A big crowd is expected to pack into Mariners Park on Saturday as South Shields and Warrington Town go head-to-head in a promotion eliminator.
The match is undoubtedly one of the biggest in Shields’ recent history as they take on Warrington in the final of the Evo-Stik Premier Division play-offs.
The victorious team will not be guaranteed promotion, though, and must beat the winners of the Evo-Stik South Premier Division Central play-offs a week tomorrow to earn a place in National League North.
The Mariners are well aware of the size of their task against a side which beat them home and away in the league campaign.
They did finish a place and three points ahead of the Yellows, though, and will take confidence into Saturday’s tie after they came from behind to beat Buxton in a thrilling semi-final on Tuesday.
With the Durham Challenge Cup final against Shildon to contend with on Friday, followed by the divisional play-off final on Saturday, joint managers Lee Picton and Graham Fenton have rarely been so busy.
But Picton says it’s a challenge everyone involved with the Mariners is relishing.
He said: “We’re just massively excited.
“Myself and Graham have felt like we’ve been spinning a lot of plates recently.
“A lot of really good things have been going on with the academy and we’ve been travelling up and down the country with various high-profile games going on.
“At the start of the season, though, this is the position you want to be in. You want to be so busy.
“There are a lot of footballers and teams out there that are done for all the wrong reasons by the end of April.
“We’re still going and have tonnes to play for, so it’s really exciting.”
Picton is expecting Warrington to provide a stern examination of Shields’ promotion hopes.
The Yellows ended the season with the division’s best defensive record and came from behind to beat Nantwich Town 4-1 in the semi-final on Tuesday.
He added: “It’s going to be a really hard, physical test.
“Again, we’ve got to make sure that the game turns out to be the type of game that we want it to be.
“We’re at home, the surface is good and we can get the ball down and play.
“We showed again on Tuesday that when we do what we’re good at, we’re more than a match for anybody.
“I thought we were unlucky not to get at least a draw against them when they came here last time around, and you’ve got to give them massive credit and respect for lots of reasons.
“Their defensive record and resilience they’ve shown at various stages of the season have been impressive, so we know it’s going to be a massive test, but it’s a test that we’re absolutely relishing.”
Shields are expected to be without left-back Blair Adams after he suffered a hamstring injury in Tuesday’s win.
Kick-off at Mariners Park is at 3pm and admission prices are £10 for adults, £8 for students and over-65s, and £3 for under-16s.
Cash turnstiles will be in operation but fans are encouraged to buy tickets online in advance to avoid the large queues experienced on Tuesday. Tickets can be bought before midnight on Friday by clicking here.
The club is also encouraging supporters to arrive at the ground earlier than usual to ease queuing.
The turnstiles will open at 12pm, and the first Happy Hour will run between 12pm and 1.30pm.
There will also be a Happy Hour in operation between 5pm and 6pm, while the Southend United vs Sunderland game will be shown on the TVs from 5.30pm, with Newcastle United vs Liverpool on at 7.45pm.
The two sets of supporters will be segregated on Saturday following discussions with the police and the league.
South Shields fans will be able to enter via turnstiles one, two and the hospitality entrance, with Warrington supporters to enter via turnstiles three and four, by the 3G pitch.
Home supporters who buy tickets in advance will be able to secure quicker entry by entering through the hospitality entrance.
Lee Picton feels Friday’s Durham Challenge Cup final at the Stadium of Light will provide a “magnificent opportunity” for some of South Shields’ brightest talents.
The Mariners are facing two games in two days, with the final against Shildon to be followed by the Evo-Stik Premier Division play-off final against Warrington Town less than 24 hours later.
Because of the short proximity between the two matches, Shields are expected to field a youthful side against Shildon, featuring many of the players who shone on the club’s run to the final.
The club has also received special dispensation to include left-back Anthony Callaghan and academy defender Joe Lockey in the squad for the first time this season, because of the unusual circumstances.
Joint manager Picton says the club’s youngsters will relish their chance to shine on such a big stage, and is confident they have what it takes to overcome the Northern League side.
He said: “This is a magnificent opportunity for a lot of our academy players, who have worked tirelessly all season.
“It’s a great reward for their dedication and commitment since they’ve been at the club.
“We genuinely believe in these players and although we have great respect for Shildon, we also go into the game with a really strong conviction that we can win it if the boys can deal with the occasion in the right way mentally.”
The club’s academy will also play at the home grounds of Walsall and Port Vale FC next Wednesday and Thursday respectively in national finals.
Picton is excited about their future.
He added: “This game will mark the first of three high-profile finals that the academy are involved in over the next seven days, and we should all be massively proud of the progress and success that the academy has enjoyed in the two short years since its inception.
“I’m sure everyone will agree that it bodes well for the long-term future of the club overall and we look forward to seeing the continued progress of some of the individuals that have really stood out at that level.
“Some of the academy players involved will hopefully draw on the experience they gained earlier in the season playing at Sincil Bank to hopefully overcome the mental challenges of trying to perform at such a big venue as the Stadium of Light.
“Next week they will also pick up valuable experience from playing at the Banks’s Stadium and Vale Park, which might help to prepare them for some of the stadiums our first-team will hopefully be playing at regularly in the long-term future.”
South Shields squad for the Durham Challenge Cup final: Lister, Brown, Callaghan, Lockey, Mouanda, Patterson, Biwer, Guy, Ross, Scott, Thompson, Wright, Bell, Colquhoun, Cowburn, Harmison.
South Shields could seal a remarkable fourth consecutive championship in Saturday’s final day showdown – but need a three-point swing in their favour.
The Mariners must win at play-off chasers Gainsborough Trinity and hope that leaders Farsley Celtic are beaten at home by relegation-threatened Marine to clinch the title.
Anything else would result in a play-off place, so Shields undoubtedly go into proceedings as underdogs.
With up to 500 supporters expected to join them on the trip to Lincolnshire, though, the Mariners make the journey in bullish mood.
They have secured points with goals in second half stoppage time in each of their last three games, most recently on Monday, when Luke Daly’s 95th-minute goal sealed a 3-2 win over Scarborough Athletic.
Buoyed by that victory, joint manager Lee Picton believes anything is possible.
He said: “The game against Scarborough was just about the most exciting one we’ve had at Mariners Park since Graham (Fenton) and I took charge.
“We got there by hook or by crook and it means that there’s something for us to play for in the last game of the season.
“If things like what happened on Monday can happen, then anything can happen this weekend.
“Much stranger things have happened in football than three-point swings on the last day of the season.
“We just have to concentrate on our game.”
The fighting qualities shown by the Mariners over recent weeks, with the title on the line, has particularly pleased Picton.
He added: “We’ve talked a lot about personality and character.
“We talk about it all the time in terms of the culture we want to continue to build at this club.
“The lads have done exceptionally well.
“When you think of some of the really tough phases of the season we’ve been through, to go into the last game with winning the title still a possibility is testament to how much the lads have stuck together, worked really hard and shown a lot of grit and determination, as well as the more glamorous, attractive football side of things.
“We’re chomping at the bit now to give a really good account of ourselves.”
Gainsborough have plenty to play for themselves on Saturday.
They go into the game sitting a place outside the play-off spots on goal difference, and are unbeaten in their last four games.
Picton said: “It’s a massive challenge, because Gainsborough are still fighting and scrapping with Buxton for the last play-off spot.
“There will be absolutely no danger of them having their flip-flops on.
“They will come out at home and try to be on the front foot, I expect, giving it everything they’ve got to win the game.
“We couldn’t have really asked for a tougher test heading into the last game of the season, but it’s a challenge we relish.
“If we can show some of the levels we showed in the first half on Monday, we’ve got a great chance of getting three points.”
Shields go into the game with no new injury concerns, with Carl Finnigan having made his return from a long-term ankle injury as a substitute on Monday.
Kick-off at The Martin & Co Arena – which has a post code of DN21 2QW – is at 3pm.
Gainsborough have released information for travelling supporters ahead of the game. That can be viewed by clicking here.