By Daniel Prince
Barrie Smith has already realised one life-long dream this season.
The South Shields captain made an improbable appearance for League One side Leyton Orient against Gateshead in July.
Orient had been short of players for the pre-season friendly, and after a chance meeting between their manager Russell Slade and Shields boss Jon King, Smith got the call to make a cameo appearance.
Slade coached King at youth team level at Notts County in the 1990s, and when the Mariners manager heard the London club was in need of a player for the game, he knew exactly who to recommend.
Smith came on for the final 12 minutes of the game at Gateshead International Stadium to live a dream he thought had died – to play for a professional club.
That is a day the 30-year-old will never forget, but now he has his sights on realising another life-long ambition.
Shields kick off their FA Vase campaign tomorrow on Non-League Day against Willington at Peterlee, and Smith knows how difficult the task is for his side.
However, football is of course all about dreams, and Smith wants the Mariners to write a sporting fairytale by aiming to reach the Wembley final.
He said: “I have never done well in the Vase, so it’s something I’d love us to go far in.
“I don’t think I’ve ever been past the second round, so it would be great to get a bit further than that.
“I would love to play at Wembley – it would be fantastic to get all the way there.
“We’ve got to dig in, and get them beaten on Saturday. It’s going to be a hard game, but we’re certainly capable of doing it.”
Shields go into the game in superb form, having beaten Thornaby 6-0 last Saturday and Tow Law Town 5-0 on Tuesday.
Smith has scored four times this season, but got his first from open play against Tow Law with a first half screamer.
However, the quality of his strike was later overshadowed by James Talbot’s late thunderbolt, which took the breath away of those present at Peterlee.
Smith was delighted with his own strike – but also had nothing but praise for his young team-mate.
He added: “I was over the moon with my goal – it was nice to score from open play rather than just a penalty!
“It was nice to get that one, and hopefully I’ll try and get another one on Saturday.
“James’s was a screamer. I wish I hadn’t set him up, to be fair, because his goal ended up better than mine!
“He’s a good lad and he deserves it – he was great all game, so when you work hard, sometimes you get the goal.
“Sometimes you get rewarded for your hard work, so I’m over the moon for him because he’s a good lad.”
Confidence and spirits are understandably high in the Shields camp at the moment, and Smith says it is the best atmosphere he has ever felt at the club.
He said: “The team spirit is great – it’s the best team spirit for a long time at Shields while I’ve been here.
“The lads just get on really well with each other, and we’ve just got to keep it going.
“It couldn’t be any better at the moment, and we have just got to hope we keep it going.
“We can’t let it slip, because then it’s hard to get it back.
“We’ve scored 11 goals in two games, and kept two clean sheets, and it doesn’t get any better than that.”
Smith can already see a real contrast to last season, both in team spirit and style of play.
He has been impressed with the way the team has been attacking in numbers, and has now urged his team-mates to keep their fine form going.
He continued: “We’re defending much better and attacking in numbers, and that’s what you need.
“Last season, we were attacking in threes and fours, and now we’re attacking in sixes.
“That’s what you need if you want goals, so we’ve just got to keep it going, build on it and then we’ll push up that table.”
Tomorrow’s game sees Shields come up against a team which beat them 2-1 on the opening day of the season.
Smith says it’s a match his team have “got to win”, though, and said: “Willington weren’t a bad team when we played them in the first game of the season, so it’s going to be a hard test in the Vase.
“It’s another game we’ve got to win.”
By Daniel Prince
Jon King feels Barrie Smith’s return to the fold has given everyone at South Shields a major boost heading into the final four games of the season.
Smith, who captains the side, missed over two months of action after undergoing groin surgery at the start of February.
He made his comeback as a late substitute in last Thursday’s 1-0 win at Whickham, and is expected to be given another run-out in tomorrow’s match against Chester-le-Street at Peterlee (3pm kickoff).
King is delighted to have the midfielder back, with Shields having won just two of their 13 games during his injury lay-off.
The manager said: “Barrie came on near the end against Whickham and it was just a case of him getting some minutes.
“He has been out for such a long time, so it’s best to ease him back, which we’ll do again tomorrow.
“When he ran onto the pitch last Thursday, it was a good boost for everybody, including the fans, who gave him a good cheer.
“Barrie is our captain, and is infectious.
“He’s a winner, and we’ve certainly missed him in the middle of the park.”
The Mariners still have four games left to play after Tuesday’s clash with Ryton & Crawcrook Albion was postponed due to thick fog at Peterlee.
They are in a more positive frame of mind heading into their final fixtures, though, with the win at eighth-placed Whickham giving Shields something to build on.
The performance of defender Paul Greenwell – who has spent much of his time at the club on the bench – at Whickham was another plus for King, who played him in a back three with Chris Locke and Ben Riding.
King added: “Paul hasn’t played a lot, but did very well at Whickham.
“He maybe needs to lose a bit of weight, and a good pre-season would help him long-term.
“I was also impressed with Shaun Smith and Adam Burnicle on the flanks, who were fantastic going up and down.”