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News From Nowhere – The Fish and The Phoenix

Here’s an article from 2015, originally published in True Faith, celebrating Shields’ glorious FA Vase campaign that year.

“We have decided to publish this piece today in light of the great day at North Shields on Saturday 7th Feb 2015 which saw The Robins march on in the FA Vase and continue Tyneside’s brilliant record in the competition over the last number of years.

There was much to be positive about yesterday at Shields and not only about the football, with a very worthwhile charity chosen to benefit from the warmth of The Robins faithful. I would hope the larger Geordie congregation of which we are all a part joins with this charity and supports it too.

In the late summer of 1991, the Meadow Well Estate burned and made national news headlines. Its seething, angry youth rioted and gained it a notoriety that still casts a shadow over the town of North Shields, to which it belongs.

At that time, North Shields F.C. was at its lowest point in its 95 year history. The 1969 Amateur Cup winners were on the brink of bankruptcy that would see them drop five levels and drop into the Vaux Wearside League. The shame and ignominy for a North Tyneside based club who had always been a respected member in the higher echelons of the non league game, was too much for many to bear. North Shields also lost their home, the very decent 15,000 capacity, Appleby Park. The club eventually found itself on a local sports field, only a petrol bomb’s throw from where the riots had taken place. A handful of stalwarts stuck by them and shovelled dog turds off the pitch as the team got ready in the clapped out council changing rooms.

It took them 22 years to climb to the top division of the Northern League, where they are now genuine title challengers. On Saturday 7th February 2015, they entertained Phoenix Sports in the Fifth Round of the FA Vase. The victor would be 2 games away from Wembley. 1,092 people turned up to watch. I attended with a bunch of mates; amongst them a Scouser, an Irishman and 70’s NUFC cult hero Paul Cannell (F**kin’ Hell!) and we stood on the Curva Nord terrace, home to the self-styled Ultras; the hardcore of home support.

Now I’m a man in my mid forties. My football education took place in the 80s supporting Newcastle United, that decade where the football fan came a close second to the miner in the Thatcher Police list of public enemies. Believe me, no matter how many times films and wannabe Danny Dyers try to mythologise and romanticise this era, it was often a shitty experience and a dangerous time to be watching football.

That said, as middle age advances and the corporate charade that is the ‘Newcastle United Experience’ saps the life out of me, I did find myself yearning for some things that have been lost at the higher level of football. Judging by the excited faces in the crowd and talking to fans in the build up to the game, I was clearly not alone in this quest.

And by and large I found it at NE29. Sure, there was an abundance of Burberry and a spattering of Stone Island in certain sections of the crowd, but who am I to judge? Jeff Banks? Besides, my Blue Harbour was not ridiculed! In fact, my mates and I were welcomed with open arms at the chock full, Spring Gardens pub. North Shields folk are rough and tough and yes, there’s a drinking culture that can sometimes test the boundaries. But the people of North Shields are a generous lot. £780 was raised towards buying a wheelchair for Kacie Martin, a little girl who suffers from the terrible condition that is spinal muscular atrophy. A fine effort, I’m sure you’d agree.

They are also a good humoured lot. Apparently, a popular shout at the linesman patrolling the line nearest the Curva Nord, involves trying to garner a favourable flag decision by offering him the product that North Shields is most famous for: fish. Yesterday this was taken a step further with the appearance of a rather fresh and handsome mackerel which was tethered to a length of catgut. Despite what some po-faced club officials and jobsworths might say, the sight of it being dragged down the side of the pitch behind the linesman was hilarious and the memory will stay with me for many years. It’s what football used to be about: entertainment and fun! Remember that Newcastle fans?

The joy to be able to watch a match standing on a terrace is something you should all try, whichever local club you choose to patronise. The patter and camaraderie it engenders is priceless and the amount of people I saw shaking hands, laughing and renewing old friendships after years apart could have Friends Reunited investors worried. At the end of the game, I bumped into Kevin Miles, Football Supporters Federation chief exec and Newcastle fan. Kevin is at the forefront of the Safe Standing Campaign and we talked of the positives and potential there is to revive the atmosphere at games at the highest level. Although I believe they are directly linked, it seems such a shame that the resurgence of interest in the game at the lower league and grassroots level is at a time of total disconnect with Tyneside’s premier club and the dearth of ambition at NE1.

Atmosphere is certainly not lacking at North Shields, though there were minor incidents that needed to be dealt with – the opposing forward offering to fight members of the crowd on his walk of shame after being sent off, did not help! Nor did the decision of North Shields FC to hire NUFC security stewards bedecked in Sports Direct hi vis jackets. They received a hostile reception. Is there no escape from the clutches of the Fatman?

The match itself was a good one with a quite excellent result: 4-1 to the Shieldsmen. Steve Brown (one of the more conscientious Chron writers) wrote a canny match report and the tv highlights are available online, so I won’t analyse it kick by kick. The opener by Ben Richardson was a ringer for Scott Sellars’ free kick in the rain against the Mackems back in 1993. Take a bow young man! The pace of Dean Holmes and Denver Morris on the wings is quite frightening and they tortured a team from the Southern Counties League that was previously undefeated in all competitions. Those poor Southern lads didn’t knaa what had hit them! But for me, the talisman with the golden boot is Gareth Bainbridge; another brace in this fixture is testament to a lad that had flitted in and out of his previous side, Ashington. His Ronaldo-esque goals to games ratio must have the Colliers weeping as they see their rivals looking towards Wembley.

It must have been a very proud moment for Shields manager Graham Fenton. The irony and significance of a man who broke my heart in 1996 emulating the achievement of NUFC and North Shields legend, Frank Brennan, by leading the club to a Wembley victory would not be lost on me. As the players and staff walked off the pitch, one wag shouted to Mr Fenton, ‘3 games to Redemption.’ He smiled and said, ‘Haven’t I redeemed myself already?’

Well for this writer, the answer is, ‘No. Not quite yet.’ But I see the possibility of total forgiveness. After all, he was just doing his job. Furthermore, as Fenton put the final nails in the coffin lid of our Premiership title bid, I well remember who was hanging off his back milking the celebrations. That person went on to score 206 goals for Newcastle United.

Forza Robins and thanks for the fish!

Graeme Cansdale.

You can see some great footage from North Shields below. My favourite is watching a cockney lose it and make a tit of himself whilst the locals piss themselves laughing.”

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