The inside track on Kevin Phillips' start as South Shields boss after ex-Sunderland striker's appointment
How does a significant change impact on key figures in and around a football club?
Seeing one successful manager depart to be replaced with a high-profile successor would cause a stir at any club, in any country, at any level of the game.
It’s safe to say South Shields’ decision to part ways with Graham Fenton and appoint Sunderland legend Kevin Phillips has provoked an intriguing reaction within the Northern Premier League club and beyond.
Tuesday night’s home game with Witton provided a chance to assess the mood music in the around the club - with the help of Mariners players, coaches, supporters and the pre-match playlist at the 1st Cloud Arena.
‘Don’t stop believin’
The events that had preceded some eight days earlier had polarised opinions amongst the Mariners supporters.
As such, it was hard to gauge the mood upon arrival.
Excitement would be overplaying it slightly, there was certainly no negativity, but perhaps caution had been adopted as the Mariners faithful processed a seismic shift in the dugout.
Fenton had, after all, played a significant role in the rise up the non-league pyramid - delivering two league titles and three cup competitions including a historic 4-0 FA Vase Final win against Cleethorpes Town.
That progress had somewhat stalled at Northern Premier League Premier Division level.
Firstly, through an underwhelming display in a play-off defeat against Warrington Town, and then when a cruel decision to null and void the 2019/20 season denied the club what looked very likely to be a third league title and promotion into the National League North.
Despite undertaking a fourth season in step three, there was still surprise over the move to replace Fenton with Phillips.
Long-term supporter John Melville explained: “I was shocked at first but there were rumours over Christmas.
“I thought we had maybe turned a corner over Christmas with results going our way - so it came as a massive shock.
“Time will tell if it works, but I think the supporters are half and half at the moment to be honest.
“It was a big shock and I think some people are still in the wait and see what happens camp
“It was a great result on Saturday (a 2-1 win at Warrington Town in Phillips first game in charge) and that was what we needed.”
That line of thinking was echoed by the Mariners Podcast’s Chris May, who believes club chairman Geoff Thompson still retains the belief of the majority of supporters.
“I’m enthused, things are improving, and they have been improved since new year really,” said May.
“Things have been flat at home, and there was a noticeable change in the mood on and off the field on Saturday.
“Players looked able to express themselves, there was more tempo and intensity and more direct.
“On the whole, the fanbase are thankful for what Geoff has done and I’d like to think the majority still believe in Geoff.
“There is dissent, some people may be unhappy with what has happened and disagreed, but that happens.”
The decision to part company with Fenton caused shock amongst supporters - and the impact of the move caused similar emotions within the Mariners squad.
For young striker Sam Hodgson, seeing the man he worked under with the club’s academy and first-team depart made a sizeable impression.
He said: “On Sunday, when the news broke, it was difficult, and it took me a day or two to process the fact it had happened and there was a change.
“It’s the first managerial change of my career and the first at this club, but the way the club have handled it has helped us.”
Emotions also ran high for Mariners player-assistant manager Jon Shaw, who was handed his first role in the dugout by Fenton.
After an over-20-year career in the game, it is safe to say Shaw has witnessed his fair share of managerial changes - but seeing a man he worked under and alongside for six years clearly left an emotional scar.
“It was very tough, the Sunday itself, finding out, having a quick chat with Graham and Lee, it was all a bit rushed - but the hardest day was Monday.
“When Graham asked me to be assistant, I was proud and excited and told him I’d do anything I could do to make his job easier so to work side-by-side for 13 months and enjoying the day-to-day involvement, to be there Monday without him, I think people could see my mood was different.
“From our point of view, when there is maybe a lot of opinion, we can’t affect it, the only thing we can control is how we work and help the player stay ready for the next challenge."
On-field preparations ahead of the meeting with Witton were surprisingly low-key.
Phillips wandered onto the pitch for the pre-match warm-up to a light smattering of applause around the early arrivals at the 1st Cloud Arena.
It was no party, this was a work event and there was a very important job to be done in the context of the push for promotion.
It was business as usual.
Shaw and Wess Brown put the Mariners players through their paces as kick-off approached, with Phillips stood yards away, hands in pockets, taking a watching brief.
A possession drill brought applause and words of encouragement from Phillips, with players zipping the ball around the turf in front of their new manager.
Impressing a man that experienced the highest level of the game is high on the agenda for the players he has inherited, explained Shaw.
“You’ve got to be adaptable and test that adaptability working under different people,” he said.
“There have been some conversations with people explaining this is the game, this happens in football.
“I think a lot of people have been excited, it has brought focus on us and you have to use that spotlight that is on us.
“You have to want to impress the new manager, with his great CV, his knowledge, his contacts and his friends in high places.
“It’s a fantastic opportunity.”
The absence of one of Fenton’s final signings left Phillips with a major decision to make on his bow in front of the Mariners faithful.
An easy selection would be to replace striker JJ Hooper with the returning Darius Osei and test the Witton defence with a player well adjusted to life in the Northern Premier League — but Phillips, to the surprise of many, opted to hand Hodgson a rare start.
The youngster shares many of the attributes his manager possessed during a goal-laden career when he found the net with regularity with the likes of Sunderland, Aston Villa, Birmingham City and Crystal Palace.
Both men would get their rewards.
The Mariners were already a goal to the good by the time Hodgson began repaying his new manager’s faith.
After seeing Cedric Main’s early opener cancelled out by a Jesse Dowling free-kick, the Mariners restored their lead eight minutes before half-time as Hodgson came to the fore.
A quick free-kick from Nathan Lowe saw the striker catch the visitors defence unawares before flicking a header inside the far post before taking the claiming a team-mates and supporters alike.
The move to select Hodgson was a surprise, albeit it a pleasant one, and it had paid off.
“It feels like there’s a fresh buzz amongst the players,” explained supporter Darren Tinmouth.
“I really enjoyed seeing the intensity they showed.
“Phillips is also not afraid to make big calls, bringing in Sam Hodgson was a big one, but it’s paid off.”
‘Listen to the Man'
Hodgson would strike once again - and again it was a goal that his manager would have relished.
Far from being spectacular, the young hitman fired home from close-range after Blair Adams saw his cross-shot parried by visitors keeper Greg Hall.
A typical striker’s goal - some would say.
It was enough to see off a brave and bold Witton side - and it left the two-goal hero eager to learn more from his new manager.
Speaking after the game, Hodgson said: “It’s one of them where he said he needed a bold chairman to throw him into his first job in management - and I needed him to be bold and give me a chance.
“I think I’ve paid him back with those goals tonight.
“They are the best type of goals for a striker because everyone says you’re just in the right place at the right time, but it’s a knack, you know where you need to be and I knew where it was going to land.
“It shows with a bit of luck and hard work but I have a lot to learn from him and I ready to take in what he can show me.”
If Hodgson is relishing the opportunity to work under his new manager, supporter Stu Rounthwaite insisted the feeling should be a mutual one.
“It was written in the stars that Sam would score given the chance, and lo and behold he did.
“I think Phillips will love moulding Hodgson into the finished product.”
‘Just what I needed’
There had been two airings of the ‘Super Kevin Phillips’ chant that regularly reverberated around the Stadium of Light almost 20 years earlier.
But a third would arrive moments after full-time as Phillips, his players and coaching staff took the acclaim of the majority of the 1st Cloud Arena time in the aftermath of a fourth consecutive win.
Taking a step back, once again, and allowing his players to take the majority of the applause, Phillips could reflect on a largely positive opening to his career in the dugout.
“What has struck me, both at Warrington and against Witton, is the intensity has risen,” said supporter Geoff Main.
“The confidence has risen too.
“Is that an indicator that things have changed for the better? Perhaps.
“But it also illustrates a different management style which this squad of players have reacted better to.
“I’m saying that without wanting to take anything away from Fents.”
Rounthwaite took a slightly different perspective.
“I’ve had a feeling over the past few days that today would be a bit of a nervous night for everyone.
“Nobody wanted to lose in front of a massive midweek crowd with it being Phillips’ first home game.
“I thought they were a bag of nerves at times, and I think the occasion may have affected us a bit.”
‘Hate to say I told you so’
No matter how it was achieved, the win felt significant and the buzz in and around the 1st Cloud Arena notable by its return.
The three points will not necessarily be season-defining, but they did prevent doubters having their first opportunity to point fingers following a decision that polarised opinions.
There will be opportunities in the future - no club can win every game after all.
But for Shaw, it is about rallying behind the new manager and ensuring minds remain focused, especially with a top of the table clash with leaders Matlock Town quickly arriving.
“For Kevin, myself and Wess, our biggest job is to manage expectation,” said Shaw.
“Yes, there will be expectation and naysayers - but that’s what happens when your club grows.
“When I first came here there were 600 to 1,000 coming here and just before Kevin came in, the gates were tipping 2,000.
“The naysayers will get louder externally from the club, that happens, it’s football, you have to learn to deal with that.
“From our point of view, when there maybe a lot of opinion, we have to manage how they get on with it.
“The only people to listen to is the manager and the staff.”
There is a sharp exhaling of breath as Phillips prepares to assess his side’s performance.
Sat deep in the annals of the 1st Cloud Arena, the Mariners boss remains as composed as he was for the vast majority of the 90 minutes that had preceded.
There is honesty, satisfaction and a reality check all delivered within minutes.
“It’s certainly been an eye-opener,” admitted the former England striker.
“The stress levels have surprised me, but winning your first two games is always a good thing because there is a mentality within the game that people will jump on you when you fail.
“That’s football - but the players have been fantastic and they have reacted well to what has happened.
“They reacted well to setbacks in the game too.
“The message is keep going, we all make mistakes, but it’s just about the reaction, it’s as simple as that.
“They are pushing each other, they are supporting each other, and their character was excellent.
“We know we are going to have to play a lot better on Saturday - but we are more than capable of doing it.
“The challenge is simple for us - can we win five on the bounce and can we move to the top of the league?
“It would be a great achievement but we know it’s a very big test for us.”
The focus has already turned towards Matlock, where the Mariners manager will hope to get another tune out of his players in a bid to reach the top of the charts.
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