A smile is never far from the face of Joao Gomes – and the teenager has had plenty of reasons to grin from ear to ear this week.
Having worked tirelessly to impress during a two-year spell in South Shields’ Academy, the attacking midfielder has signed his first senior contract with the club and been promoted to the first-team squad.
He could be forgiven for basking in the achievement he has strived so hard for over the last two years, but behind that smile is a steely determination to make another significant jump.
Gomes is not about to step into the trap of believing signing a senior contract means he has made it. As he explains, he is only just getting started.
“The hard work starts now,” the 18-year-old said. “I’ve not got a first-team place just because I’ve signed this contract.
“I know I have to prove I belong here and I really want to earn those opportunities with the first-team, but I’m a confident guy when it comes to football.
“If you don’t believe in yourself it won’t work out for you so you can’t allow yourself to have any doubts.
“You have to trust your ability and make sure you always show what you’re made of.”
He has certainly done that since joining the club.
Gomes was an integral part of the side which progressed further than any previous Shields team in the FA Youth Cup in 2019-20, reaching the third round before a defeat to a supremely talented Fulham outfit.
He scored four goals along the way – including a dramatic late winner against Morecambe and a blockbuster from long range in a comfortable victory over Harrogate Town – and impressed with his ability on the ball, work-rate and desire.
It was quite an introduction to life at 1st Cloud Arena for Gomes, who grew up in Portuguese capital Lisbon before moving to the North East of England, where he was initially part of Newcastle Benfield’s set-up.
Adapting to a new country and way of life was difficult, but Gomes’ love of the beautiful game undoubtedly proved a welcome distraction.
He added: “That was a big step for me, coming to a new country and having to learn a new language and culture.
“I’m 18 now and feel really comfortable here.
“Football has played such a huge part in helping me settle in this country and learn the language.
“I feel much more comfortable on the pitch because of it because I can express myself and be myself.”
But just what was the most difficult aspect of North East life for Gomes to adapt to?
“For me, the toughest thing to get used to here was the accent,” Gomes said, laughing. “I couldn’t really understand it at first because people talk very fast, but I’m better with it now.
“The weather was also difficult to adapt to at the beginning because you never know whether it’s going to be hot or cold.”
Gomes was spotted while playing for Newcastle Benfield in a game in which he scored a headed goal – something he jokingly admits is a rarity in his game.
You are far more likely to see him taking on defenders, providing for team-mates and demonstrating his eye for goal with his feet, but that header and his all-round performance earned him an opportunity at Shields which he quickly grasped.
Having taken up the game at the age of 12, Gomes was a relatively late developer but his progression during his time in Shields’ Academy has been notable.
It earned him trial periods at multiple clubs but the teenager has opted to commit his future to the Mariners by signing a two-year deal.
The path from Academy to first-team has been a well-trodden one over recent years, and Gomes has plenty of inspiration among his new senior team-mates as he bids to make his mark.
He said: “My team-mates have been brilliant with me since I came here, especially Sam Hodgson and Will Jenkins.
“I look up to them a lot as they both made the step from the Academy to the first-team and are doing really well.
“I’m trying to emulate what they’ve done and they set the example in terms of the amount of work you have to put in.”
Gomes’ time in the Academy had plenty of highlights, with his role in the FA Youth Cup run of two seasons ago undoubtedly at the top of the list.
He added: “There have been lots of challenges to overcome over the last two years and I worked very hard during my time in the Academy, but I’ve enjoyed every minute of it here so far.
“I feel like I’ve matured a lot and progressed well as a player, so I have to keep that going.
“The experience I had in the Youth Cup two seasons ago, and playing in front of the brilliant fans so many times, really helped my development and I want to play in front of that sort of atmosphere all the time now.”
First-team manager Graham Fenton is enthused to have secured Gomes’ services for the next two seasons and has described the teenager as an “exciting prospect”.
But what should those fans who have not yet seen him play expect? The final word goes to Gomes himself.
“I’m a player who likes to provide and score goals, and express myself on the pitch,” he said. “I like to go on one-v-ones and entertain the fans.
“Now I need to earn the opportunity to go out there every week and do that.
“As I said, the hard work has just begun.”
It has been a tough time for everybody involved with South Shields FC, including the Academy.
After a stellar beginning to the season for our youth side, both training and games have been to a minimum with next to nothing happening at either 1st Cloud Arena or the Washington Hub since before Christmas.
The Academy attracts some of the most talented young footballers in the North East, and recently Ciaran Lines spoke to three of these players: Jack Watson from Wallsend, Ben Errington from Sunderland and Will Morris from Prudhoe.
With no training happening on the field, running challenges have been set to get the best out of the players during lockdown.
‘Endurance week’ came first, with the challenge being to run the most amount of kilometres within a seven-day period.
Under-17 player Ben Fell won this, with a distance of 53km. For this week, each player was put into a team of their age group to compete against their team-mates of different ages. Ben Errington explained that this “really helped to keep competitiveness alive” among the squad.
The coaches then set the test of completing the fastest 1km run. Will Morris won this, and as a runner myself, I was blown away by his winning time of just two minutes and 46 seconds. I don’t think I need to describe how fast this actually is.
Next came ‘grit week’, ultimately the hardest of the lot.
There were seven different challenges throughout the week, each getting more difficult as they progressed through the days.
If a player failed to complete a challenge they were eliminated, with the idea being that the last man standing on Sunday would win.
There was a three-way tie in the Shields squad, with all three of the players we spoke to going through to a knockout day.
On this day, each player was given two runs to get as much elevation gain as possible overall.
Jack Watson won this by doing reps of the hill leading up to Tynemouth Priory, which from experience I can confirm is a very steep climb to run up once, never mind over and over again.
With Ben and Will nearing the end of their time in the Shields academy, both are looking to the future.
Ben is aiming to secure for a contract with the first-team but plans to go to stay local and attend Newcastle University to study marketing.
Will, meanwhile, is fielding scholarship offers from American universities to play football across the pond. He then hopes to return to the North East and continue to play football, possibly in the Northern League.
Jack is part of Shields’ Under-17s side within the Academy, and is confident the side can progress in the coming years.
He said: “I think we just take it game by game and hope to progress through the rounds of the FA Youth Cup again and try and go further than we have done previously.”
After Shields’ excellent run to the third round of the competition in 2019-20, Ben and Will also believe the squad can do well in it and are capable of going very far.
In the meantime, we can just hope that everything will be back to normal soon. All are missing the presence of supporters at matches, and the frustration this also provides for players on the field can only be imagined.
South Shields Under-19s’ game away to Billingham Synthonia this week was postponed due to Tier 3 coronavirus restrictions in Teesside.
The Young Mariners will hope to resume their National League Under-19 Alliance campaign in the new year, hosting Scarborough Athletic in the first week of 2021.
A visit from fellow North East side, and the league’s current top scorers Blyth Spartans on the 13th and a trip to West Yorkshire the following week to face Farsley Celtic will round out the first month of the new year for our youth side, with the hope to put a run of games together and rediscover previous form.