South Shields joint managers Lee Picton and Graham Fenton appeared at a question and answer session with supporters at Mariners Park last Thursday.
The duo spoke for the best part of two hours on a range of issues ahead of the squad’s return to training next week.
The evening was compered by Nathan Reed and organised by the SSFC Members’ Club, who are set to hold similar events during the season. For more information on the Members’ Club or to enquire about becoming a member, contact 07486 638680.
Below is a full transcript from the Q&A, with individuals represented by their initials: LP (Lee Picton), GF (Graham Fenton) and NR (Nathan Reed).
Q: Will players’ work commitments have an adverse effect on many of our matchday squads next season, particularly for midweek away games?
LP: One of the first things we did once we secured promotion to the Evo-Stik was to speak to all of the players in the squad and ask them that initial question about how committed they would be, and whether their work commitments would allow them to make that step up. We have a lot of players that do have 9am-5pm jobs, but it’s fair to say we’re in a position where there’s going to be minimal disruption to our team selection based on work commitments. A lot of the lads have flexibility within their jobs. Sometimes things crop up at work and sometimes we might have a situation where the odd player is not able to get away as early. That’s part and parcel of playing in the Evo-Stik. I worked with similar travel demands two seasons ago with Blyth Spartans, and sometimes you have to roll with the punches. That’s why you have a squad and strength in depth. Hopefully any disruption will be few and far between.
Q: What’s the current status of Jordan Blinco, Louis Storey, Darren Holden and Iulian Petrache – there hasn’t been any announcement about their futures yet?
GF: Darren Holden has left the football club for the foreseeable future. We felt it was only right – as well as he did for us when he got his opportunities last season – to let him go and allow him to play more regularly. We felt that he might not get as many opportunities as he’d like next season, and had to be honest with him. It’s the same with Iulian. Before he joined us, he had been used to being in a full-time environment with all of his clubs, and he wants to get back to that so is exploring his options. We can’t provide him with a full-time training environment to get him back as sharp as he would like. Louis Storey will be with us next season. He suffered a bad leg break last season and did extremely well to get back to the level he did towards the end of the campaign. We’re hoping that he’ll have a strong off-season, then a really good pre-season to get as sharp and fit as possible, and then hopefully be pushing to get into the team. Jordan Blinco (pictured) will do pre-season with us. He will be with us to see what levels he can get to. He joined us towards the end of last season and did well when he had his opportunities. We were delighted with him. He has had that real setback of being released from a Premier League club. Lads often find it difficult to get over that. He has got his head around the fact he might be playing at this level, and hopefully we can benefit from his services next season.
Q: What size of squad should we expect, and could any of the reserves or academy players be called upon next season?
LP: With Jordan Blinco and Louis Storey, as well as Craig Turns, who we’ve brought in as a back-up goalkeeper to Liam Connell, we’ll start pre-season with 19 players, which is two or three less than we ended last season with. The one player that hasn’t been mentioned so far is Stephen Ramsey. His leg is still in quite a bad way after he broke it towards the end of last season. We’ve had a conversation with him and his first priority is to get himself fit and then to try and work his way back into the first-team fold. We’ve kept that one open with Stephen. He has been part of this club for such a long time and deserves more than anyone else to be able to fight for his place in the squad, so that will happen.
You’ll all be aware of the plans we have put in place with the academy. That’s something we’re extremely excited about, and it begins in August. We’ve already formulated our squad for that ahead of next season. We had three training sessions a couple of weeks ago at Mariners Park with them. The turnout and standard was of a fantastic level, which I’m sure anyone who watched those sessions would agree with. It’s an age 16 to 19 programme. The lads that will be part of the Under-19 age group will form that transitional layer between the academy and reserves. We’re hopefully going to attract lads who are released at 18 from professional clubs after being two-year pros. We’ve had a conversation with a few of those lads and their parents in the last few days. They’ll represent the academy at Under-19 level and provide us with an extra bank of players that can support the first-team. The model for the next couple of years will be to have 20 first-years in the academy at Under-17, 20 Under-18s and 10 Under-19s. The Under-18s will fight for the 10 spots in the last year of the academy to give them opportunities to support the first-team. We think the model will work extremely well. The beauty of the programme is that, unlike at most other clubs, the people working with the players day-in, day-out are the same people who are running the first-team. It’s within our interests to actively try to promote – when the time is right – players into the first-team. That will not be unjustified promotions, though. We won’t be doing it for the sake of it. Those academy players will have to work for it and earn their chance. The 10 Under-19s players we’ll have will be spread across as many different positions as possible. If we have quality for every position on the pitch, we will hopefully be able to cover for any injuries or suspensions at first-team level. We can’t thank Geoff Thompson and all the people around the club enough for the support they have given to the initial idea. It’s an academy that will fully fund itself. It won’t be taking money out of the club. It will more than pay for itself through the funding from our link with Sunderland College and their educational courses for the 16-19 programme. We see it as a win-win and an added layer to the club we feel can be a massive success.
GF: The beauty of us being involved with their coaching on a daily basis will be that those players hopefully pushing for the first-team will understand how we like the game to be played and what is demanded for their position. They should hopefully be a natural fit into the first-team. They will also have the opportunity to play for the reserves under Leepaul Scroggins. We’re really looking forward to that, as is Leepaul. He’s excited by the opportunity to have his first managerial role and is treating it very seriously. He’s getting together a squad of players to start pre-season, but will also have a back-up plan with the academy players.
Q: Who do you think our biggest rivals will be next season?
LP: That’s a really good question. You can do as much research as you like, but the relevant research can only really be done once the season has started. To be honest, we have no idea about the inner workings of any of our rivals next season. We also don’t know if there’s another club in the league who have their own version of Geoff Thompson. When doing the research, you can’t really base things entirely on last season’s final league table either. We’ve massive advocates of focusing in-house on what you do and not necessarily on what other people are doing. We have ultimate belief in what we do as a management team and support staff, and in the squad that we have. We feel the players will do this club proud again next season. I don’t mind saying this at this stage, and it might be putting a noose around our necks, but the message we’re giving is that we’re going into this season to win the league, and that is our intention.
Q: Are there any more signings in the pipeline?
GF: No. We’re extremely happy with the squad we have put together for next season. We’ve retained the majority of last season’s squad, who we’re delighted to be working with again. We’ve added Craig Turns, Luke Sullivan and Matty Pattison (pictured) to that. We feel that they are three fantastic additions, not just in terms of their football ability, but also their personalities. We feel they’ll fit really well into the squad. We’re hugely excited and confident in the squad we’ve got.
LP: Myself, Graham and Martin Scott place a huge amount of value in the work we’ve already done with this group of players, and the progress and development we feel we’ve made tactically, mentally, physically and technically on the pitch. I don’t think you can under-value that. We could have gone out and made a few more changes, but we didn’t feel we needed to. It’s always good to freshen things up every little while, but we are ready to develop this group of players we have already worked with for the best part of a year and ready to develop these players to the next level. That’s when our coaching backgrounds come in. We’re not the type of managers that look at players and just see what happens. If something goes wrong, the reaction of some managers is that they need to get rid of the player and bring someone else in. We want to identify which players we feel we can work with and who want to get better and make a constant improvement. With our coaching backgrounds, we feel we can develop these players and put any problems right using the same players. That’s our first option. We want to deal with the players we’ve got and try to put any problems right rather than change as soon as something goes wrong.
Q: Are we able to compete with the likes of Spennymoor, Darlington and Blyth Spartans for players?
GF: Yes we can, but we’ve talked about this a lot over the last four to six weeks. Everything has to be done in stages. The crowd support we received last season was fantastic and when we went to Wembley, it was unbelievable. When we walked out of the tunnel and saw 15,000 people there supporting us, it was spectacular, and we’re hoping some of those people who haven’t been regular visitors to Mariners Park will come to support us next season. If we can start getting regular crowds of 1,500, 2,000 or 2,500, that will be guaranteed revenue for the club all the time to help take us forward. Geoff has said on numerous occasions that he’s more than willing to put his own money in to build the infrastructure, but he wants the football club to run itself and generate its own revenue, and pay for players that way. It’s only right that we don’t put the football club in jeopardy at any stage, like we’ve seen at some other clubs in the past. We’re hoping to get to the stage in two to four years when we might need to go full-time, and so we have to make those steps between now and then to make sure we can afford to pay full-time wages at that point.
Q: How disappointed were you to lose David Foley and Wayne Phillips?
LP: We were really disappointed. Every player that was with us at the end of last season was still with us because they were a really big part of things, and we wanted them to be moving forward. They were players we really enjoyed working with. David (pictured) and Wayne were no exception to that. Everybody, and we said this to the players as well, has to make the decision they feel is best for themselves. We made what we considered to be attractive, generous offers to both of those players, but ultimately they decided their future was elsewhere. We genuinely wish David and Wayne all the very best. We were really disappointed to lose them, because they were a big, big part of our success last season. However, when one door closes, invariably another one opens. This is an incredible football club to be a part of and there are many players out there who would absolutely love to be a part of it. Craig, Matty and Luke are going to get their chance to be part of this club next season and beyond, and we wish them all the very best as well.
Q: Will David Foley and Wayne Phillips be on the open-top bus on July 1?
GF: They were included in the text we sent out about the civic reception at the Town Hall, and the open-top bus. Unfortunately, they didn’t take us up on that offer, so they won’t be on the open-top bus. Their new clubs will be training on that day as well. We start training on July 1 at Sunderland College at 8.45am, to make sure we have enough time to get to the Town Hall for 11.30am.
Q: Do you know if any ground improvements are planned?
LP: The club is in the final stage of putting in an irrigation system on the pitch, so the pitch will have a fully functional under-soil sprinkler system. That’s getting finalised and completed over the next couple of days. In the short-term future, Geoff has talked about developing the area between the far side of the stand and the corner of the pitch, and to perhaps put down a concrete foundation there to erect a semi-permanent marquee-type structure. It would be built to a very high spec where more fans would have quicker access to food and drinks, to try and enhance the matchday experience. We’ve seen the architect’s plans for the various stages of development which are earmarked at Mariners Park. We were reviewing them again this morning, and the plans are really exciting. It will all be dictated by the crowds we get. At the moment, the one thing Geoff keeps talking about is that the size of our crowds going forward is a massive unknown. We don’t yet know what the demand for tickets is going to be like at home games next season. Over the medium to long-term future, there are plans to have covered terracing behind both goals, as well as a full-length stand on the dugouts side of the ground. Eventually, the plan is to possibly replace the existing stand and have a stand that goes from the end of the clubhouse to the far corner of the ground. The projected capacity is 5,500. It looks absolutely stunning on the architect’s drawings. I think it’s fair to say, though, that Geoff is still on the fence as to whether to fully develop this site or possibly explore the opportunity of looking at another site to do a full development elsewhere. I’ll leave that for Michael Orr and Geoff to talk about on another day.
Q: David Foley brought a lot of pace to the team as well as goals. Will that result in a change to the style of play, or will you be looking to bring in more pace to the forward line?
GF: That’s a good question. David gave us that pace alongside a lot of other things, including his ability to run with the ball and his movement. We’ve brought in Luke Sullivan. We’ve been an admirer of him for quite a while from a distance. We’ve seen him in games when we’ve been to watch opposition teams, and he’ll bring a slightly different game. He’s very creative and has got a natural eye for goal. Even looking at the stats…he scored 28 league goals for Consett last season. Ultimately, that was in a team that didn’t do as well as we did last season, but he scored more league goals than any of our forwards. We feel he’ll be a fantastic addition for us. Losing David won’t affect our style of play, either. We’ll still be looking to get better at what we do. We’re looking to provide the same brand of football as we have in the last seven or eight months.
LP: I’d also like to point out that we haven’t come close to seeing the best of Jordan Blinco yet. He’s someone with a huge amount of pace. You could make a slight comparison between his style and David’s, although he is still slightly unproven at the moment. We feel we’ve seen enough of him to be genuinely excited about the potential he has. We haven’t seen the best of Carl Finnigan (pictured) yet either. He got better and better and better as last season went on. He was just about our most effective player over the last month of the season. We both felt he 100% justified his starting place at Wembley because of his performances in the lead-up to the game. We have to remember as well that before he joined us, he had an eight-month period not playing football, and it takes time to get your strength, fitness and confidence back. He played a little bit second fiddle to Gavin Cogdon and David Foley at times last season, and we had other options in the Number 10 position, but Carl forced his way into the side. He has committed to us for the next two years and he’ll get really fit in pre-season. I for one am massively looking forward to seeing a fully-fit and confident Carl Finnigan going into next season.
Q: How did you feel when you heard the final whistle at Wembley and knew we had won?
GF: I think ecstatic is the word. Once we got the second goal, we both felt that was pretty much the moment it was done. At 1-0, there’s always a little bit of apprehension. We had opportunities to go further ahead before we got the second goal, and when it did come, it just gave us that little bit of relief. We just about knew it was done then, so we were almost celebrating inside before the final whistle. It was a fantastic day all-round.
LP: It was a feeling of absolute elation, because it had been made very clear a long way out from the final just what it meant to everybody concerned. Naturally, there was also a bit of relief as well. I’m pretty new to being a manager and I’ve come to appreciate how much you’re constantly inside of a bubble. My wife will endorse this. There’s a 100% focus on thinking about the team, the club and how to move things forward. That was the end of a long, long season. There was definitely quite a bit of relief in there because you can finally relax for a bit. On the flipside, I went on holiday with my wife the day after we came home from the Vase weekend, and within two days I was writing notes about what we were going to do this season. At the moment, I wish the season was starting tomorrow. I just want to get cracking again. BT Sport sent us the footage of the game to use internally straight after the final, and we’ve watched it many times for many reasons since then. The one moment I keep coming back to is in the 40th minute, when there had been a bit of a lull in the game. I’m going to get emotional here (PAUSES, VOICE BREAKING). The far side where our fans were suddenly just got up and sang their hearts out for the team. It was a really incredible moment and one I’ll never forget.
Q: How much are you looking forward to the open-top bus?
LP: I’ll answer this one first with an apology. I can’t make it as I’ll be on an antenatal course with my wife. I was going to have to miss either a pre-season training session or the open-top bus. I’d love to be there, but we’re expecting our first child in August. As my wife would testify, sometimes there are things a little bit more important than football.
GF: I’m really looking forward to it! (LAUGHTER) I was fortunate to be involved in one two years ago with North Shields, and it will just be a great occasion. Unfortunately, one or two of the other players and staff are unable to make it too, but there will be a good representation of players and staff there to celebrate and have a really enjoyable day, and again enjoying all the support of the community.
Q: Well done on what was a fantastic season. Can you tell us about a bit more about how the new academy is going to work?
LP: We’re working in conjunction with Sunderland College. The boys have to embark on a full-time educational course, whether it’s A Levels or a Level 3 BTEC in sport. The younger lads will be based here at the football club. Lessons will take place in the Barbour Lounge at Mariners Park, so we’ve made some improvements to the facilities, including the introduction of a massive touch-screen TV. The lads doing the A Levels will be based at the college. We’ve built in a timetable where those two groups come together. We’ll be transporting the kids that need to be transported from the college to Mariners Park so we can train on a Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday. The main matchday is a Wednesday. Every student who is part of the academy is worth a certain amount of funding. That funding goes firstly to the college, who provide the education, and we get a percentage of that because we’ve attracted them into the programme, which covers the costs at this end. We select all the students. We have our group ready to go for next season. We’re really pleased with the group we’ve got.
GF: We’re really delighted with the group of players we’ve put together for the academy. Considering we’ve had to do it in a short period of time, from having the go ahead to set the academy up to now, it has been excellent. We’ll be out watching players all season long. As Lee has touched on already, our wives will not be happy! We’ll be watching Sunday football at Under-16 level to try to get us a step ahead in recruitment for the next season. As high quality as the squad is this season, it has been put together in a short period of time. We’re looking forward to the process of identifying the best talent for the year ahead as well.
Q: Will players from the club’s current youth teams be given a chance to progress into the academy?
LP: One of the major developments I feel at the club recently has been the appointment of Jamie Williams (pictured). He’s overseeing and co-ordinating a lot of the stuff around the junior section of the club. The club is on a massive upward curve at first-team level and we want that to apply across the board. Jamie is doing a fantastic job in developing the junior side of the club. We’re working very closely with him and giving as much of our time as possible to help out with the coaches in the junior section. The academy provides an aspirational target for the players that are coming through the junior section. At the moment, we have a gap in the 15 to 16 age group of our juniors, but that will hopefully be filled moving forwards because we have some really good teams coming through. Our first port of call will be to look at lads who are already within our junior set-up. Hopefully the addition of the academy will also attract players aged 15 or 16 to South Shields. They’ll appreciate that being part of one of our junior teams will put them in the best position to be recognised and to get a place in the 16 to 19 programme.
Q: Julio Arca has mentioned he’d like to stay at the club after his playing days end. Would there be a possibility of adding him to the coaching staff when that time comes?
GF: We hugely value everything that Julio does at the club. That’s why we’ve given him a two-year contract. We also think that he could join us at some point along the journey on the coaching side. He already does a lot of coaching away from the club and loves the game. He has huge enthusiasm for the game and would be a great addition – possibly at the end of his two-year contract – to join myself, Lee and Martin in some sort of role.
LP: When you have someone with the qualities he has already within your ranks, you have to utilise them. We’re taking the same approach with Leepaul Scroggins. We respect not only what he has given to the club on the pitch, but also his qualities, personality, character and what he brings to the club off the field. We had a fantastic meeting with Leepaul and he is genuinely excited about remaining a big part of the club and helping it develop on lots of different levels. The same thing applies to Julio. You’ve got to try to keep that experience and quality in-house and on board with what you’re doing. If you don’t, then ultimately some other club will. We’re trying to plan for success at first-team level, and in a short space of time, we want to get into a position where this club is ready to go to a full-time model at first-team level. To do that, we’ll need some more man power and resources on the coaching side. Who knows when we’ll cross that line into full-time football? You never know. It could be as short a time frame as two years. It’s not a secret that at National League North level, there are quite a few full-time clubs. Geoff has never tried to hide the fact that his ultimate ambition is for South Shields to become a Football League club once again. To do that, we’ll have to navigate our way through Evo-Stik and National League level football. We’re hoping to get there pretty soon. To give yourself a realistic chance of getting through that level, you have to start seriously looking towards a full-time model at first-team level. If everything goes well, hopefully that might be only two or three years away.
Q: Six pre-season friendlies have been announced, and most of them seem very tough. What is the thinking behind that?
GF: Pre-season is a hugely important part of the whole season. You could select something of an easy game schedule, but what do you get from winning 4-0 or 5-0 in pre-season? We’ve selected a tough pre-season against some very good sides. That will hold us in good stead for the season. We’re putting in a lot of work behind the scenes to try to progress from last season’s performances. We’ve got games against really good sides and will be trying to implement what we’re going to try to do during the season, and hopefully give the lads confidence doing that against good teams.
LP: We believe the squad is good enough to be very competitive with the sides we’re going to play against in pre-season. Some clubs I was with as a player elected to go the other way with an easier schedule. Some people might wonder whether six games is enough as well in pre-season. Some choose to play 10 or 11 friendlies. Without being disrespectful, the truth is that some managers might prefer playing lots of games because they don’t feel as comfortable coaching. We’re managers, but also very comfortable coaching. We believe there are a lot of gains we can make on a technical level with the sessions. We’ve got 12 training sessions and six games in pre-season, which we feel is the right ratio to make the developments we want to make before the season. Across those six games, we’re going to face some different tests, in terms of the quality of player we’ll be up against and different sizes of club. We feel the games will be quite representative of the different styles we’ll come up against during the league season. Some of the teams like to play a little bit like we do, and some are a little bit more direct than that. That will allow us to deal with different problems in pre-season and acclimatise to different challenges on the pitch. It’s a really positive process and one we’re working really hard on behind the scenes in terms of developing our system of play. We’re certainly not looking back at last season, and the four trophies on display in the bar downstairs, and saying to each other ‘Hey, we’ve cracked it!’ We can’t just cut and paste what we did last season and expect it to just happen again. We’re constantly thinking about how to push things forward, on and off the pitch. Before last season started, there was a meeting with the players from the previous campaign when I said ‘well done for winning Division Two, but if you think the standards you set last season will be good enough next season, you’re going to get a massive shock, and not a good one’. It will be exactly the same message going into this season, and that’s what we’ll be saying to the players. We’ll be saying, ‘if you think the standards you set last season are going to be good enough again, you’re not going to be at this club for very much longer’. We have to strive for an even better level.
GF: One of the advantages of us training alongside the reserves next season will be that if we feel we need to have a more tactical session and need an 11 vs 11 scenario, we can set that up with their help. We can have an hour, or an hour-and-a-half, training 11 vs 11 in a training session as well.
Q: Are you concerned at all about coming up against direct teams next season? One of the few games we seemed to struggle in last season was away to Coleshill, who were very direct against us…
LP: You’re spot on and that’s a really valid point. We’ve got to be equipped to deal with those challenges. That’s one of the biggest things I learned from my final season with Blyth Spartans in the Evo-Stik, when we finished on 99 points but didn’t win the league and lost in the play-offs. We attracted a lot more people through the gates because of the way we were playing. With hindsight, though, it was quite rigid and we didn’t have enough flexibility within the side to deal with different challenges. If our Plan A didn’t work, what was our Plan B and C? We worked really hard on that last season. You’re right that Coleshill gave us a really tough time at their place, but we found a way to win and it’s an age old cliche, but that’s the sign of a good side. We finished the job well and truly at our place. You’re totally right that we have to be equipped to deal with different styles, because you can plan as much as you want, but then you get on the pitch and the opposition’s style might ultimately change that plan for you.
Q: Was the Sunderland RCA away game last season an example of that?
LP: Yes – we had to come up with many different plans that night. There was an unbelievable commitment and determination from the players. I’ll remember that game for as long as I live. I did the post-match interview that night and I remember saying that it was a game I’d remember for a long, long time. I’ve never been as proud of a team as I was that night. That was the personification of a gutsy performance.
GF: We really enjoyed that game. It was a really difficult night and the surface wasn’t great. They came into the game and tried to make it difficult. Both away games at Newcastle Benfield last season were similarly difficult as well, but we managed to get two good results there. Ryhope CW away was another difficult one on a bobbly pitch. It was about being adaptable and able to play on good surfaces as well as awful ones, finding a way to win games. We showed that really well last season. We’re planning for not just what we’re doing when we’re on our A game, but also our Plan B, and what we’re going to do if we’re behind in the latter stages of a game, or holding a narrow lead, for example. Players will know what they have to do ahead of the games. We’ll have different options for different moments during the season.
LP: It helps when you have players who can play in different positions and in different roles. The obvious example is Jon Shaw (pictured). A great example was the game against Dunston at home last season. We went 1-0 up and then one of our old proteges from Monkseaton High School, Harvey Saunders, scored a counter-attack goal. It was Jon Shaw’s fault as well! We were playing the 4-diamond-2 formation and decided to change it up to a 4-2-3-1. Some people might think it’s more negative playing with one up-front, but we just felt that playing with only one striker would work better and put Jon through the middle and Wayne Phillips delivering crosses from the left. Wayne rolled back the years and went into his old-school winger mode. He produced some fantastic crosses and two classic Jon Shaw headers ultimately ended up winning us the game. That was a great example of how you utilise the personnel within your squad to try to finish the right side of the line.
Q: Are we in a position to compete for the top non-league players in the North East with the likes of Blyth Spartans, Spennymoor and Darlington, or players from Northern League level?
LP: That’s a great question. I completely believe we can compete for those players. This club is on an upward trajectory. There are so many upsides to being part of this club and we all believe that it will continue to get bigger and better. I know a lot of people have the mindset that they think the players are only bothered about money. Some players out there are like that, but we’re trying to develop an environment where, for the sake of an extra few quid, or quite a few more quid, they would still choose South Shields because of the experience they would get here, and all the other things they’d get that aren’t money oriented. I believe, within a short period of time, this will be the number one non-league club in the North East. That’s my genuine belief.
GF: There’s no reason why we can’t compete with and surpass those clubs you mentioned. This is a fantastic football club to be at as a manager, player and hopefully a supporter. It’s a fantastic environment to be in. I’ve had lot of experiences at other clubs, some good and others bad. I can honestly say that this club is a fantastic place to be.
Q: Do you know about the plans to improve the matchday experience next season? There’s a lot of queuing at the moment…
LP: Improving that is really high on Geoff’s agenda. He understands that there’s a really strong correlation between the number of people who come through the gates and the matchday experience. Hopefully people enjoy what they see on the pitch, but that’s not by any stretch the only part of matchday. Everyone is different. Some people watch the game and that’s the only thing they’re bothered about. Other people want different things from their experience and that’s the way it is. We all want different things and it’s about accommodating for as many individuals as you can to keep the momentum going and keep building your fanbase. One of the biggest parts of the matchday experience is how many fans are in the ground itself. It’s right up there on Geoff’s agenda and I think he will put things in place to make sure everyone is accommodated for.
GF: We’re not huge social media people ourselves. We don’t have our own Twitter accounts or anything like that. The beauty of social media, though, is that if people have any complaints or suggestions for improvements, the club finds out about them. Geoff is doing his best to put things in place to make the matchday experience better for everybody.
Q: Are Matty Pattison and Luke Sullivan direct replacements for Wayne Phillips and David Foley?
GF: We signed Matty before Wayne told us of his desire to leave the club, so he wasn’t a replacement for him. With Luke, it was probably minutes after David told us he was off to Spennymoor that we got on the phone to see what the situation was with him. It forced our hand quicker than we maybe would have done, but we’d have got round to Luke eventually anyway.
LP: With Craig Turns’ arrival as well…we felt a little bit exposed at times last season have just one genuine goalkeeper in Liam Connell. It was always on our agenda to bring in a second goalkeeper. We had Pete Jameson in on loan towards the end of last season and he did tremendously well in the games he played. With Matty, as Graham said he wasn’t a direct replacement for Wayne because we signed him before Wayne had expressed his wish to move on. Luke probably was signed in response to the fact we knew we were going to lose David.
Q: Will the new academy team be in any leagues?
LP: The academy players will play their games on a Wednesday, and the first-team of the academy will be based on who we feel has earned their place in the squad, rather than age, so we might have a mixture of 16-year-olds, 17-year-olds, 18-year-olds and 19-year-olds. We’ve been accepted into the National League Under-19 Alliance, which is the same league as Gateshead, Harrogate Town, Farsley Celtic, Guiseley, Rochdale and Darlington. There are 10 teams in the league, which is a really good standard of Under-19 football. The lads who aren’t in that first squad will represent the college in the ECFA Premier League, which is category one football. It’s the highest standard of Under-19 college football in the country. They’ll play against the likes of Monkseaton High School, Gateshead College, Tyne Met College, Middlesbrough College and York College. On top of that, we will organise a number of games against professional academy sides through the contacts ourselves and Martin Scott have. We’ll have a number of showcase games. The games programme will be extremely strong and the players will get a lot of stern tests through the season. We’re in the FA Youth Cup as well, which is the most prestigious Under-18 cup competition in the country. Some of the home games in the Under-19 Alliance wil be played here at Mariners Park. That will take into account the first-team schedule so if, for example, the first-team had a home game on a Tuesday night in the middle of November, the Under-19s won’t be playing here on a Wednesday afternoon and we’ll source an alternative venue. The college have an agreement with the Foundation of Light, so a handful of games there is an option. In the winter months, we might play some games on artificial surfaces. So we’ve got three different options for the home games. The ECFA games will be played at Sunderland College and the FA Youth Cup games will be at Mariners Park.
GF: When the academy have games at Mariners Park, we’ll be looking to promote those matches a couple of weeks in advance on social media. Everyone will be welcome to come and watch what we hope will be the new up-and-coming players of the club’s future.
Q: How much are you looking forward to competing in the FA Trophy, and the prospect of a run in the FA Cup as well?
LP: The one disappointment last season was that we didn’t go a little bit deeper into the FA Cup. We’ll come in a round later this season because of our promotion. We’re really excited about that competition. I joined this club from Blyth Spartans, who have made their name pretty much from FA Cup runs. I joined them as assistant manager about two weeks after they were knocked out of the cup by Birmingham City in the third round. You can see the impact it can have on a football club in so many different ways. Without putting a jinx on it, we have a squad that we feel could potentially cause an upset somewhere along the line. You need a bit of luck along the way in competitions like that. The FA Trophy is a tough one, because we’re coming from the FA Vase, in which we were one of the highest-ranked entrants, and in this one we’ll be one of the lowest-ranked teams. Because of that, we’ll always be underdogs on paper, but we had some really nice comments from Cleethorpes Town after the FA Vase final. They got in touch with the club and said that they stayed back to watch the FA Trophy final between Macclesfield Town and York City, and they believed we would have beaten both of those teams, or at least run them very close. Whether that’s a true assessment or not you could argue about, but I believe we can run any team up to National League level close when we’re on our game. Who knows?
GF: The beauty of the FA Cup is its unpredictability. It’s a fantastic competition. I remember going to Grimsby with Leicester City and being knocked out, which wasn’t a nice experience. On the flipside, quite a few years ago I was involved at Blyth Spartans when we played Blackburn Rovers at Croft Park. We had beaten a few teams, including Shrewsbury Town and Bournemouth, along the way, and ended up being knocked out by a top corner free-kick against a Premier League side full of international players. In my opinion, the team we have here is as good as that side we had at Blyth, if not better. Why can’t we give everyone a good journey?
Q: We started following the club last season and the football here is tremendous. The atmosphere and welcome we’ve got to every game has been brilliant as well, and you must be very proud of everything that happened last season…
LP: Me, Graham and Martin are really proud of how the players performed last season. Like I touched on earlier, I genuinely feel there’s a lot more to come, and we certainly hope there is. There are many people who come to our games who have perhaps become disillusioned with top flight football, and hopefully that will fall into our laps a little bit. Hopefully we can hook those people in and expand the fanbase even more. We want South Shields to become their number one team, rather than their number two or number three team. We’re just massively grateful for the support we get every week, because it’s something special and we always talk to the players about that. It’s our duty to give you something to get behind in the first place. In the first 10 or 15 minutes of the game, we have a responsibility to get the fans on board and encouraging us. The energy feeds off each other both ways. That happened a number of times last season. The atmosphere was absolutely incredible at times. The obvious examples were the FA Vase games. The first half against Newport Pagnell was like fantasy football. If Carlsberg did first halves, that would be right up there. The goals we scored and the atmosphere was incredible. Then Julio’s goal in the semi-final here blew the lid off the place. Hopefully we’ll have many more of those memories to come. I’m sure we have and I’m thoroughly looking forward to that. We’d like to thank everyone for the positive comments – we really appreciate it.
Q: Is there a big focus with the players on interacting with the fans?
GF: We talk a lot about humility and being genuine people. It winds me up when you look at the top end of the game. Players go into football grounds and get ushered in, away from the supporters who are paying their wages. I can’t get my head around that. When I was a pro, a big part of the job for me was going out and meeting people, talking to them, finding out about them. Our lads represent this club well and are humble. They’re a great bunch of lads.
Q: How seriously will we be taking the Durham Challenge Cup and the Evo-Stik League Cup next season?
LP: One thing we set out to do from day one was to try and drive a winning mentality here. It’s another cliche, but it’s about trying to create a winning mentality as a culture within the dressing room and team. I can remember absolutely losing the plot during the Blyth Town game in the League Cup last season. I blew my lid at half-time. More than anything else, I was disappointed because it was an absolute contrast to what I’ve been talking about in terms of a winning mentality. No disrespect to Blyth Town, but I could see that the lads were looking at it as a lesser game with less importance. You can’t pick and choose the times you turn up in football in my book. It’s about driving habits and instilling really strong habits. I think that obviously if we were setting a list of priorities, as we did last season, promotion would be our top goal next season. Then we’ve got the FA Cup and the FA Trophy. The FA Cup is the initial focus and we’ll give it our best shot in that. Latterly it will be the FA Trophy. If we’re still involved in the FA Cup by the time the Trophy games come around, that would be brilliant. In terms of the two competitions you mentioned, we’re the holders of the Durham Challenge Cup. If you take that as a standalone competition, last season we had some fantastic memories. When we played Hartlepool United here – albeit mostly their Under-23s side – we absolutely annihilated a professional team and made them look very poor, to be honest. The final was also a fantastic experience at Victoria Park. Looking at that far stand packed full of Mariners fans is another memory that will live with me for a long time. We need to try to defend that trophy next season.
We’ll be in the Evo-Stik League Cup next season as well. We’ll be going into every game trying to win. At the same time, especially with the added layer we now have with the academy and how that supplements the first-team and reserves, we might identify some games to give other players an opportunity. You can’t develop as a player without getting game-time at some point. You have to throw them in at the deep end sometimes and see how they cope. You have to see them in action at a relevant level of competition. That’s our order of priorities next season. Now we’ve established a winning mentality, we have to keep it. We worked really hard to achieve what we did last season. The hardest thing for us next season will be to manage the expectation. That’s the double-edged sword of having such an amazing season. You raise the bar and level of expectation. After the Vase final, I was getting lots of comments and well dones from friends via text. I remember texting back thanking them for their message and saying that I looked forward to getting the sack after a couple of draws in October! It was obviously tongue in cheek but our biggest challenge will be managing expectation. We’ve got to be careful, not just the players and ourselves, but also the fans and everybody at the club, not to have the mentality where we feel we have a God-given right to win every game of football. It doesn’t work like that. We will inevitably come to a point where we’ll have a blip. We’ll be doing everything in our power to make them as few and far between as possible. All we ask is that the supporters please stick with us during those times and don’t call for our heads after a draw!
GF: Whatever happens next season, it will not be for the want of trying. We’ll be trying as hard as possible and hope we get the support carrying on into next season, especially during any little blips. Please keep encouraging the players and giving the fantastic backing you did last season. We have to make sure there’s no complacency. There certainly won’t be from us. Sir Alex Ferguson used to talk about complacency as being like a disease that you’ve got to get rid of as quickly as possible. We’re not expecting it from the group we have. We’ll be aiming to hit the ground running from the start of pre-season to get ourselves ready for the new campaign.
Q: With Kevin Bolam leaving the reserves and moving to be Hebburn Town’s reserves manager, will that mean the likes of Ewan Simpson and Ryan Bolam will go with him?
LP: Kev is Ryan’s dad, and Ewan’s dad is a big part of Kev’s management team, so I think it’s fair to say they’ll be going across to Hebburn Town reserves as well. Our reserves team is in safe hands with Leepaul Scroggins and Davy Graham. They have both served this club really well over the years and are really well-liked by a lot of people at the club. Christopher Reay, who is our secretary Philip Reay’s son, will help out with the coaching as well. We’re in fantastically safe hands with the reserves. With the reputation Leepaul and Davy have, they’re 100% confident they’ll get a really competitive side together in a short period of time. They’re confident they’ll get a good side together. We’re working with them to develop that dynamic between the academy, reserves and first-team. The first-team players who need extra game-time will get opportunities in the reserves as well. That team will be supplemented from both sides to help with their fixtures this season.
NR: A massive thanks to Lee and Graham for giving up their time to be here tonight. We’re aiming to do this every eight to 10 weeks during the season. Next time food will be laid on and hopefully there’ll be even more supporters here.