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From the abyss to hosting Mancini’s Saudi squad: how South Shields FC turned their fortunes around

When the Saudi national team set up camp in the North East of England last year for two friendly matches at Newcastle’s St. James’ Park, they also gave a boost to one of the region’s most historic if, for global audiences at least, lesser-known clubs.

In September, the Green Falcons faced Costa Rica and South Korea at the home of the PIF-owned Premier League giants, with their training sessions taking place at nearby South Shields FC, a team that plays in English football’s sixth tier.

For Geoff Thompson, the National League North club’s chairman, it was vindication of a labor of love to rescue the institution from obscurity almost a decade ago.

“We had the Saudi national team train with us last year, which was a fantastic occasion,” Thompson told Arab News. “We were able to sort of welcome Roberto (Mancini) and Claudio (Donatelli), the team’s manager and fitness coach.”

“I’m sure you’ll have heard they had a great time with us,” Thompson said. “We looked after them very well, and they trained in our facility prior to their game at St. James’ Park.”

South Shields, established in 1888, is now a club very much on the up after struggles in recent decades. Thompson’s investments saved the club from the abyss, and now their first-class facilities had become a welcoming home for Mancini’s squad. Donatelli was impressed.

“I know the region very well; in the past, I worked at Sunderland AFC and lived in Newcastle,” the fitness and performance coach said.

“The entire North East of England has a great passion for football, with children and adults crowding the stadiums. I found the same vibrant passion running on the pitch of the 1st Cloud Arena, the home of South Shields Football Club. For me, it was a happy return home.”

Above, South Shields Chairman Geoff Thompson. (Supplied)

Saudi Arabia may have lost both matches, but overall it was a positive experience, with many locals showing support for the country that delivered Newcastle United from the unpopular regime of previous owner Mike Ashley.

“What I remember most is the courteous hospitality and helpfulness of everyone who welcomed our team and the technical staff,” Donatelli said. “We also greatly appreciated the excellent condition of the football pitch and the locker rooms. Everything was very professional. Talking with the staff of South Shields FC, I understood how much this football club is connected to the community and the people of the entire area, thanks to a series of sports and social services that help people live their daily lives well.”

Thompson hopes that the experience can be repeated in the future and highlights that the relationship was two-way.

“In fairness, the players and the management were incredibly courteous and friendly. And I’d like to think we were obviously, you know, very good hosts and, likewise, friendly and courteous.

“The players, I think, enjoyed the experience of training at our ground. So it was all quite a surreal moment, really, for us because, nine years ago, we were languishing further down the pyramid and here we are later hosting the Saudi national team,” he said.

“It’s kind of fairytale stuff really. They were incredible guests, very courteous, and enjoyed the experience. We loved having them with us. It’s very humbling; we got some very pleasant feedback from both Roberto and Claudio, and indeed from the players as well.”

The club was established back in 1888 as South Shields Adelaide Athletic and were playing in the Football League in the late 1920s. In 1930, the club folded and moved to Gateshead. It was reestablished as South Shields FC in 1974.

“I like to tell the story that South Shields were beating the likes of Man United and Chelsea back in the 1920s, which is quite a remarkable comment. Unfortunately, the club fell on slightly harder times.”

Thompson bought the club and Mariners Park ground in 2015, and they have been on an upward trajectory since then.

“I got involved because the club were in some difficulty back in 2015. We were playing our football outside of our hometown,” he said.

As a local businessman who was born in South Shields, Thompson felt he owed the club a lifeline.

“I really wanted to step in and try to help. It’s been an amazing journey. I’ve really enjoyed it and we’ve come a long way in that nine years.”

Thompson points out that South Shields is equidistant between Newcastle United, once branded the “richest club in the world,” and their fierce rivals Sunderland.

“The town itself has about 100,000 people who live there. South Tyneside, the area, has 150,000. And the broader geography in the North East is about, I think it’s about 1.5 to 2 million people. The region is renowned for its passion for football.”

Thompson smiles when he says that while his investment is “not quite the Saudi investment in Newcastle,” it was still a considerable amount that has changed the fortunes of the club.

“We’ve progressed the club through the English football pyramid. We’re now hoping at some point to get back into the Football League. We’re currently in the National League system, sitting in the National League North.”

Promotions achieved on the field, however, would not have been sanctioned if the club had not got their house in order off it. The investment in infrastructure as much as players meant the club was in rude health.

“You know, the facilities have to satisfy certain conditions. So we’ve achieved all of that, which I’m pleased to say. And we’re now in the National League system.”

South Shields now have their eyes on the English Football League. Thompson said that he wants to “future-proof” the club on that ambitious journey.

“We spent over £3 million ($3.8 million) on a new stand recently; we’ve got a great playing surface, and we’ve got our own separate training facilities.”

There have been trophies along the way, too, with South Shields winning the Northern League Cup in 2017. The same year, there was a 4-0 win over Cleethorpes Town in the FA Vase final at Wembley.

“We had something like 22,000 South Shields fans down at Wembley, which was quite a remarkable weekend for the town,” Thompson said.

The club has established several initiatives through their South Shield Academy system, which caters to talent between the ages of 11 and 19, and more recently the International Academy, catering for ages 18-24.

Around the time the Saudi squad visited South Shields last September, the club launched a partnership with nearby Sunderland University, offering international students keen on accessing football-based training, coaching and knowledge the opportunity to enrol in a one-year study abroad program or a  three-year undergraduate degree program, both for high school graduates. There is also a one-year master’s degree program for students who are graduating from university. 

Initially the club targeted players mostly from the US, but is now looking to attract talent from the Middle East, the Far East and Australasia.

Sadly, for health reasons, Thompson has decided to put the club up for sale.

“Any new owner will really be inheriting a fantastic organization that’s got all of the infrastructure in place.”

They would also be taking over a club that has several money-making initiatives, he said.

“You can’t survive alone on matchday income (alone),” said Thompson. “If you look at our revenue streams, of course, yes, we’re well supported. We typically get around 2,500 fans currently attending our home games. (But also) we’ve separately got our sponsorship revenues. Thirdly, we’ve got merchandise, selling shirts and the like to fans. And, then, in addition, we’ve got the academy revenues themselves.”

Around 40 players have progressed through the academy — established seven years ago — to make appearances for South Shields’ first team.

Thompson said that where South Shields distinguish themselves over other rivals is that they are a full-time professional club, a status achieved in 2021.

He credits South Shields Sporting Director, Lee Picton, for playing a major role in creating a set-up that has seen the club’s profile, and reputation, skyrocket in recent years.

On targeting talent from the Middle East region, Picton said: “We are building strong links with the UAE and wider Middle East region by developing partnership connections with clubs and academic institutions in the region. This is further aided by the strong connection between Newcastle United Football Club and its majority owner, Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund.” 

Thompson is hoping that the Saudi investment in Newcastle will have an impact — and shine a light — on the region in a way that will benefit other institutions, including South Shields, on and off the pitch.

“I would love to think that will happen over time,” he said. “What I have seen already is obviously under Saudi ownership, the Newcastle United Foundation is doing more and more. And I set up our own foundation, South Shields FC’s Foundation. And so we’ve got a charitable foundation that’s very similar to Newcastle’s, maybe not quite on the same scale, but we’ve got a very similar charitable purpose to try to help young children and to make them more physically active.”

South Shield may also have pulled off a unique feat that many in the region could not have contemplated.

“I’d like to think we’re many people’s first club,” he said. “But we’re also a lot of Sunderland and Newcastle fans’ second club. We’re probably the only club in the entire country where a Newcastle fan and a Sunderland fan can watch a game of football together without any animosity.”

Comparisons with Wrexham AFC are hard to avoid. The Welsh club has in recent years become a global phenomenon thanks to the Netflix series “Welcome to Wrexham,” which followed the team’s return to the EPL after a 15-year absence following the purchase of the club by Hollywood stars Ryan Reynolds and Rob McElhenney.

“One thing I would say is that all of that investment in infrastructure I mentioned earlier, that’s a one-off investment. People don’t have to keep repeating that,” Thompson said.

“So all of the hard yards, all the spade work is being done now, the infrastructure’s in place. We own our own ground, it’s not owned by the council or by a third party. We’ve got a fantastic separate training facility that our foundation, our charitable foundation, run.

“It’s a bit like the Wrexham story in many respects. One thing I would stress is that there’s no debt in the club.”

Thompson said the club is primed for a bright future under any new owners.

“It’s almost approaching 100 years since we were last in the Football League, in the EFL equivalent, although it was the old Second Division, the championship right now,” he said. “But wouldn’t it be an amazing thing? I had this aspiration to get the club back into the Football League within that 100-year window.

“Honestly, I’ve had a fantastic period of time,” he said. “I’ve thoroughly enjoyed it. (Now) I’m going to take my time to find the new owner, the new partner.”

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