South Shields joint managers Graham Fenton and Lee Picton, along with managing director Michael Orr, held a question and answer session with supporters late last month.
The SSFC Members’ Club event took place on February 23, and was hosted by Nathan Reed.
Below is a full transcript from the evening.
Q and A with South Shields FC joint manager Lee Picton (LP), joint manager Graham Fenton (GF) and managing director Michael Orr (MO) at Mariners Park.
Question: Things are going well at the moment and we’re on target for promotion. Should all go to plan and we are promoted to the Evo-Stik League, what can we expect?
LP: We’re certainly thinking ahead, but we’re not thinking it’s a given that we’re going to get there. There’s still a lot of work for us to do in the league this season. As far as I’m concerned – and I’m sure it will be the same for Graham – I wake up every morning and have that natural fear as a manager that it might not happen. That’s a healthy fear, and I’d rather have that than be the other way round, thinking we’ve cracked it. I wake up every morning feeling like that. It drives us on to always keep our standards high.
If we do win promotion, lots of things would need to be put in place. From our perspective, it’s most importantly about the playing side. To be honest, it’s a really tricky one at the moment, because we’ve got so many big games in front of us that it’s a question of whether you want to deflect focus away from that by talking at length about what’s going to happen next season. It’s a Catch-22 situation, because leave it too late and you run the risk of not having enough time to get prepared if a few players are not able to take that step with you next year. It’s really tough to find the right balance. We’re looking to get to that point where we are absolutely 100% guaranteed promotion. As soon as we hit that point we’ll be able to start getting everything tied up for next season.
If we do win promotion and everyone from the current squad can commit, we’re very confident we can go and be really successful again next season. I don’t think there’s a massive difference between the two leagues. The teams in the bottom half of the Evo-Stik North are considerably better than those in the bottom half of the Northern League First Division, from what I’ve seen, but I don’t think there’s a huge difference between the teams at the top of the leagues.
GF: It’s a difficult time of year. We’ve already earmarked a couple of people we would like to speak to at the end of the season. They’re at clubs at the moment so we obviously can’t speak to them yet. This is a difficult period, but Lee hit the nail on the head. We have to wait for the right time, which is when we’re guaranteed promotion. That’s when we’ll be having the conversations with our lads and hopefully one or two people we might look at bringing in.
Question: What contingency plans do we have if Liam Connell is unavailable for whatever reason?
GF: We go back to the decision we had to make between Liam and Joss Carmichael earlier this season. It was a difficult decision, but over time it has been proven right, with the form Liam has shown. We’re constantly looking for that person who can come in as a Number 2. It’s difficult, because in that position you almost have to have a Number 1 and Number 2. Earlier in the season, we had two goalkeepers who wanted to play week-in, week-out, and when that’s the case it can create a bit of unrest. We’re keeping our ear to the ground and are trying to identify the Number 2 so Liam is happy knowing he will probably be playing most games, but we have cover as well.
LP: It’s really difficult to find someone who will be good enough to be here and happy to be a Number 2 goalkeeper. It isn’t easy to find someone who would do that. We have Simon Parkin, our goalkeeping coach, available for selection. Graham had a situation at North Shields where he had one goalkeeper at the club, but also an outfield player, Curtis Coppen, who is a really good goalkeeper. That was the contingency there. We have a similar situation, because Andrew Stephenson is a really good goalkeeper as well. He used to be a goalkeeper, believe it or not. It’s not ideal, but it’s easier said than done to bring someone in who is better than the options we’ve got, and willing to have that label of being a Number 2 goalkeeper.
It’s my first job as a joint manager and you learn as you go along. There are lots of different aspects to this job you have to get your head around and get control of. We’re not sitting here trying to tell anyone that we’ve got everything 100% sewn up. We’re trying to do our best and we feel like things are going well at the moment. We’re not the type of people who will wake up every morning thinking we’ve cracked it. I think that mentality is filtering through to the players. It’s about having humility, drive and determination, no matter where you’ve been before. It’s a drive to be better than you currently are.
Question: Is the club self-sufficient at the moment?
MO: Yes, just about. There has been heavy investment into the infrastructure, and there was a slight deficit in the first year. We’re now on an even keel and should be better than that towards the end of the season.
Question: You mentioned at the last Q&A that promotion was your priority over the FA Vase. Is that still the case?
GF: The whole journey of the Vase has been fantastic, with the whole community coming together. The atmosphere at the Newport Pagnell game was fantastic. Everyone contributed to that performance and it was massively enjoyable for all of us. Hopefully everyone who came to the game enjoyed themselves. We’re hoping that people who went to that game who don’t come to watch us regularly will have got a bit of a taster for the club and want to come back.
However, the priority definitely remains promotion. The Vase is like an added bonus, and we’ve also got two other cups to go at. We might have to rotate the squad as we try to win every competition. Promotion is definitely the priority, though.
LP: At this stage of the season, you can start to compartmentalise the different competitions. At this stage of the Vase, you automatically get a free week before every game in that competition. Because of that, we’re not having to make decisions to balance between the league and Vase. We’ve got a free week running into both legs of the semi-final. I agree with Graham that if you gave us an absolute choice and we had to pick promotion or the Vase, I’d take promotion. However, we’re not having to balance the two against each other. We’ve got a fantastic squad, as everyone knows. We’ve talked at length about utilising the squad, as we did at Newcastle Benfield a couple of weeks ago. Louis Storey was one of those who got some welcome game-time and scored the winner, which was fantastic. I was over the moon for him, because we all know what he has been through over the last three or four months.
GF: We’ve had a few injuries over the last few weeks, including Barrie Smith with his hamstring injury. When he first did it, it looked quite a serious one that might keep him out for five to seven weeks. With the treatment Andy Morris has given him, he should be available for the first leg of the Vase semi-final, as should Stephen Ramsey. When they first suffered the injuries, we might have expected them both to be out for a bit longer, but we’re grateful for the work Andy is putting in and what he does to get players back available as quickly as possible.
Question: How has Jon Shaw settled in at the back?
LP: We’re blessed in terms of technical quality and the quality of characters we have in the squad. When we were here for the last Q&A, a lot of people were pretty unhappy about certain decisions we had made. We felt all of those decisions needed to be made, and the results since then have spoken for themselves. Myself and Graham have worked together for a long time and know how we like to work and who we feel fits into that system. Jon is brilliant, because he’s the sort of person who if you told him to put a pair of gloves on and go in goal, that’s what he’d do. He’s really enjoying playing at the back. He’s an approachable person and he’ll tell you that himself if you talk to him that he’s really happy. He gives us great options. We were toying with playing him up front at Newcastle Benfield recently because of the way the game was. We got the right result, but with hindsight, could have approached it a bit differently. Jon is happy playing at the back and I think he is doing a great job for the club.
GF: As people know, Lee and I work together at Monkseaton as well. Whatever group you have, whether it’s a group of 16 to 18-year-olds or an adult group, your standards are set ultimately by the top of the group. By that I mean your most experienced players and the ones others look up to. We’re hugely blessed with the top of the group we’ve got here. You look at Jon, Julio, Craig Baxter and players like that. They set the right standards whenever we train. They like to have a laugh and joke, but know when to do it. They always set the right standard and get their training and matchday heads on. They’re a pleasure to work with.
Question: How much excitement is there about our prospects in the FA Vase?
LP: First of all, we’ve got a very difficult semi-final to win over two legs. We know, though, that if we got to Wembley it would be incredible. We’ve both had experience of that as either a player or manager. The only thing I’d dread if we did get there would be the team selection. I’ve been there as a player and have seen grown men, including managers and coaching staff, in tears because they know how important it is to the players that are in that squad. That’s part and parcel of the job and you have to make those decisions. If we got there, we’d pick what we consider to be the best side we can for that particular game. There would be players that miss out on not just the starting 11, but the squad. That would be a really tough pill to swallow. Back in 2009 when I was at Whitley Bay, we had Paul Robinson in our squad. He’s one of the most gifted players I played with. If there was one player that you’d think was made for Wembley, it was him. He’s a proper footballer who can make things happen with the ball. He was left on the bench. I saw what that did to him, and it was really tough. Luckily we all got a chance again the following year and he started that time, and scored. I wouldn’t be looking forward to that sort of decision if we got there.
GF: I had experience of that two years ago when I was North Shields manager. I’ve been managing for five-and-a-half years now, and the toughest job I’ve had is telling people they are not in the squad for major finals. Some of them almost feel like they’re left out of things. You try to tell them that you want them to be part of it, but they’re obviously absolutely devastated. It’s really hard to tell someone they’re not going to be playing at Wembley. Again, if we did get there, that would be one aspect I wouldn’t look forward to. I had it twice as a player, where I played in quarter-finals and semi-finals, and was left out for the final. I was devastated and felt completely distraught.
Question: Are there any plans to increase the capacity of Mariners Park for the FA Vase semi-final?
MO: We’ve looked into the possibility of bringing in extra stands for the game. It simply isn’t cost-effective, though. At the last Vase game, we capped it at 3,161, as we are constrained by the facilities we have, but we are looking to get a few more people in safely.
Question: What gives you the greatest pleasure – when your team plays fantastic football and storms to a victory like the one against Newport Pagnell, or have to really dig in to grind a result out like we did at Newcastle Benfield?
LP: If you had seen me in the changing room after the Newcastle Benfield game, you’d know the answer! Myself and Graham work really well together, but we’re different personalities. I was raging back in the dressing room, to be honest. We had a quick discussion about how we were going to approach it with the players, and I elected to say nothing in the end, which was the right thing to do. Graham advised me to do that, and he addressed the players. I’ve always said to the players that I’ve always been the kind of person that will try to reflect and give feedback to them based on performance rather than result. Personally, I think that is the fairest way to do it. You can play fantastically well but lose, and vice versa.
Sometimes, though – and I said this to Barrie Smith in the clubhouse after the game – I have to remember myself what it was like to be a player. That’s one of the biggest faults with a lot of managers. They forget what it was like as a player. As a player, if you win a game and battle to a victory that you perhaps didn’t deserve, the last thing you want when you come back in is a dressing down from the manager. Graham kept it positive and that was the right thing to do. I enjoyed the Newport Pagnell game far more than the Newcastle Benfield one. It was a tremendous occasion. We desperately wanted to perform well in front of a full house, and we did that. The momentum it can give the club is brilliant. People go away and tell their friends, and they tell someone else. But to get back to your question, I definitely enjoyed the Newport Pagnell game more.
GF: I have to agree. The Newport Pagnell game was an amazing day all round. The performance and the goals were brilliant. We were just stood back on the sidelines watching in amazement at some of the goals. I definitely preferred that game. In terms of how you address the players after a game, it’s all about picking the right times to do certain things. We know we didn’t perform very well at Newcastle Benfield, as do the players. A lot of that was contributed to by the pitch. It was one of those testing moments, because we said before the game that the conditions were not great and it was going to be difficult. It was all about getting the result ultimately. As poor as we were, ultimately the players got the job done. It wasn’t great to watch, but in its own way, it’s pleasing when you win games differently. They had to roll their sleeves up and dig deep. We just kept going, and Louis popped up with the goal. In its own way, it was satisfying, although not as pleasing on the eye.
Sometimes, the performance of the team will be really good overall, but some things happen in the game that you won’t accept. You have to find the right time to bring the lads down to earth sometimes. We’re both young managers and learning. We try to bounce ideas off each other about how we’re going to approach things. We spend a lot of time together in our day jobs as well so we have plenty of opportunities to discuss things. Hopefully we’re getting most of the decisions right at the moment.
Question: If a club higher up the pyramid came in for one of our players, how would we deal with that?
LP: It’s our job, along with Mike, to make sure that the key players at the club are contracted and tied to the club. I think South Shields is a fantastic place to be for any non-league player right now. It’s no secret that we can pay the players well for this level of football. Most of the players have jobs away from here too. I heard a discussion along similar lines on talkSPORT recently. They were talking to a football agent who predominantly works with lower league and non-league players. He was saying that it’s extremely difficult to get players at a club like ours, or slightly higher up the pyramid, to take that step up because in a lot of cases, they would be financially worse off. It’s a common misconception that if you’re a professional footballer, you’ll be loaded. That’s not the case at many clubs, particularly in the National League and League Two. A decision like that also comes down to age, responsibilities and other factors in their lives. They would also be likely to be offered a one or two-year contract, and anything could happen at the end of that. In a weird way, you want that attention from those clubs in your players because it shows you’re doing something right. At this club, we can offer the players a fantastic opportunity to maintain the lifestyle they enjoy now, and play a good standard of football at a club which is aiming to go somewhere.
GF: It depends on the individual. Some of them would prefer to go and take less money and play professionally, and have more time on their hands. Other lads would prefer to play part-time and take a job to earn more money that way. As Lee said, we will be trying to tie down our key players for next year and add one or two who we feel would add to what we’ve got.
Question: What do you make of the standard of refereeing in the Northern League?
LP: Refereeing is a really tough job, and I don’t think I would like to do it. Everyone gets really frustrated sometimes at certain decisions, but it’s easy to criticise from the sidelines, just as it is in the professional game when you’re watching on TV. My perspective is that I don’t see the value in losing energy by criticising referees from the touchline – although you might have seen it from me once or twice! You’ve got to try to focus as much as possible on the things you can control, like your team. That’s the way I try to go. I try not to get involved with the officials. After a game, I’ve never confronted a referee either, because there’s very little value in that.
GF: It’s a really tough job. Like Lee, I certainly wouldn’t like to do it. A big part of the reason why you don’t get many former professional footballers going into refereeing is because they realise how tough it is.
LP: We’ve got good players at the club, but they’re not the best players in the world. It’s the same with referees. We’re not going to get referees of Mark Clattenburg’s standard, because we’re not playing in the Premier League. You’ve got to take the rough with the smooth.
Question: You mentioned earlier that you’re looking at players for next season. Without naming names, do you think you’ll be bringing in players from the Evo-Stik, higher, or the Northern League?
GF: They’ll be players we’ve seen at different levels over the years and been impressed by. It’s not just a playing thing. It’ll be about their attitude and personality as well. Will they fit into the dressing room, our style of play, attitude, can we trust them? Those are the questions we’ll be asking. We have the same principles and beliefs about the game. We’ll certainly do our digging before we bring anyone into the club.
LP: If all of our current squad are willing to commit, there will be very few changes we need to make ahead of next season. When we took over, there was a lot of talk about a revolving door at the club. We made the changes we felt we needed to make to get things right, as any management team worth their salt would do. We won’t need to make many changes if all of our players are willing to commit, should we win promotion. I’m convinced we have enough quality in the squad to be successful next season, whichever division we’re in.
Question: Will all of the players be contracted next season?
LP: There’s no rule that they have to be, in the Northern League or Evo-Stik. Some players have reasons why they don’t want to be contracted. Everyone has their own views. You can’t force a player to sign a contract.
Question: We would be quite geographically isolated if we went into the Evo-Stik – how much of a challenge would that present?
GF: We can see from the teams in the league this season that there would need to be a lot of travelling. There’s a lot of talk about away midweek fixtures, but if you look at it, there are only likely to be five or six of them in a season. You’d hope to have more local midweek fixtures, perhaps at places like Leeds. If a player says that he might have to miss two or three games because of work, we can handle it. If it’s 15 games or something like that, we’d have to seriously think about it. It will just be about the circumstances of the individual. We’ll talk to all the players about their situation and take it from there, and that will be the same for any players we’re interested in bringing in. There’d be no point bringing in a player we both like and feel can strengthen the team if he can only be there for 50% of the games.
LP: We’ve done that with the players we’ve brought in so far. One of the first questions we asked them when we were in talks with them was, ‘If we progress to the next level, would you be in a position to follow us on that journey?’
Question: Would you like Julio Arca to still be in the squad next season?
LP: We’d love to have Julio here next season. We know he has other commitments in his life. We haven’t had a direct conversation with him or any of the players yet. We’ll have to cross that bridge when we come to it.
Question: We’re all hoping Julio will stay on for at least another year or two. When the day comes that he retires, though, do you think there could be a role for him at the club?
LP: Absolutely. Everyone can see the impact Julio has had at this club. He’s an absolute pleasure to work with for myself, Graham and Martin Scott. When he feels his playing days are over, we’ve got to explore that possibility of how we can utilise people like him to add value to what we’re doing. We’d be foolish not to at the very least explore that. Beyond his playing days, Julio could be a huge asset to the club in some capacity.
GF: Julio is hugely valuable to what we’re doing. He’s a fantastic footballer still, and that’s the main of it. In terms of his attitude, application and personality around the dressing room too, he’s massive for us. He’s someone we want around as long as possible at the club.
Question: What is the current situation with Iulian Petrache?
LP: He’s still serving a six-match suspension. We first had him at the club in pre-season but he had to go back to Romania for a few months. When he first came back, we aimed to help him get match fit by playing a game or two for the reserves. He was sent off for the reserves and received a six-game ban. He played for the first-team against Penrith before that suspension kicked in. Unfortunately, he’s banned for six reserves games, so they have to play six times before he’s eligible for us again. Wearside League teams only play once a week at this time of year and the reserves have also had a couple of postponements, so it has been an extended period out for Iulian. He’ll be a welcome addition when that ban is over. Those who were at the Penrith game will have seen the qualities he has, as would those who saw him in pre-season in the tournament in Gretna. He has very good pedigree and will add to our squad, especially with the number of games we have in the run-in. He’ll be a big asset to us.
GF: It’s disappointing to not have Iulian available. I’ve been impressed with the way he has handled his suspension. He’s been at every training session and game, making sure he keeps himself fit. He has even done a few sessions with us at Monkseaton. His attitude is fantastic and we can’t wait for him to be available for selection again.
Question: Do we have any plans for pre-season and any opponents lined up?
LP: We were really restricted last pre-season with all the work going on at the ground, which meant we couldn’t play any home games. Commercially and financially, there were implications with that. We’ll be looking to make up for that this year. The profile of the club is so high now that we’re being approached by other clubs, higher up the pyramid.
Question: When Adam Curry joined Hull City, a friendly with their Under-21s was mentioned. Will that happen?
MO: Part of the deal that took Adam to Hull was that they would send an Under-21s team up to play us. That’s something we will look to do.
Question: Are you planning to go down and see Coleshill in action ahead of the FA Vase semi-final?
GF: Over the last couple of rounds, a contact of ours has been doing match reports for us, and he’ll do the same again with Coleshill. We’re expecting a tough test. They’ve also been up to watch us already. Lee has another contact from that area of the country he has spoken to, so we’ve got a bit of information on them and will extend that ahead of the semi-final.
LP: We’ll prepare as thoroughly as we have for the previous two or three rounds. What we have done so far has served us well and we’ll continue to do that. It is potentially a plus that we’ll be playing on a 3G surface in the away leg. It’s quite a new 3G pitch, and is very much like the one we have here at Mariners Park. We should be able to get a perfect replication of the kind of experience we will get down there in our own back yard. I played in three Vase semi-finals, and you just don’t know what you’re going to turn up and find. To know exactly what the surface will be in this case is a plus for us. If we can come back on an even keel or with an advantage, it would be a fantastic chance for us to progress.
Question: If we do get to the Vase final, there would be quite a gap between the end of the league season and that. How would you keep the players motivated?
LP: It would be a big gap. We’re still in two other cups as well, and if we manage to get through in those, we’d have two other finals to look forward to at the end of the season as well. When I was at Whitley Bay, we went on an unbelievable run in the league after the semi-final because the manager set his stall out and laid down the gauntlet to the players. He said we all had to nail our place down to play in that game, so we couldn’t take it easy. I don’t think we’d have to say a lot to keep the players motivated.
GF: Two years ago at North Shields, we had a two-week gap to the final. This year if we manage to get there, it will be four weeks from the end of the league season. We could arrange some sort of friendly, but the difficulty with that is that a lot of teams would have already broken up for the summer. You’d also risk injuries that way. We’ve got the facilities to keep the lads ticking over and get them as sharp as possible for that date, should we get to the final.
Question: Stephen Ramsey is coming to the end of his 10th season with the club and has been a terrific servant. Could a slot be found before the end of the season for a testimonial match to recognise that service?
GF: You’ve hit the nail on the head. Stephen has been fantastic for this club and we’ll certainly look into that over the next few weeks to see possible dates and opponents. We’ll have a chat with Stephen about what he wants to do. We will be talking to a few people and making that day a special occasion for Stephen.
LP: I couldn’t agree more. I was here five years ago as assistant manager, and worked with Stephen back then too. He represents something that is incredibly rare these days and needs to be cherished and valued. He’s the kind of person that would never knock on our door and ask about things like money or anything like that. He’s just a genuine lad who wants to play football for his club. I can’t speak highly enough of Stephen. We’re going to do everything we possibly can to celebrate his remarkable achievement of being at the club for 10 years.
Question: What ground improvements, if any, are needed ahead of next season?
MO: Very little needs to be done. We’ve had a grading inspection from the Evo-Stik league and we need to deliver some improvements by March 31. There are some very, very minor things and some very bizarre things which I won’t bore you with. There are just a few things and we’re very confident we’ll have them done for March 31. There are no major plans in the summer to do anything like we did last year. We want to hopefully get into the Evo-Stik and see how the crowds go there. We’ll take another look after next season as to what we need to do.
Question: Do you have any worries with picking up injuries, with training on a 3G surface?
LP: It’s a good question. I cast my mind back to when I was with Whitley Bay and a couple of lads went to Durham City, who played on a 3G. They hated playing on it, but playing and training on it are completely different. Technically, it has got better over the years as well. The surface we’ve got here is absolutely top notch. It’s as good as money can buy. It’s probably not ideal to train on 3G, but that’s why we’ve got to be a bit creative with what we do. Sometimes if we’ve played twice in a week, we’ll do something different on the Thursday night normally earmarked for training. We had a meeting with a leisure manager with a view to getting the players memberships for the club to utilise the pool and spa facilities there. That would provide not just a physical break but would help them mentally recover. We’re trying to box clever.
GF: It’s about communicating with the players and finding out how they are feeling. You’ve got to box a little bit clever. We’ve got a fantastic surface, and it will have its issues in terms of joint pains. We can also balance that with an argument that some other teams might train on grass surfaces which are not the best, which provides its own risks of injury. There’s always an element of risk in training and you have to put on the right sessions to minimise the risk. We’re blessed with the facilities we have and need to make the most of them.
Question: I’ve noticed the Marske league game has been moved later this season?
LP: That’s a good thing for us, because it was originally going to be in the midweek before the first leg of the FA Vase semi-final. Moving the Marske game might potentially create more of a backlog later in the season, but it will help us in terms of focus. It’s great we’ll be able to block the season off a little bit now. We set the challenge to the players before the Benfield game to get through a four-match mini block of Benfield, Shildon, Consett and Sunderland RCA and then draw a line under that. Then we’ve got two weeks of the FA Vase and we’ll box that off. Then we’ve got the League Cup semi-final at Shildon straight after the second leg, and we’ll box that off. We then have nine or 10 league games after that so we can fully focus on that.