Big Interview: Robert Briggs
Robert Briggs has told of his pride as he prepares to lead South Shields out at a new-look 1st Cloud Arena in the 2021-22 season.
Captain Briggs signed a two-year contract extension – which includes an option for a further 12 months – on Thursday to end speculation over his future.
The 29-year-old was able to commit to the club’s full-time training regime thanks to the flexibility of his other employer, who he paid tribute to after putting pen to paper.
With 280 appearances already under his belt across two spells, Briggs is the longest-serving player in the current Shields squad and his excitement is palpable ahead of the new campaign.
Not only do the Mariners have the bit between their teeth after two frustratingly curtailed seasons, they also have the tantalising prospect of walking out at what will feel in many ways like a new home.
Improvements have already been made to 1st Cloud Arena, with the area around the pitch having been tarmacked, a new pitchside fence set to be installed and a covered stand having been introduced behind the goal at the factory end of the ground.
Planning permission has now been obtained for the erection of a main stand adjacent to Shaftesbury Avenue which will seat more than 900 spectators, and having been starved of football over recent months, Briggs feels the players – and fans – will be chomping at the bit once pre-season arrives.
“It’s really exciting,” he said. “It feels like we’ve been building up to this point as a club for a couple of years.
“I’m sure everyone will be itching to watch non-league football again, especially when you see some of the things that have happened in the higher levels over the last few months.
“When the fans come back in there will be a totally different feel around the place.
“The atmosphere will be so much better with the ground being more enclosed, and that will lift both sets of players each week.
“I’ll be massively proud to lead the team out at such an incredible facility.”
Briggs first played for Shields as a teenager before returning in 2015 following spells with the likes of Gateshead, Shildon and West Auckland Town.
His second stint in claret and blue began in Division Two of the Northern League, and although it was the club’s ambition which prompted him to drop two divisions to join the club at the time, the scale of the progress since then has caught even him by surprise.
He added: “Comparing when I first signed here to now, it’s a totally different club.
“When you look at it right now it’s like a building site, but you can see where it’s going to go.
“You almost can’t remember what it was like before unless you look at the pictures.
“There has been a massive amount of changes, and that has been backed up by the progress on the pitch.
“It’s really good to see the club going from strength to strength off the pitch, and now we have to continue performing on it.”
Briggs was appointed Shields captain in December 2020 after Jon Shaw progressed into his role as joint assistant manager alongside his playing duties.
The midfielder has a strong bond with his team-mates and there is little doubt that, combined with the support of the management team and fans, they played a major part in his decision to sign a new contract.
Briggs said: “That was another massive factor in why I wanted to stay.
“As a player I’ve done a lot here but as captain I really want to push on even more.
“I had a lot of conversations with the lads over the last few weeks and the feedback from them was that they really wanted me to stay.
“They’ve trusted me and wanted me to be their captain. Hopefully I can do the job as well as the great captains I’ve worked under here over the years.
“Shawsy brought a wealth of experience to the role, Julio (Arca) had played at the highest level and Scroggs (Leepaul Scroggins) epitomises everything to do with South Shields.
“I want to take aspects from the way all three of them captained the team and utilise the skills they showed as best I can.
“The fanbase have also been amazing with me and were another massive reason behind me signing this new deal.”
It’s easy to forget that when Graham Fenton and Lee Picton took over as joint managers of the Mariners in September 2016, they inherited a Robert Briggs who was out of the Shields team in Division One of the Northern League.
The turnaround since then, with Briggs establishing himself as a mainstay and key reference point of the team, has been remarkable.
Looking back at the tough moments he endured, Briggs explained: “It was a really difficult time, and there were a few of us in the same situation including Dillon Morse and Wayne Phillips.
“I remember having a conversation when I talked about going out on loan because I wasn’t playing.
“For me, the timing of Lee and Graham becoming joint managers couldn’t have worked out better because they put their faith in me straightaway.
“I scored a hat-trick in their first or second game and from there, our relationship got better and better and my performances continued to improve.
“They have both done a massive amount to help me improve as a player.”
Briggs will now benefit from additional training sessions each week as he joins Shields’ full-time training regime.
He admits that he had thought his days of full-time training were long behind him, and is determined to make the most of the opportunity granted to him.
He added: “One of the most difficult things to keep on top of as a part-time player was fitness, because I really had to put the effort in on those non-training days alongside the hours I was putting in at work.
“Now I’ll be training pretty much every day and my fitness will improve naturally with that.
“I’ll have more time to focus on the aspects of my game I want to improve and all of the players will be pushing each other to get to our highest levels and help the club kick on again.”
Briggs was one of Shields’ standout performers in the all-too-short 2020-21 season, the highlight of which saw the club reach the first round of the Emirates FA Cup.
The Mariners have not played a competitive game since their Buildbase FA Trophy exit at Ashton United in December, and the moment they return to the pitch cannot come a minute too soon for the captain.
He said: “I can’t wait to get going again.
“I’ve done a lot of running and gym work to try to keep fit and keep sane. That has been massive for my mental health.
“When I eventually get back in and get everything going, it will be a big relief.
“The biggest relief though will be when we start playing games and the fans are back in cheering us on.
“We’ve seen how important the fans are, not just for South Shields but for football as a whole.”
When asked to pick out his three favourite memories as a Shields player – and there were plenty to choose from – Briggs opted for the incredible squad achievement of winning four trophies in the 2016-17 season, the Wembley experience of 2017 and rejoining the club in 2015.
As he prepares to lead the side out as captain in 2021-22, though, he will be determined to make sure that the best moments are yet to come.