Graham Fenton believes South Shields’ fans could make difference as the Mariners take on Mickleover

Manager Graham Fenton believes South Shields’ fans could make the difference as the Mariners make their long-awaited return to league action on Saturday.

Shields are at home to Mickleover in their first competitive game since last December as they look to demonstrate their promotion credentials from the off.

Each of the Mariners’ last two campaigns in the Northern Premier League have been prematurely ended because of the pandemic, and this will now be their fourth consecutive season at this level.

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Much has changed off the pitch since they last took to the pitch for a competitive encounter, with the development of 1st Cloud Arena having continued at pace and the first-team having progressed to a full-time training model.

South Shields in action during pre-season - photo by Kev Wilson.

After a bright pre-season which saw them win five of their seven fixtures, Shields are feeling in good shape heading into the match.

Fenton though is expecting a difficult encounter with a Mickleover side which was top of the table when last season was curtailed, despite an opening day defeat at Shields.

He said: “It’s hugely exciting to be returning to competitive football and all the players are eager to get back out there.

“This will be the first league match we’ve played without crowd limits related to the pandemic since March 2020 and we know what a difference our brilliant supporters can make, so we can’t wait for the game to come around.

“We go into it feeling generally happy with how things went in pre-season and the different problems we were able to solve.

“There were some inconsistencies, but that was fully expected because of the lack of game-time the lads had experienced over the previous eight months. We’re confident that rustiness is gone now.

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“We’re expecting a highly competitive encounter against a team which had a very impressive start to last season, so it should be an interesting first test for us.”

Shields fans could catch a glimpse of new signings Conor Tee, Ntumba Massanka, Will McGowan and Jack Bodenham, all of whom joined the club in the summer.

Fenton says “one or two” others could arrive in the coming weeks, with the Mariners remaining patient in their pursuit of arrivals as they seek to find the right balance for their squad.

He has praised his players for the way they committed to the work laid out for them in pre-season, and now admits everyone involved feels a level of responsibility to deliver for the supporters.

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Fenton added: “It’s such a relief to have competitive football to look forward to again after what has obviously been a hugely challenging period for everyone in society.

“Now we’re hopefully getting back to some sort of normality, we feel it’s almost a responsibility of ours to bring some joy into the lives of people who have had it tough over the last 18 months. We’ll be giving it everything we’ve got to do that.

“The players have worked exceptionally hard in pre-season and I’d like to personally thank them for all the effort they have put in. Hopefully we will reap the rewards of that hard work.”

Kick-off is at 3pm and the turnstiles will open at 12.30pm. Tickets will remain available to purchase from Shields’ website until 12pm on the day of the game, but supporters can also pay at the gate at prices of £10 for adults, £8 for concessions and £3 for under-16s.

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Supporters have been encouraged to remain at the ground after the game to enjoy live music from the band Bottle Rocket in the marquee as they seek to create a party atmosphere for football’s return.

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