South Shields’ long wait for a game at 1st Cloud Arena comes to an end on Saturday when Stockton Town visit for a pre-season friendly (3pm kick-off).

It will be the Mariners’ first home match in 261 days after the coronavirus pandemic brought the 2020-21 season to a premature close.

Tickets for the game are available by clicking here.

Supporters can look forward to the potential of seeing summer arrivals Conor Tee, Ntumba Massanka and Will McGowan in action, with the team set to wear the striking Nike away kit which was launched on Thursday.

They will also be able to witness at first hand the extensive ground improvements which have been made during the close season, including new terraced areas behind both goals, a new pitchside perimeter fence, a freshly-laid ground surface throughout the ground and new seats in the existing main stand.

The new main stand on the Shaftesbury Avenue side of 1st Cloud Arena remains under construction, with the seats in the existing stand to be available on a first-come, first-served basis.

Shields go into the match after beginning their pre-season programme with a 1-0 victory at Newton Aycliffe on Tuesday, where Massanka scored the only goal.

PRE-MATCH TALK

South Shields manager Graham Fenton said: “Such a lot has happened since we last played a home game, and we hope to provide some great entertainment for our fans to watch in the coming weeks as we prepare for the new season.

“The players have trained extremely hard in preparation for this moment, and we are now into the most important period as the matches begin.

“We are hugely impressed by the fitness levels the lads have been able to reach and these games now give them an opportunity to build their match sharpness and develop a greater understanding of their roles in the team.

“It’s up to them over the next few weeks to nail down their place in the team for our league opener on August 14th.”

Captain Robert Briggs added: “I know the fans will have missed it as much as the players and staff, and we can’t wait to play in front of them again.

“The last few seasons have been a real mental battle that myself and all the players need to use as motivation going into the new season and the push for promotion.

“It has been very difficult to keep spirits high without football and a lot of other things in life over much of the last year, but all of the lads kept themselves in good shape with home workouts and running sessions during the time we weren’t able to play or train.

“Because of that, as soon as training began we were already in a good place fitness-wise so it was a relief as well as a great feeling to be back around each other.”

INFORMATION FOR SUPPORTERS

The turnstiles at 1st Cloud Arena will open at 12.30pm and purchasing a ticket in advance is strongly recommended, as the capacity of the ground has been set at 975 for this game because of coronavirus restrictions. A decision on whether a cash turnstile will be opened will be communicated on the morning of the match.

Tickets are priced at £6 for adults, £4 for students and over-65s, and £2 for under-16s.

Supporters are advised that, because of the ongoing restrictions, food and drink will not be available for purchase from the outdoor kiosks. Drinks will be served indoors on a strictly table service only and the balcony will be closed on this occasion. This is set to be the final match played under these restrictions, which are due to be lifted on Monday in time for the friendly with Consett the next day.

Seats in the existing main stand will be available on a first-come, first-served basis.

Turnstile 1 and 2 will be ticket-only and turnstiles 3 and 4 will also be in operation, as will turnstiles 5 and 6, which are situated beside the underpass next to the 3G pitch.

Merchandise, including the 2021-22 home shirt, will be available to buy from a new pop-up shop – situated in one of the kiosks by the players’ tunnel – on the day of the match.

A match programme, covering the game against Stockton and the subsequent meeting with Consett on Tuesday, will be available for £2. The front cover is pictured below.

Robert Briggs has told of his pride as he prepares to lead South Shields out at a new-look 1st Cloud Arena in the 2021-22 season.

Captain Briggs signed a two-year contract extension – which includes an option for a further 12 months – on Thursday to end speculation over his future.

The 29-year-old was able to commit to the club’s full-time training regime thanks to the flexibility of his other employer, who he paid tribute to after putting pen to paper.

With 280 appearances already under his belt across two spells, Briggs is the longest-serving player in the current Shields squad and his excitement is palpable ahead of the new campaign.

Not only do the Mariners have the bit between their teeth after two frustratingly curtailed seasons, they also have the tantalising prospect of walking out at what will feel in many ways like a new home.

Improvements have already been made to 1st Cloud Arena, with the area around the pitch having been tarmacked, a new pitchside fence set to be installed and a covered stand having been introduced behind the goal at the factory end of the ground.

Planning permission has now been obtained for the erection of a main stand adjacent to Shaftesbury Avenue which will seat more than 900 spectators, and having been starved of football over recent months, Briggs feels the players – and fans – will be chomping at the bit once pre-season arrives.

“It’s really exciting,” he said. “It feels like we’ve been building up to this point as a club for a couple of years.

“I’m sure everyone will be itching to watch non-league football again, especially when you see some of the things that have happened in the higher levels over the last few months.

“When the fans come back in there will be a totally different feel around the place.

“The atmosphere will be so much better with the ground being more enclosed, and that will lift both sets of players each week.

“I’ll be massively proud to lead the team out at such an incredible facility.”

Briggs first played for Shields as a teenager before returning in 2015 following spells with the likes of Gateshead, Shildon and West Auckland Town.

His second stint in claret and blue began in Division Two of the Northern League, and although it was the club’s ambition which prompted him to drop two divisions to join the club at the time, the scale of the progress since then has caught even him by surprise.

He added: “Comparing when I first signed here to now, it’s a totally different club.

“When you look at it right now it’s like a building site, but you can see where it’s going to go.

“You almost can’t remember what it was like before unless you look at the pictures.

“There has been a massive amount of changes, and that has been backed up by the progress on the pitch.

“It’s really good to see the club going from strength to strength off the pitch, and now we have to continue performing on it.”

Briggs was appointed Shields captain in December 2020 after Jon Shaw progressed into his role as joint assistant manager alongside his playing duties.

The midfielder has a strong bond with his team-mates and there is little doubt that, combined with the support of the management team and fans, they played a major part in his decision to sign a new contract.

Briggs said: “That was another massive factor in why I wanted to stay.

“As a player I’ve done a lot here but as captain I really want to push on even more.

“I had a lot of conversations with the lads over the last few weeks and the feedback from them was that they really wanted me to stay.

“They’ve trusted me and wanted me to be their captain. Hopefully I can do the job as well as the great captains I’ve worked under here over the years.

“Shawsy brought a wealth of experience to the role, Julio (Arca) had played at the highest level and Scroggs (Leepaul Scroggins) epitomises everything to do with South Shields.

“I want to take aspects from the way all three of them captained the team and utilise the skills they showed as best I can.

“The fanbase have also been amazing with me and were another massive reason behind me signing this new deal.”

It’s easy to forget that when Graham Fenton and Lee Picton took over as joint managers of the Mariners in September 2016, they inherited a Robert Briggs who was out of the Shields team in Division One of the Northern League.

The turnaround since then, with Briggs establishing himself as a mainstay and key reference point of the team, has been remarkable.

Looking back at the tough moments he endured, Briggs explained: “It was a really difficult time, and there were a few of us in the same situation including Dillon Morse and Wayne Phillips.

“I remember having a conversation when I talked about going out on loan because I wasn’t playing.

“For me, the timing of Lee and Graham becoming joint managers couldn’t have worked out better because they put their faith in me straightaway.

“I scored a hat-trick in their first or second game and from there, our relationship got better and better and my performances continued to improve.

“They have both done a massive amount to help me improve as a player.”

Briggs will now benefit from additional training sessions each week as he joins Shields’ full-time training regime.

He admits that he had thought his days of full-time training were long behind him, and is determined to make the most of the opportunity granted to him.

He added: “One of the most difficult things to keep on top of as a part-time player was fitness, because I really had to put the effort in on those non-training days alongside the hours I was putting in at work.

“Now I’ll be training pretty much every day and my fitness will improve naturally with that.

“I’ll have more time to focus on the aspects of my game I want to improve and all of the players will be pushing each other to get to our highest levels and help the club kick on again.”

Briggs was one of Shields’ standout performers in the all-too-short 2020-21 season, the highlight of which saw the club reach the first round of the Emirates FA Cup.

The Mariners have not played a competitive game since their Buildbase FA Trophy exit at Ashton United in December, and the moment they return to the pitch cannot come a minute too soon for the captain.

He said: “I can’t wait to get going again.

“I’ve done a lot of running and gym work to try to keep fit and keep sane. That has been massive for my mental health.

“When I eventually get back in and get everything going, it will be a big relief.

“The biggest relief though will be when we start playing games and the fans are back in cheering us on.

“We’ve seen how important the fans are, not just for South Shields but for football as a whole.”

When asked to pick out his three favourite memories as a Shields player – and there were plenty to choose from – Briggs opted for the incredible squad achievement of winning four trophies in the 2016-17 season, the Wembley experience of 2017 and rejoining the club in 2015.

As he prepares to lead the side out as captain in 2021-22, though, he will be determined to make sure that the best moments are yet to come.

Captain Robert Briggs has signed a new long-term contract with South Shields after an agreement was reached for him to join the club’s full-time training regime. 

Briggs, who is the longest-serving member of the Mariners’ squad, has signed a deal until the summer of 2023, with an option for a further year.

The midfielder has been a shining light for Shields since rejoining from Spennymoor Town in 2015, helping the club to three league titles and six trophy wins.

He was named captain in December 2020 and will begin the 2021-22 campaign with 280 appearances and 78 goals to his name in claret and blue across two spells.

The 29-year-old – who was named in the Pitching In Northern Premier League’s Team of the Year in the most-recently completed season, 2018-19 – thanked his other employer after putting pen to paper at 1st Cloud Arena.

He said: “I’m thrilled that the deal has been done.

“My work situation needed to be sorted and there were some other offers on the table, but I’m so glad that this has been finalised and I’m able to continue my time here.

“It’s great that my work have been flexible enough to give me the opportunity to do this and that South Shields have been so supportive of my situation as well.

“I can’t wait to come in and spend even more time with the lads to see how we can work together to continue pushing this club as far as it can go.

“No matter which other clubs I spoke to or which offers were made, it was always in my head that I didn’t want to leave South Shields.

“The toughest decision would have been to walk away and in the end that was something I wasn’t prepared to do.

“I couldn’t really see myself playing anywhere else and after the management team showed great loyalty and faith in me by giving me the captain’s armband, I couldn’t walk away from them or the lads.”

Manager Graham Fenton said: “We’re absolutely over the moon that Robert has committed his long-term future to the club.

“It took a while to get everything finalised due to uncertainty over his work commitments, but we’re delighted we’ve managed to work through that and get his situation sorted out.

“We’d like to thank Robbie’s work for allowing him to pursue a few hours of training per week through the day and letting him pick up his other commitments at other times of the day. That was a huge factor in being able to get the deal over the line.

“I’m sure the supporters will be delighted that Robbie will be captaining the team for the foreseeable future.

“He has shown over the years what a huge asset he is to the club in terms of his performances on the pitch and his personality off it.

“We always knew he had the talent, but he has improved his understanding of his role in the team, wherever he is asked to play, over the last five years and showed tremendous development as a player.

“He was having an excellent season last time out before it was cut short and we look forward to continuing to see the quality we’ve been used to from him over the years.”

An in-depth interview with Robert will be published on the website on Friday. You can sign up now to watch the skipper lead Shields out in all 21 home league games next term by snapping up a season ticket. Click here to purchase online.