Mark Carruthers: Two years on from an eventful day at South Shields FC and how the pandemic has changed the world of non-league football ever since

There was always a buzz around Mariners Park as South Shields made their way from the Northern League’s second tier to within one promotion of the National League North.
Mark Carruthers: The pandemic has changed the world of non-league football ever since this eventful day two years ago.Mark Carruthers: The pandemic has changed the world of non-league football ever since this eventful day two years ago.
Mark Carruthers: The pandemic has changed the world of non-league football ever since this eventful day two years ago.

But this buzz was different, there was excitement and anticipation as always, but they were tempered by doubt, uncertainty and more than a hint of concern.

The realisation that the Covid-19 pandemic was something far more serious than many thought was setting in - yet over 3,200 supporters still made their way to Mariners Park for what was an eagerly-anticipated clash between two title rivals.

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With the Northern League fixture list wiped out and the rest of the North East non-league fixture list limited to just one other game, interest and intrigue in what would follow went far beyond title races and promotions.

National football writers and television crews were on hand to take in the events and focus on off-field behaviour as much as on-field events.

Perhaps there was some naivety, maybe even denial from some, but there was no doubt the severity of an increasingly worrying situation was put aside for 90 enthralling minutes.

As if to deliver one last hurrah before the 2019/20 was brought to a premature close, the Mariners and FC United of Manchester delivered an eight-goal thriller where attacking play was incisive and imaginative and defenders gave an early indication of how social distancing would work.

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South Shields were brimming with confidence and they raced into a three-goal lead by the time half-time arrived as former FC United striker Jason Gilchrist scored either side of a well-worked goal from Jason Gilchrist.

The pandemic seemed far from the mind as the vast majority of the 3,274 of those inside Mariners Park reflected on a remarkable half of football and contemplated the very real possibility of a fourth consecutive promotion.

The visitors gave themselves some hope when the prolific Tunde Owolabi scored a stunning solo goal six minutes into the second-half - but the three-goal lead was restored moments later with a powerful low drive from Mariners midfielder Nathan Lowe.

FC United hit back with 20 minutes remaining when Owolabi doubled his tally with an awkward-looking finish from 12 yards out and set home nerves on edge once again.

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But those nerves were settled in the final minute of the game when on-loan Sunderland midfielder Bali Mumba neatly rounded off a fast-paced break to set off euphoric celebrations in all-bar-one corner of a packed stadium.

Owolabi had the final say when he completed his hat-trick with a neat finish across Mariners keeper Myles Boney - but his side had been second best throughout an intoxicating affair.

Promotion and the Northern Premier League Premier Division title seemed a certainty for the Mariners as their win took them 12 points clear of their second-placed visitors with just nine games of the season remaining.

The atmosphere deep inside Mariners Park was overwhelmingly positive as players and managers reflected on the remarkable events played out just yards away.

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Graham Fenton hailed South Shields performance as “magnificent”, discussed the possibility that promotion was now within reach and looked ahead to a derby clash with Morpeth Town.

Goalscorer Gilchrist stood pitchside and revealed his satisfaction of scoring twice against his former club and Sunderland loanee Mumba revealed his determination to prove himself on his return to the Stadium of Light.

The world - at least for those at South Shields - seemed overwhelming positive.

That would all change within days as football was shut down and the season was eventually suspended before the FA went a step further and declared the campaign as null and void.

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That decision provoked an ultimately unsuccessful legal bid from, amongst others, Mariners chairman Geoff Thompson.

How things have changed since that fateful day.

Mariners Park - now the 1st Cloud Arena - has changed beyond recognition and is quickly developing into a stadium capable of hosting top-level non-league football.

Fenton’s highly-successful reign was brought to a close in January and Sunderland legend Kevin Phillips now patrols the touchline as Mariners manager.

Gilchrist - coincidentally - now wears the colours of Buxton and is a key part of their Northern Premier League Premier Division title battle with South Shields.

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And Mumba’s return to Sunderland failed to provide any first-team development - but the youngster has gone on to higher heights after he joined Norwich City before joining Championship club Peterborough United on loan in January.

Crucially, the pandemic restricted two consecutive seasons to early finishes and halted the Mariners push for a place alongside the likes of Gateshead, Blyth Spartans, Darlington and Spennymoor Town in the National League North.

Business plans - not just at South Shields but across the non-league pyramid - have been amended after key revenue streams were turned off.

That has not prevented the Mariners move to a full-time model and they officially became the North East’s sixth professional football club last summer after spending one season working with a hybrid model.

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The impact of Covid-19 still lives on and is clear in plain sight with the delayed completion of the club’s new stand.

Things may be moving on - rightly or wrongly - but there can be no doubt the pandemic has changed the world of non-league football ever since that eventful day two years ago.