South Shields joint managers Lee Picton and Graham Fenton, assistant manager Martin Scott and managing director Michael Orr held a question and answer session with supporters last week.
The event, at Mariners Park on Thursday, was well-attended as supporters got an opportunity to put their questions to the management.
Below is a full transcript of the Q and A, which was compered by Nathan Reed.
Q and A with South Shields FC joint manager Lee Picton (LP), joint manager Graham Fenton (GF), assistant manager Martin Scott (MS) and managing director Michael Orr (MO) at Mariners Park on December 8, 2016.
LP: I think this is long overdue. It’s something we would like to do quite regularly at the club. Everyone is aware that lots of things get thrown around all over the place. We’re happy to answer questions, communicate and engage with the fans. We’re looking to do this on a regular basis. We hope this will be a really productive night for everyone.
Question: Why has Jon Shaw played so many games at centre-back?
LP: For us, it’s brilliant having players in the squad like Jon. Not only can he play in more than one position exceptionally well, but for us he is fantastic in the standards that he sets on and off the pitch. He is more than worth his weight in gold in that respect. We’ve got Dillon Morse at the club, who I think is a really bright prospect at centre-back. Unfortunately, we suffered the injury to Louis Storey earlier on in the season, which was a big blow for us. We’re hoping to get him back on the pitch in the next month. Jon has lots of experience. He played for Gateshead a number of times at centre-back in a much higher league than this, and did very well by all accounts. When he signed for the club, he himself expressed an interest in playing in that position, and said he saw himself moving further back on the pitch later in his career. He’s really enjoying playing there. We’ve paired him with Dillon of late. I think it really benefits Dillon to have that cool, experienced head next to him. Jon is someone alongside him to help him learn his trade and keep him in the right place. The defensive record when Jon has played at centre-back speaks for itself. We just felt it was the best fit at the time.
Question: Has it been difficult at all for the two of you to be joint managers?
GF: Not at all. Most people will know that we work together on a daily basis, and have done for the last seven years, almost. We’ve made it work at Monkseaton, and there was no reason the relationship wouldn’t work here as well. We communicate a lot every day. We do video analysis from our games at South Shields, and use that with our lads at Monkseaton as well. Sometimes we’ll work with them using footage from some of the top teams around the world, and sometimes we’ll show them things from the Shields games as well. We spend a lot of time talking about and analysing the games. The relationship works really well, and has done over many years. I had no qualms at all when the opportunity arose to be joint managers here.
Question: Will Warren Byrne return to the club at the end of his loan spell?
LP: Warren will return to the club. Everyone around the club at the start of the season – and Warren would admit this himself – would have seen that he wasn’t in the best physical shape. We were in a Catch-22 situation. When we first took over as a management team, our approach was to give everyone in that dressing room a chance to show what they could do. In our first 10 games, there was a lot of rotation in the side and bar almost nobody, everyone got an opportunity to show what they could do. It would have been easy to come in and make sweeping changes straightaway. We wanted to give everyone a chance. With Warren, we felt we couldn’t give him the game time if he wasn’t in the right physical shape. At the same time, he needed the game time to get into the physical shape. We thought the best situation was for him to go out and get games, while we would monitor his progress and re-evaluate things when the loan deal came up to expiring. We extended the loan recently, and he’s due back to us on December 29. We intend to bring him back into the squad and evaluate where he’s at then. We’ll make a further decision moving forward from there.
Question: How beneficial is the current relationship with Gateshead, and do you want that to stay in place moving forward?
GF: Hopefully the relationship we have with them will continue. The first dealings with Gateshead were when Jon King was manager, and he brought Ben Clark in. That was a fantastic signing for the club, but unfortunately Ben got injured and decided to retire. We then took Luke Hannant on a dual-registration deal, and he did particularly well. He came and played some really good games, and did really well at Shildon away in particular. He got himself some match fitness during his time with us, which Gateshead were very appreciative of. Since he has gone back there, he has been in their first-team squad regularly. We approached Gateshead about Adam Wrightson later, and he was in the same situation as Luke was when he joined the club. He needed some game time, and we were delighted to be able to get him to sign for South Shields. He has two more game to go until his loan expires (this is one following the Seaham Red Star match), and we will see where we go from there.
Question: What is the situation with Craig Turns – we noticed he signed for the club, but he hasn’t been in any matchday squads?
GF: I know Craig very well from my days at Blyth Spartans, and I like him as a lad. He joined us because we had a difficult situation with Liam Connell and Joss Carmichael. The two keepers understandably both wanted to be number one, and it was very hard to deal with that situation. We had to make a choice, and we decided to give the nod to Liam. We approached Craig to see if he wanted to come in on the understanding he would be a number two to Liam, and he agreed to join. After one training session, he suffered a sudden bereavement in the family which had subsequent knock-on effects. Craig had a really bad month and I recently got a message from him saying that he had decided to stop playing. We’re now on the lookout for a new goalkeeper. We’ve signed Curtis Richardson from the reserves as cover, which we’re delighted to do. It is a position we’re looking to strengthen in.
Question: Are you making signings with the future in mind, and possibly playing in higher leagues in future years?
LP: So far, the players we’ve signed on permanent deals have been Andrew Stephenson, Michael Richardson, Anthony Callaghan and Darren Holden. In our minds, they all tick a lot of boxes we want our signings to tick. One of them is that they all have experience of playing at a higher level. They can deal with that added commitment playing at the next level requires. We’re taking a long-term approach to bringing players in who can go on a journey with the football club, hopefully over the next few years as we try to make steps through the leagues. The boxes are ticked by those lads. It’s something that has been high on our list of considerations when signing new players.
Question: Are there any plans to further develop Mariners Park next summer, and anything in place to change the floodlights?
MO: We took over the running of the club 18 months ago, and the first thing we did was put a five-year plan together for the ground. It is well-documented that Geoff Thompson wants to take the club to the Conference. There is a masterplan for the ground which would allow us to get to the Conference here. There are some issues, such as the parking, and we’re looking at various solutions. With the ground, there was a lot of investment in each of the last two summers, and how we go on with that in the five-year plan is in a lot of ways led by how successful the team is. Next summer, I don’t envisage a great deal of changes made to the ground, apart from those we need to make for ground grading issues to be eligible for promotion. Next season, depending on the crowd figures and where we’re at, we’ll look at where we stand regarding further changes we can make to the ground. Regarding the floodlights, there is nothing in the pipeline to change them. As part of our promotion application, we had to have the lux levels of the lights tested, and they passed with no problem at all. There’s very little we have to do to pass those grading issues.
Question: What can you reveal about the departure of Danny Carson?
LP: We’re disappointed that Danny has decided to leave the club. We had a situation a couple of weeks ago where his brother David left the club. That was a different matter, and was a decision we made for reasons around a couple of things that happened in the dressing room at the game against Guisborough Town. I don’t want to go into too much detail about that, because there are some things I feel that any manager in our position would want to keep in the dressing room. After what happened with David and him leaving the club, we had a meeting with Danny and made it really clear that we didn’t want what had happened with David to affect anything with him moving forward at the club. We all had a constructive conversation, shook hands and moved on. Danny’s performances in the meantime were outstanding. There was then an incident in training on Tuesday, which again I don’t want to go into too much detail with. Nothing exploded on the training pitch. It was a matter dealt with after the training session. We said that, in our opinion, what had happened was disrespectful, and didn’t expect it to happen again. Every time the players win three league games in a row, the club gives them the reward of a three-course meal after a training session, and Carl Ferguson, the chef here, cooks them some fantastic food. We use that as a reward and as an opportunity to help with team bonding. Danny didn’t come in for the meal on Tuesday and I got a text from him half an hour later saying that he felt he couldn’t work with us moving forward, and that he’d like to leave the club. He’s a non-contracted player, so he’s well within his rights to do that. We thank him for his efforts and wish him well for the future. He has made that decision and there’s not a lot we can do about it.
Question: Which competition is taking priority for us this season – the league or the FA Vase?
LP: We’d love to win all of the competitions we’re in. No team has ever done that before. I love it when people are optimistic and I want people to dream. We want people to see their club doing great things. Sometimes we have to just taper that a little bit and realise how far we’ve come in a very short period of time. I don’t want to cool those dreams and aspirations, but we just need a little reality check with it. We’ve got a great set-up and things are moving very well. I’m not going to hide from the fact we have a healthy budget. However, lots of clubs have had healthy budgets and not gone on to win these competitions in the past. No Northern League club has won the league and Vase in the same season. This might not be a popular opinion but personally, if I was given the option of promotion or the Vase, I would say promotion. Some people would say that’s because we’ve been there before and done it in the Vase. I understand how great it can be, but we all know where the owner wants to take the club as well. We have to keep progressing and testing ourselves at the next level as often as we can. Our number one priority this season is to win promotion, but of course we want to go as far as possible in the Vase as well.
GF: Our priority is the league. When I was manager of North Shields, we went the other way and prioritised the Vase the year we won it. With the number of games we had left, we thought we’d find it very difficult to win the league. We rested players for some league games, and that possibly cost us two positions in the league. With the way this season is going, and the excellent work that has gone on with the pitch here, we hopefully won’t fall behind, so will hopefully be able to compete in both competitions as far as possible. We’re looking to challenge in all four competitions.
MS: I’d just like to say that I’m delighted to be involved with the club. I firmly believe that we have two of the best coaches in the North East running the club. I got the opportunity to come and work with them and help them, looking at things differently and not at the coal face. Graham and Lee work fantastically well together. I’ve seen a lot of football in my life. The passion I feel here, with the supporters, players, staff and owner, is incredible. This club is moving forward, and to be part of that is going to be exciting. From my point of view, I’m absolutely over the moon to be involved with a group of players who I think are so gifted and talented, and have got a really fantastic mindset to move this club forward. I’m expecting exciting times, and we’ve got to look at Darlington as an example of what can be done. I can see what has happened there being replicated here if the right things are put in place. It’s never easy to do that of course and a lot of work will have to go in. As supporters, you don’t see everything that’s going on around the club. Everything falls on the manager’s doorstep. Sometimes decisions are made for the right reasons for the club, but supporters might just see the decision. Every decision that has been made since I’ve been here has been to help this club move to the next level. We have two of the best coaches in how they do things, their coaching and the way they prepare the players. They do an incredible amount of work.
Question: Can you explain a bit about Danny Barlow, who came on in the game against Blyth Town?
GF: We signed Danny from North Shields Athletic, and he’s also at Monkseaton Football Academy with us. He has worked with us for the last year-and-a-half and progressed really well. We saw the game against Blyth Town as a great opportunity to get Danny involved in the squad. I wasn’t at the game, because I was away watching Staveley ahead of our game against them in the FA Vase. By all accounts, he did very well in his 20 minutes on the pitch. He’s a bright prospect and we’re delighted to have him signed on. We’ll hopefully get him some more minutes soon.
Question: Ultimately, who picks the team?
LP: We both pick the team. When Graham was at North Shields, himself and his assistant Andy Bowman would have a discussion and if there was any bone of contention, Brian Smith, the number three, would get the opportunity to put his opinion in. We take the same sort of approach. We very rarely disagree with the team selection and the direction we want to go in, but we always include Martin and ask if he has any strong thoughts about it.
Question: We’re the 7/2 favourites to win the FA Vase, is that worth a bet?
LP: Those odds show how many great supporters we have out there!
Question: Do you expect Julio Arca to still be a part of things next season if we win promotion?
GF: Hopefully. We’ll see how this season goes. We try to give him a rest whenever we can, because we’re mindful of the fact Julio is 35. I don’t think he wants to rest, but at his age you sometimes have to take that decision out of his hands. We’ll hopefully have a conversation sooner rather than later to see what his plans are for the future.
LP: Of course we’d like Julio to be part of our squad next season. Julio embodies everything that we’re trying to drive on the management side of things as well. He’s the first person to take responsibility if he makes a mistake on the pitch or when something goes wrong. He won’t look for excuses. He’s his own harshest critic. Everybody remembers the skills and his little bits of magic to beat players. What is even more impressive for me is that this is a player who has played at the highest level, and still has such an incredible hunger and passion for the game now. He works his backside off every week for this football club, which is testament to the man he is. Jon Shaw is exactly the same. For us, it’s great having players here who embody the qualities and culture we’re trying to develop within the dressing room. Julio brings so much for us. He’s an absolute pleasure to work with.
Question: Who do you think is our strongest competition in the league this season?
LP: Everyone can see the table and who is doing really well. At the moment, it effectively looks like being a four-horse race, barring any major disasters. North Shields are out of the Vase now, and either ourselves or Morpeth will go out in the next round. Hopefully that’s not us! North Shields have got the best record in the league so far. I don’t want this to turn into a mutual appreciation society, but what they have achieved this season is in a large part down to the work that Graham did with that squad over three or four years. They’re a pretty young side, and there are a lot of players there who have come through our programme at Monkseaton. Some people have been quick to write them off, but I still think they could well be our biggest rival for the league title.
GF: North Shields will not be far away. Their sole goal now is to win the league. They have avoided any sort of injury crisis so far, not that we’ve had one ourselves. They haven’t suffered injuries to their top players, whereas we have had injuries here and there to some of our key players. We’ve still managed to get the right results more often than not. If their key players continue to steer clear of injuries, I don’t see them dropping away any time soon. Morpeth possibly have the strongest squad out of our competitors at the top of the table. I think a lot will depend on the results the four teams have against each other. North Shields still have to play twice against Shildon this season, and they’re going to be a major challenger for the league. It will come down to the results against each other, I think.
Club historian and vice-president Bob Wray then gave a passionate, heartfelt speech about the club, his experience watching the Mariners and his hopes for the future, before thanking Lee, Graham, Martin and Michael for giving up their time to speak at the event.
LP: We know how tough a job management is, particularly at a club which wants to go onwards and upwards at the same time. We have more than enough humility to say to you that we are going to make mistakes. We’re going to make mistakes and probably already have made mistakes. Every decision we’ve made has been for the right reasons, and because we want to try and be a success for this club moving forwards. It’s an absolute privilege to be joint manager of this football club. We’re working our backsides off to get this right. I was in and around the Northern League for years as a player. All I can say is that I never worked for a manager who is working as hard as we are here. We are putting hours and hours and hours in every week. We’re entirely grateful for the opportunity and the experience we are all hopefully going to share in the future. There are a lot of people outside this club who don’t want the club to do well. What we’ve got to try and do on the inside of the club is to pull in the same direction moving forwards to make this a positive environment for everyone concerned – players, staff and fans. I have been been in clubs where negativity has taken over, and it’s horrible. We understand that certain things are going to happen, and not everything in the garden will be rosy all the time. We’re trying to take a long-term approach and plan for the future with robust approaches and techniques. I’ve seen it said that there’s a revolving door at the club regarding players coming in and out. We don’t want it to be that way, but we have to make the decisions we feel are right now, so that in the future it doesn’t become a revolving door. We want this to become a stable environment for everyone concerned. That’s what this is all about. It’s so you can go away and have a clearer picture of what we’re trying to achieve. We’re working as hard as we can to hopefully give you a side – if you aren’t already – to be proud of.
GF: I echo those sentiments completely. We understand the responsibility we have here and aren’t taking it lightly. We’re working extremely hard with training, going to see other teams, and with match analysis. It’s all about trying to move this club forwards. All we’re asking for is a little bit of patience until we get a settled side, which is what we’re looking for. You only have to look at what Leicester City achieved at the very top of the game with a settled side last season to see how important that is.
MS: I’ve got to say that it was absolutely outstanding to listen to Bob Wray, and that just summed everything up for me tonight. The way he spoke, the passion he showed, the memories he shared and what he has seen at this club was inspiring. Us as a management team, and everybody behind the scenes, are pulling in the right direction. These are exciting times, and me personally, coming from the outside looking in, the team we have here is such an exciting one, and unbelievable to watch. There are some really quality players here. I’m totally confident we can go on to have a fantastic season, and hopefully build on that to move the club forward.
MO: I’d like to thank the gentlemen alongside me for the work they’ve done so far. We and them have made some tough decisions, and I’m quite happy with what they have achieved so far. I’m very confident in their ability to achieve what everyone in this room wants.