Can Mariners sail to a fourth consecutive promotion?
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South Shields were relegated to the Northern League Second Division, the 10th tier of English Football, in 2013. Financial problems meant they had to play away from their home ground for two seasons. New Chairman Geoff Thompson turned it all around for the club, securing a deal to take South Shields back to their Mariners Park home. Success came immediately.
Promotion straight back to the Northern League First Division began the climb, followed up by two league titles in a row. Now in the North Premier Division, the Mariners sail three tiers below League Two.
Over the past decade, it became commonplace in non-league football for clubs to fly up the leagues once investment came in. Even then, there were normally bumps along the road. Salford City and AFC Fylde failed to achieve more than two successive promotions. Hereford managed three prior to this season. They'll be in the National North again next season, where South Shields hope to be.
The Mariners' home form has been fantastic from the word go this year, dropping nine points from a possible 57. Early on, though, dismal performances on the road threatened their promotion hopes. Thankfully, that's been rectified. Back-to-back February defeats are the only blip on the radar in 2019.
Until last Saturday, they were on a six-game winning run but that won't be enough. At the weekend, Shields needed a 97th-minute penalty to snatch a 1-1 draw at home to Basford, two points dropped. Currently, the Mariners sit three points behind leaders Farsley with three games to go, but they hold the better goal difference. Warrington cling to an outside chance at the title, a further point behind the Mariners. but it is more likely to be one of the top two who clinches the only automatic promotion spot.
Farsley won their last seven and don't look like faltering the rest of the way. Their last three games coming against sides from 10th-17th. Whereas South Shields still have two of the other top eight teams to play with both chasing the playoffs.
However, the pressure has always been on Farsley. They must still get over the line.
Whichever side falls short faces a brutal playoff format. Four clubs play in through one-off matches, as has been the norm until recently across non-league. However, due to the change in structure at the third tier of non-league football, there are now four different divisions based on geography and only six promotion spots. The four regional playoff winners now must pair off with the winners claiming the remaining two promotion places after the division winners go through.
Those waters remain far off for the Mariners, however. For now, they must focus on catching Farsley. The squad is experienced, several having experienced promotion in the past season or two. The Mariners support is comparatively large for this level as well. They're averaging just under 1,500 per match this season, a huge increase from their struggles in the Northern League.
If Shields were to claim a fourth success promotion it would be a huge achievement, one that would bring a host of opportunities.
For one, there'd be plenty of North East opposition in the National North that this year features Spennymoor Town, Blyth Spartans and Darlington. Then there are a host of ex-Football League sides such as Stockport County, York City, Hereford and Chester.
A previous iteration of the South Shields club played against some of the biggest in the land, competing in a national second division for most of the 1920s. The current club, which formed in 1974, is as high up the pyramid as it's ever been. They have big aspirations. '#ProjectEFL' is pushed heavily by the club, with fans responding. The pressure is on Farsley in the box seat where many teams falter at this late stage.
One thing is for certain though, the South Shields story shows how things can quickly turn from despair to triumph in just a few years. Whether or not they reach the National North this season, don't bet against them climbing even higher in the near future.