South Shields 2-1 Witton Albion: Finnigan at the double on opening day
South Shields started life in the Evo-Stik Premier Division with a hard-fought win as a Carl Finnigan double saw off the challenge of Witton Albion.
A crowd of almost 1,700 cheered Shields on at Mariners Park and watched an at times nervy encounter between two teams searching for form.
Finnigan opened the scoring on the strike of half-time with a sweet first-time finish, but the hosts were pegged back less than three minutes into the second half when James Foley converted a controversially awarded penalty.
Shields plugged away in the remainder of the game and eventually got their reward with eight minutes remaining when Finnigan nodded in an impressive cross from Josh Gillies.
It was a welcome opening day victory for the Mariners, who fielded a team featuring four debutants, as well as Dan Wright, another summer arrival who had a short loan spell at the club last season.
They did not immediately click into gear, and it was Witton who had the first attempt on goal, with Billy Smart hitting an effort wide from long range.
Although not at their best, Shields controlled most of the first half and enjoyed good spells of possession.
They also made their intentions clear early as they pressed their opponents, a plan emphasised when Gillies pounced on a loose pass by River Humphrey before trying to catch goalkeeper Greg Hall out with a shot from 30 yards which went wide.
Gillies threatened again soon after when an off-target Blair Adams effort struck him before bouncing past the post.
Adams was at the heart of many of Shields’ most promising moves in the first half and got forward well again in the 13th minute. His drilled attempt was going wide before it hit Finnigan and Hall was called on to make a tremendous point-blank save before he bravely clawed the loose ball to safety.
Gavin Cogdon curled over from the edge of the box as the Mariners kept up the pressure, but Witton almost stunned the hosts when a low drive from 25 yards by Foley whistled just past the post.
Shields responded well in the remainder of the half and Finnigan went close again when his effort from a tight angle was well saved by Hall, who grasped the ball at the second attempt under pressure from Dillon Morse.
Adams prodded a shot over from just outside the area before the Mariners found the breakthrough on the 45-minute mark.
Gary Brown sent a lofted ball forward and Robert Briggs did brilliantly to keep it alive before pulling it back across the area, where Finnigan was on hand to send it arrowing into the bottom corner.
Witton were bright at the start of the second half, though, and got their reward just two minutes into it as Liam Connell was controversially adjudged to have tripped Foley in the area.
Connell was agonisingly close to saving Foley’s spot-kick as he got a hand on the low effort, but was unable to stop the ball bouncing past him.
Albion had a glorious chance to make it a quickfire double when a cross from deep on the right by James Yates found Tom Owens at the back post, but his half volley did not trouble Connell as he failed to get clean contact on it.
Witton did well to restrict Shields’ goalscoring opportunities in the second half, and the home side had to be patient in their search for a winner.
The introduction of debutant Ursene Mouanda with just over 20 minutes left added some impetus to the Mariners’ play, and a fine ball forward from him led to a chance for Briggs which the midfielder curled wide.
Shields persisted and got their reward with eight minutes left.
Gillies beat his man on the left and then kept the ball in play on the by-line before his cross was headed under Hall in the Witton goal by Finnigan.
The three points were far from secured for Shields, though, and they breathed a sigh of relief when a tremendous block by Adams stopped a Delial Brewster effort which appeared certain to find the net.
In stoppage time, a long-running battle between Finnigan and Smart reached its conclusion when the Witton man was shown a straight red card for an off-the-ball incident.
The Mariners duly saw the game out to claim an important opening day triumph.
They will hope to build on the victory when they travel to Farsley Celtic on Tuesday.
SOUTH SHIELDS: Connell, Baxter, Adams, Turnbull (Mouanda 69), Morse, Brown, Wright, Briggs (c), Cogdon (Cowburn 83), Finnigan, Gillies. Subs not used: Pearson, Hunter, Scott.
Goals: Finnigan (45, 82).
WORDS: Daniel Prince. IMAGE: Peter Talbot.