South Shields were beaten 3-0 by Darlington at Mariners Park on Saturday – but for once, the result did not seem to really matter.
It was Shields’ first game back at the ground after a two-year exile, and a bumper crowd was in attendance to welcome the club home.
There was also a healthy contingent of Darlington supporters, while the presence of the Mariners’ junior teams at the game helped to create a family atmosphere.
On the pitch, Darlington – who operate three leagues higher than Shields – proved to have just too much in the end, but the hosts gave it their all and gave as good as they got for much of the pre-season friendly.
Before the match, the ground started swiftly filling up from 12pm, when the gates were opened, while the club’s junior teams played on the bottom pitch at Mariners Park.
At 2.20pm, the 10th South Shields Boys’ Brigade and Girls’ Association performed on the field, before the teams came out at 3pm with ‘Football’s Coming Home’ playing over the PA system.
By then, it was time for the football, but it was Darlington who started the stronger.
They created two decent opportunities from crosses, with one header going over and another wide, before they knocked the wind out of Shields’ sails slightly by taking the lead on 14 minutes.
A free-kick from the left flank was floated into the box, and Adam Mitchell got enough on it to force it under goalkeeper Thomas Flynn, before the ball bounced up and into the roof of the net.
The goal sparked Shields into action, and they started to make some probes of their own as they searched for an equaliser.
They particularly looked threatening down the left flank, while captain Leepaul Scroggins was pulling the strings in midfield.
He curled a free-kick not far over on 18 minutes, while Josh Holland later sent a shot wide.
The Mariners were pushing to get back on level terms, and they so nearly did so on 32 minutes. Wayne Phillips – who was lively throughout – whipped in a corner which was headed goalwards by Ben Riding, but cleared off the line.
Phillips and Riding again combined before half-time, but this time the defender couldn’t get enough power on his header, and Darlington goalkeeper Peter Jameson clawed it away.
David Foley was the next to threaten the visitors as he tricked his way through on the left of the box, but his cut-back was intercepted.
Scroggins went off as a precaution four minutes before half-time after feeling a slight hamstring injury, and Darlington went close twice prior to the break.
First, Flynn did well to keep out an effort, before the resulting corner led to a free header which went over the bar.
Both sides would have been relatively pleased with the work-out in the first 45 minutes, and at half-time, Shields’ Under-10s side – who had walked out with the team before the game – got the chance to play on the main pitch.
After half-time, Shields made a host of changes as more players were given an opportunity to impress in front of such a large crowd.
Chances were harder to come by for both sides at the start of the second half, but Aris Lokonga Guerin and Barrie Smith linked up well on the right-hand side before the latter swung in a superb cross which Foley volleyed over.
That was to prove Shields’ best opportunity of the second period, and the game remained tight until Darlington scored the goal which virtually clinched the win 14 minutes before the end.
A through ball split the Shields defence, and although there were suspicions of offside against Mitchell, he continued and slotted the ball past substitute goalkeeper Steven Hubery.
Hubery was on hand to make an impressive save soon after, while at the other end, Jameson got himself into a tangle just outside the area and Paul Kane laid the ball off to Lee McMahon, but he could not place his shot through a sea of bodies.
In the 84th minute, Darlo added a third after some fine play down the right, and a cross into the box was bundled across the line by Nathan Cartman from in front of goal.
The atmosphere remained positive, though, and there was the sense that this was just the start of a new era for the Mariners.
Shields are next in action on Tuesday, with a Spennymoor Town XI the visitors to Mariners Park. Kick-off is at 7.30pm.
SOUTH SHIELDS: Flynn (Hubery 73), Smith, Turner (Curry 46), Riding, Galpin, Chapim (McMahon 46), Holland (Gray 46), Scroggins (c) (Ball 41) (Crutwell 80), Guerin (Ramsey 64), Foley (Talbot 77), Phillips (Kane 68).