Coronavirus apocalypse? The day South Shields' Mariners Park became a football Mecca, a beacon of hope in the gloom

Joy, hugs. Fancy dress and inflatables. Alan Shearer and a Poznan. Goals, chants and banter.

Sunday, 15th March 2020, 9:22 am
Updated Monday, 16th March 2020, 5:01 pm

"This could be Rotterdam or anywhere, Liverpool or Rome" – well, maybe not with the football world in lock down.

This was Mariners Park, South Shields - Simonside to be precise. And it did play host to fans from Rotterdam and Liverpool - as yet, none confirmed from Rome (I'm not talking COVID-19) – as the Mariners, with FC United of Manchester, became the only football show in town.

Serie A, La Liga, the Premier League, the Football League, even the two other leagues at Shields' level, all put their 2019/20 season on hold while the spread-like-wildfire coronovirus, declared a pandemic last week, put the UK, and the world, into panic mode.

Fan Pics, South Shields Fc. 5-3 F C United of Manchester Northern Premier League 14-03-2020. Picture by FRANK REID

Some have called the Northern Premier League's decision to allow matches to go ahead as 'irresponsible', but try telling that to 3,274, including 600 away fans, who packed the park to likely signal the end of football in this country as we know it for quite some time.

If you get your news primarily through social media, you'd have been expecting an apocalyptic scene at Shields on Saturday. Fear has been stoked, justifiably, or unjustly so.

But far from a wash-out, the expected crowd of 2,000-plus swelled beyond even the most optimistic predictions as Feyenoord fans flocked and Newcastle season-ticket holders switched. Fans more akin with Swansea City, Consett, West Bromwich Albion, Blyth Spartans, Sunderland, Nottingham Forest, Everton and beyond used Mariners as a footballing Mecca.

If Mariners Park could have held 10,000 on Saturday, I've no doubt it would have been full. It might well one day.

Bali Mumba celebrates scoring the fifth goal in South Shields' 5-3 win over FC United of Manchester.

The World Health Organisation would have kittens – who I don't think can contract COVID-19 – if they saw the scenes from the match, but football, even in humanity's darkest hour, has the inexplicable ability to unite and excite.

Never mind banned human contact, lads linked arms in jest and turned their backs on the game, a clear, drunkenly-executed nod to the Manchester City Poznan. An obvious poke at the Mancunians opposite them, as you were.

When all five goals went in, hugs and shoves were everywhere – I think the kids call it 'limbs' these days.

When offered an 'arm tap' post-match, skipper Jon Shaw replied with "don't be daft, I'm not in to all that" and offered the hand.

Fan Pics, South Shields Fc. 5-3 F C United of Manchester Northern Premier League 14-03-2020. Picture by FRANK REID

Fans were dressed up in drag, some with fishing rods, one with a magician's hat. A man walked the length of the main stand holding an inflatable pig aloft, singing at the top of his voice.

The away fans, probably on Tyneside for the first time since Matty Longstaff put them to the sword in 2019, sang "cheer up Alan Shearer", who has been living in the heads of Mancunians rent free since 1996.

This was a ground full of life, celebrating eight wonderful goals, a 12-point lead at the top and a little bit of sporting history, not one sounding the inevitable death knell of a campaign.

It would be a travesty if Shields are not allowed to finish the job they’ve started and come within touching distance of completing, a one which looked certain to end in promotion, one more step on the way back to the Football League. But we live in unprecedented times. And unprecedented actions are called for.

The league looks certain to postpone games at a special meeting tomorrow, and as a result, having seemingly grabbed the bull by the horns this season, as they failed to do so last, the power might well be cruelly snatched away from the hands of Graham Fenton and Lee Picton, who have expertly navigated their side to the summit, only to see a landslide take the ground from beneath their feet.

If the Premier League award Liverpool the title, who could argue South Shields, hammering the side in second on the day and well clear at the top, do not deserve the same? They do. But their fate is in the lap of the footballing gods.

Whatever cards COVID-19 has to deal us in the coming, weeks and months, is anyone's guess. Call it naive, call it reckless, call it what you will, South Shields and the Northern Premier League did nothing wrong in putting this game on. They simply followed the guidance of people who should know best, the experts, government, their advisors.

You, nor I, know the answers, so for now let's just take the (current) words of the medical and scientific experts and enjoy what was a footballing delight, a fantastic advert for the sport in the region and a real beacon of hope in all the gloom.

The footballing door may be about to be closed on us all, but one day we will get this back again. And this game, the atmosphere, the camaraderie, the spirit, is definitely worth waiting for, however long the blackout may be.

This was no act of stupidity or misplaced defiance in the face of a serious crisis, as some people in social media ivory towers would have you believe, this was an example of people just getting on, something we all need to do, no matter the circumstances. We know no other way.