Graham Fenton has called on his players to be show-offs – and play with the ‘ridiculous’ confidence he enjoyed on his first Wembley trip.
South Shields venture on to the hallowed turf tomorrow to take on Cleethorpes in the FA Vase Final.
For joint boss Fenton, it will continue an extraordinary relationship he’s had with Wembley since he burst on to the footballing scene as a raw 19-year-old with Aston Villa.
Back in 1994, after a just four games in the Villains’ first team, he was thrust into the starting line-up for the League Cup Final against the mighty Manchester United, helping his side to lift the trophy with a 3-1 success.
Since then, Wembley has played a major role in his career. After a £1million move to Leicester, he played in almost every round of their run to the League Cup Final in 2000 but missed out on a place in the squad for the Wembley showpiece against Tranmere Rovers.
Two years ago he was back at Wembley, however, lifting the Vase as manager of North Shields, and knows the highs and lows of big games at the stadium. But it’s the positives of his first trip that he hopes to pass on to the Shields stars tomorrow.
“We have to go in with self-belief and go and be a show-off,” Fenton said. “It’s about doing the right things but also showing people how good we are. I want to see a little bit of exhibitionism.
“I had been away with West Brom on loan and came back and got stuck into the Villa first team. I played three games and then was in the team at Wembley.
“It was ridiculous, as a 19-year-old up against the likes of Roy Keane and Paul Ince – and I thought I was better than them! You have to think that you won’t be intimidated by people on the big occasion.
“That’s the beauty of being young, the naivety. I had real confidence in myself. There were no nerves.
“The only strange bit was, at the old Wembley, you walked out of the tunnel at the far end and that whole half of the pitch was Man United fans and all you could hear was their singing. Our fans were at the far end and it wasn’t until we got down to the halfway line that we could hear them. It was a weird experience.
“I was the 17th man (in 2000) and it’s not a great feeling when you’re not part of the squad.
“The emotions when you are left out of the squad are very difficult but it’s part of the game. I have been through it on both sides. I had the euphoria of being chosen in front of a lot of experienced players but I’ve also tasted the other side.”
That experience with Leicester will be firm in his mind when, along with fellow boss Lee Picton, he has to tell members of the Shields squad they are not involved in the 16-man matchday squad.
Three players look set to miss out, depending on the fitness of right-back Craig Baxter, who is waiting to see if his broken wrist has healed enough in time to play.
“It’s not nice being part of that process,” Fenton admitted. “But you have to make the decision as a coach or manager.
“In training, pretty much everyone has been fit and healthy though we have to see what Backa is going to be like.”
Tough decisions will have to be made, however, just as they were in 2015 when he left Adam Forster out of the starting line-up for North Shields.
That experience, his first as a manager at Wembley, has stood him in good stead as well, however, though Fenton admits the run with the Mariners has been a different propsition to how it was with his old club.
“Two years ago we weren’t really expected to do much in the competition,” he admitted. “We were 66-1 at the start of the competition but this year, with what has gone on in the last couple of years, South Shields were one of the favourites.
“It’s been different in terms of the expectation but we have to deal with it.
“They (North Shields) didn’t play their natural game in the first half, it was a very tentative first 45 minutes. We had a chat at half time about being afraid of the occasion and making the most of it.”
South Shields have prepared well thanks to some help from the big two North East teams over the last two weeks, and Fenton’s old club Villa who will lend their training ground today for a last session.
“We’re really appreciative of the support that Sunderland, Newcastle and Aston Villa have given us,” Fenton added.
“We have got our 3G training pitch but when you are going into a game at Wembley, you want to play on really good grass surfaces and that will be five sessions on the spin we will have had. Hopefully it stands us in good stead.”