'That is our intention' - South Shields chairman Geoff Thompson reveals all about full-time move, exciting plans and National League ambitions
South Shields chairman Geoff Thompson cut a relaxed figure as he settled in to discuss the latest significant development in his time at the club.
His mood and behaviour, even from the other end of a Zoom chat, are a complete contrast to the hive of activity that their 1st Cloud Arena home has become over the last fortnight.
Off-field changes, new planning applications and ground improvements have all been on the agenda as The Mariners look to continue their push towards the top two tiers of non-league football and beyond.
Perhaps their most significant move came within the last seven days when it was announced that the club would move on from a hybrid model of part-time and full-time players and complete the transition to a full-time status.
The move – which will be formalised ahead of the 2021/22 season – will mean that the Mariners will join Newcastle United, Middlesbrough, Sunderland, Hartlepool United and Gateshead to become the North East’s sixth full-time professional football club.
That is all a far cry from the not-so-distant past when the likes of David Fall, Gary Crutwell, Bob Scott, Phil Reay and Richard Bailey battled to keep the club alive prior to Thompson’s arrival in May 2015.
Since then, the Mariners have gone from strength to strength and the move to a full-time status marks the beginning of an exciting new chapter in Thompson’s tenure.
The Mariners supremo reveals that he has been enthused by the challenges that lie ahead and stressed the motivation of key figures around the club as the main cause of his determination to secure more on and off-field success.
He told The Gazette: “I have learnt a lot since I came to the club in 2015, I have made lots of mistakes as well.
“Without sounding too patronising or speaking in cliches, it’s about getting the right people around you.
“I feel like we have done that, and we have a good team of people pushing the club forwards.
“Obviously, there is Lee Picton, who has a very important role, then there is Graham Fenton and Keith Finnigan.
“These people have their heart and soul in the club and there are the original lads that kept the club alive before 2015.
“We never forget their hard work and dedication; they are why we keep striving to move forwards.
“We have a good group of people guiding the club, we have committed sponsors and that makes me even more determined to succeed for them and for the supporters and the town.
“It’s incredible how they have responded, so we have this momentum, and the enthusiasm is still there.
“None of that has been lost and it is easy to demonstrate the same behaviours because everyone around me is displaying those in abundance.”
The timing of the transition has been questioned in some circles as football clubs at all levels continue to contend with the financial implications of the Covid-19 epidemic.
But the move falls in line with a clear objective of reaching the National League North and setting potential North East derbies with the likes of Blyth Spartans, Darlington, Gateshead and Spennymoor Town.
The last two years have seen the Mariners plans to secure more promotions put on hold by a play-off defeat against Warrington Town and the Football Association’s decision to bring an early end to last season and the current campaign.
All eyes are now focused on putting themselves in the best possible position to challenge for a fourth promotion of Thompson’s time at the club and to moving South Shields to within two steps of bringing Football League status to the town for the first time since 1930.
“We put ourselves under pressure by stating that we want promotion and announcing the move to full-time football,” admitted Thompson.
“So that sets expectations for the supporters and it sets expectations for us too.
“We know that some people will be delighted if we fall short in reaching that target.
“But we are doing all we can, we narrowly missed out over the last couple of years, and we would love to get into the National League North.
“At that point, there will be new challenges, but we think we are well equipped to meet them head on.”
The scheduled start of the 2021/22 Northern Premier League season in August could see supporters return to the 1st Cloud Arena for the first time in almost a year.
They will return to witness a number of eye-catching changes to their home ground as ground improvements gathering pace throughout the summer.
The move to professional status means more investment in the Mariners playing squad as Graham Fenton takes charge of a full-time squad for the first time – but Thompson is equally excited by the investment that is taking place away from the pitch throughout the coming months.
“We have a new training facility at Harton and Westoe Miners Welfare that we jointly run with our foundation and the welfare.
“We are investing further in the 1st Cloud Arena, we will continue to invest in the squad and we are continuing to invest in the academy.
“What we are trying to do is invest in the infrastructure at our ground and we have an application in to build a new stand with 1,000 seats and catering facilities.
“It’s another example of us trying to improve what we do, it’s an important element of the future for us.
“So, there is a lot of positive things going on and taking them all into consideration, there is no reason why South Shields can’t compete at National League level and above – that is our intention.”