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.
An 89th minute winner by Sam Hodgson fired South Shields Academy into their second national final of the season as they brilliantly beat a strong Hartpury College side on Wednesday.
The young Mariners were up against some top talent in the ECFA National Play-Off semi-final in Gloucester but showed tremendous character to pull through.
Joint manager Lee Picton declared the win as “probably the best” the Academy has produced since its inception in the summer of 2017.
They will now compete in the final of the competition at Port Vale FC’s Vale Park on Thursday, May 9.
That will come a day after they take on Basford United in the final of the National League Under-19 Alliance League Cup at Walsall FC’s Banks’s Stadium.
Dom Minchella gave Shields the lead against Hartpury with a brilliant solo effort which went in off the post just before the 20-minute mark.
Hartpury hit back with an equaliser scored by England Schoolboys player King Baidoo on 68 minutes, but the young Mariners were not to be denied.
Hodgson netted the winner with a minute left to play as he finished off a counter-attack to spark jubilant scenes.
Picton and fellow joint manager Graham Fenton were left delighted by the performance of their players.
Picton said: “This was a game in which we had to play a completely different style to the one we usually employ.
“We knew we were up against a very strong outfit, and we decided to sit off and drop right in.
“We played counter-attacking football, which is something the lads aren’t used to, but they executed the gameplan brilliantly.
“Hartpury probably had something like 70% of the possession, and because we successfully frustrated them and hit them on the break, we had the best chances of the game.
“If we had been a little bit more clinical in front of goal, we could have won by a slightly bigger margin.
“The general character and determination shown by the lads was incredible.”
Picton added: “Hartpury had some unbelievable talent on show, but we didn’t give them the space to really hurt us.
“Defensively, we were absolutely outstanding.
“It was probably the best win our Academy has had since it started.
“We’re now into two national finals, which is absolutely fantastic.
“Unfortunately the finals are on consecutive days, which is going to give us a headache in terms of logistics.
“We’ve just got to try to put out two really strong teams and do our best to win them both.
“It’s going to be a fantastic experience for the players.”
SSFC Academy team against Hartpury College: Steavens, Yembe, Croft, Biwer, Patterson, Lockey, Minchella, S Black, S Hodgson, Scott, McCamley. Subs: Carney, Elcoate, Jenkins, Colquhoun.