April 8 has a certain significance for Graham Fenton.
It was the date, back in 1996, that he first sprung to real prominence, stepping off the bench at Ewood Park as a Blackburn Rovers player to all but kill off Newcastle United’s Premier League title hopes with a late double to condemn his boyhood club to a 2-1 defeat.
Twenty one years later, to the exact day, Fenton was back facing a club close to his heart, again playing a key role in surely ending their hopes of lifting a league championship.
This time, he was up against North Shields, the club he helped put back on the football map by taking them from the depths of the Northern League Division Two, to Wembley winners in the FA Vase.
The game between North Shields and Fenton’s new club, South Shields, may not have had the profile of that infamous night in Lancashire two decades ago, but in non-league terms, this was a huge game.
And for the Mariners, a 31st successive victory (unofficially a world record) sent them above their rivals on goal difference – and more importantly, secured promotion to the Evo-Stik League.
Forget Wembley. Forget cup finals or even the league title. When Fenton had made the short trip through the Tyne Tunnel to join Lee Picton as joint manager at South Shields just weeks into the season, that had been the No 1 priority.
“We’re delighted at getting our first goal of the season in the bag,” smiled Fenton afterwards. “That was a tough game.
“I have to thank the lads for digging in at the end as I would have got a lot of stick from the North Shields fans.”
Having been informed just hours before kick-off that Mariners Park had passed the ground inspection for the Evo-Stik League, South Shields knew a win would guarantee the top three finish they needed to clinch promotion.
It was achieved thanks to David Foley’s 23rd-minute screamer, the only goal of a niggly affair which often failed to produce the kind of football you’d associate from a top of the table clash.
South Shields’ cause wasn’t helped by playing the last 30 minutes with 10 men after Julio Arca was sent off. The experienced Argentinian, already booked just a few minutes earlier, committed a silly foul 25 yards from goal and was shown a second yellow card.
Arca looks set to miss the last league game of the season against Guisborough, but with his side now level on points at the top of Division One with two games in hand, the title will more than likely have been sewn up by then.
He will also probably miss the Durham Challenge Cup final against Billingham Synthonia, but crucially will still be eligible for the FA Vase Final at Wembley on May 21.
Until his dismissal, the Mariners had been cruising. Foley, back in the starting XI after injury, showed his big-game worth when he picked up the ball 25 yards out and sent a swerving, dipping effort over a stranded Kyle Hayes.
There was 1,575 crammed into the Daren Person Stadium, but the home fans among the contingent had little to shout about with Foley almost doubling the lead just before half-time, only for David Lancaster to hook his effort off the line.
They were more of a threat after Arca’s red card. Within two minutes, Forster had an effort deflected over before Kevin Hughes – who scored the winner the last time the two sides met (also the last time South Shields were beaten) – failed to convert from a set-piece.
The Mariners still looked a threat and from a corner of their own, Donnison scrambled off the line as Louis Storey looked set to score.
North Shields pressed in the last 10 minutes, and Gareth Bainbridge curled a free kick just over the bar, but with Jon Shaw and Craig Baxter magnificent in defence, goalkeeper Liam Connell was barely troubled and the celebrations among the South Tyneside contingent could begin.
South Shields: Connell, Baxter, Lough, Morse (Nicholson), Shaw, Arca, Briggs, Phillips, Stephenson (Finnigan), Cogdon (Storey), Foley. Not used: Smith, Callaghan.