From Non-League obscurity to conquering America – South Shields are attempting the American dream
Written by Hugh Hutton on 31st March 2023
Less than a decade ago, South Shields FC were playing in front of literally a man and his dog. Now, they are going all out to conquer America.
But what is the story behind the latest trans-Atlantic leg – designed to attract young players from the US and elsewhere – of the incredible Shields journey?
Shields only recently revealed plans to launch an international academy which will see American students reverse the trend of UK youngsters heading in the other direction on college soccer scholarships.
A new professional football development programme, in partnership with the University of Sunderland, is set to put Shields on the international map for more than just its award-winning beach.
Lee Picton, Shields’ sporting director, is the driving force behind their push into the American market, fewer than 10 years since they played to crowds of 15 or less in exile at Peterlee – 18 miles from home.
“I’ve spent the last 10-15 years helping lots of UK players get scholarships in America and I just thought that there could be a potential really interesting market to bring talent the other way, predominantly from the US,” Picton said.
“But we’re also looking at other parts of the world to bring players to the Northeast of England.”
But why does a non-league club want an international academy?
From Eden Lane, Peterlee and life in the Wearside League, the “Mariners” are now 12 points clear at the top of the Northern Premier League – four divisions higher, in the seventh tier of English football.
And the club – actually based in Jarrow – have made clear their intentions to follow in the footsteps of clubs like Forest Green Rovers and Salford City by rising from non-league all the way to the Football League.
The international academy is just another part of that grand plan.
Picton believes that it’s the next step in the clubs aim of reaching the EFL, saying: “I’ve had a lot of experience over the last few years with my professional career in creating and developing various academy environments for many different age groups.
“Those have been in different settings whether it be professional football or whether that be in education.
“Given the already established academy infrastructure that we’ve built here at South Shields Football Club, I felt that the next logical step for us was to explore the possibility of building an international academy.
“I think that having an international academy programme could be really important for the club for two reasons: one being the possibility and potential to uncover some really interesting talent that might get the opportunity to support our first team squad.
“But two: I also think from a club and financial perspective it drives a good level of revenue for us that can help support the wider club in its mission to get into the Football League.”
However, the new academy won’t mean South Shields lose the local spirit which has driven the club this far.
Dan Prince, South Shields media officer, says: “The community element of the club has not changed whatsoever; this is just another strand to the club.
“We’re just adding to this and it is not going to impact what we do on the ground, and it’s not going to impact the work we do with our charitable foundation.
“This is just another way for us to grow the ‘brand’ if you like, and try to benefit the supporters here by going further and further towards sustainability.
“Ultimately, if we achieve sustainability then it’s going to be of the benefit of our community because we’re going to be able to do more of the projects that matter to them and we’re going to be able to climb the pyramid.”
And if Shields remain a club on the rise, Picton believes that in turn will benefit the new international academy.
“One of the big attractions that I have when I speak to players’ parents is the possibility of players coming in and experiencing a different environment, a different culture and involving themselves in our community and culture here in South Tyneside to help us bring a lot of positive outcomes to the area.”
From the University of Sunderland’s perspective, Tom Atkinson – international development officer – believes their own brand can help Shields deliver on the project.
“Whenever I bring our agents and regional managers into the city from around the world, we always have comments on how nice the people are here and how although it’s a big city, it feels small and safe.
“The people are always so kind here and it’s something our international students who study here always make a comment about.
“This is something that we are really keen to maintain – to embed people into our culture -and with the academy project we’re doing with South Shields we’re very keen for them to use our university accommodation, for example, where they can make friends with people within the university who aren’t necessarily a part of the academy.
“We’re also keen for them to attend freshers fair, so that they can meet societies, organisations and make friends that way.”
Picton added: “When I first approached the university to start discussions with them way back in the summertime of last year, they were excellent.
“They were very open to the idea and thought the concept was really strong. They’ve obviously developed a really strong reputation over the last few years in terms of international student experience and have just as many international students as they do local/UK-based students.
“So really, they’re the perfect partner for us to do this project because of the resources and the infrastructure they’ve built at their end to support international student applications.”
Now, time will tell if this American dream comes true.