting end to an unforgettable season.