Wednesday 27 February 2019

South Shields and Gateshead, the Football League Years - PART ONE

On the 28th day of May in 1960, Gateshead Football Club was kicked out of the Football League, they had failed to secure re-election meaning for the first time in just over 40 years there would no longer be league football taking place on the southern banks of the River Tyne. A compelling story that had begun four decades earlier further down the river in the town of South Shields had now come to an abrupt and rather sad end.

Whilst on the northern side of the River Tyne Newcastle United have been a massive institution in the world of football for well over 100 years, and regularly draw crowds of 50,000+ to watch them play. However, across the river, for their one-time football league rivals, things did not fare so well. The story of South Shields FC and the Gateshead side they became when after 11 years they moved upstream is largely forgotten. But this is a fascinating tale nonetheless, and in a two-part piece, we look back at these fascinating years starting with the story of South Shields Football Club and their time in England's professional divisions.

Like many former football grounds, South Shields' Horsley Hill stadium is now a housing estate, but once upon a time, it was home to Second Division football, or the Championship as it is in today's money. South Shields Football Club joined the Football League in 1919 having had ambitions of joining for several years. In the final three seasons before the great war, they finished second, first, and first in the North Eastern League, comfortably ahead of the reserve sides of the North East 'big three' Newcastle, Sunderland, and Middlesbrough. So when football was set to resume after world war one they felt it was time to progress to a higher level. The Football League was to be increased from 40 teams to 44 in time for the 1919/20 season and there were seven applicants including South Shields for the four places. In the voting Shields came joint third with Rotherham County behind Coventry City and West Ham United. South Shields Football Club had been accepted into the Second Division of the Football League. 

On Friday, August 29th 1919 South Shields Football Club travelled to London by train ready for their first ever Football League match, against Fulham at Craven Cottage the following day. Having travelled to Shields four years earlier and won there in the FA Cup, Fulham also won in this first league meeting between the two beating their visitors 1-0. Shields were certainly not disgraced, however. 

Two days later Birmingham City travelled to Horsley Hill for Shields' first home Football League match and 15,000 thousand spectators went wild when the home side who had been on the back foot for most of the game grabbed a last gasp winner through Archie Roe to secure a 1-0 victory. South Shields were up and running in the Football League. In the return fixture nine days later Birmingham won 4-0. Birmingham finished fourth that season whilst South Shields finished ninth. Highlights for Shields in that first league campaign included back to back wins of 6-0 and 3-0 over Blackpool, who ended the season in fourth, whilst there was also a 5-2 victory over Nottingham Forest and a thumping 7-1 scoreline in a fantastic win over Hull City. "From stem to stem South Shields were splendid" exclaimed the local Sunday Sun newspaper following that Hull match. In the FA Cup Shields fell at the first hurdle when a 1-1 draw at home to Liverpool was followed by a 2-0 loss in the replay.

Attendances in that first season averaged over 14,000 which was a more than respectable figure, and a home game with Leicester City which happened to coincide with a meeting between Shields' two more established neighbours Newcastle and Sunderland still did not deter 12,000 from turning up at Horsley Hill. Attendance wise things were even better for Shields in their second league campaign with average crowds of almost 16500, and on various occasions 20,000+ in attendance for matches at Horsely Hill.

Player wise, one of the big names in those early days was a full back called Warney Cresswell. Creswell spent three years at the club from 1919 before a then world record £5,500 transfer fee saw him lured away to near neighbours Sunderland to play First Division football, where after 5 years in red and white he went on to gain a FA Cup winners medal with Everton. Another player of note was big name signing Richard Parker who after a £1,000 move to the club from Coventry Cty in October 1920, scored a hat-trick on his debut. His excellent start did not last however and after an unhappy time at the club he ended up playing North Eastern League football with Wallsend. The Stockton born player did eventually, however, return to the Football League and had successful spells with Queen's Park Rangers (for whom he scored twice against Shields in the FA Cup), Millwall, and Watford. For Millwall, he actually scored 62 goals in 88 appearances. Another name of interest was George Maitland who was sold to Middlesbrough for 4,000 in 1923. During his time on South Tyneside, he was deemed good enough to be selected to play for a Football League XI against their Scottish League counterparts. The two highest scores in Shields' second league campaign, Authur Hawes, and Henry Woods were sold to Sunderland and Newcastle respectively the following season. Woods was considered the clubs star striker, and although he struggled at Newcastle, a later move to Arsenal saw him top scorer two seasons running.

Shields' third season in the Football League saw the introduction of a Third Division North below them, with new North East entrants Ashington, Darlington, Durham City, and Hartlepools United, increasing the number of league clubs in the region to eight. On the field Shields finished as high as sixth in the final league table, two places higher then the previous season but a decrease in attendances had seen the club reduce ticket prices in the November. There was unrest from the fans when Hawes and Woods were sold, and this may have contributed to the drop in crowd numbers.

Dropping attendances seemed to become a regular occurrence at Shields over the following few seasons. Shields seemed to hover around the mid table positions during this period but two matches of interest were the FA Cup games with First Division side Blackburn Rovers in 1923 that culminated in victory for South Shields in a replay at Ewood Park. With First Division teams entering as early as round one in those days, this was a second round tie, and the first game saw 18750 in attendance at Horsley Hill for a 0-0 draw. The replay took place on a Thursday afternoon and saw Shields come away with a 1-0 victory after Jack Smith smashed the ball through the hands of Blackburn Keeper Ronald Sewell from a George Keenlyside pass. In the next round, Shields lost 3-0 away at QPR in that aforementioned match where ex Shields man Richard Parker was twice on the scoresheet for the home side.

Things then began to go horribly wrong for the club as the 1926-27 season saw Shields finish fourth from bottom whilst the following season saw relegation. 1927-28 started with manager Jack Tinn leaving for Portsmouth whilst on the field it was October before Shields actually won a match. Defeat after defeat followed in a season that saw Shields concede 111 goals and finish rock bottom. Yes, the dreaded relegation had occurred. Over this period there was a further drop in league attendances. Yes, performances on the pitch played their part in this (two 6-1 defeats and an 8-2 loss spring to mind) but miners strikes also saw many locals struggling financially and spending money on watching football was not always possible. 

Despite finishing fourth bottom in 26-27, the club faired much better in that season's FA Cup. Plymouth Argyle were dispatched of 3-1 at home before a tie with First Divison side 'The Wednesday' as they were called at the time, and a 1-1 away draw. The Wednesday came up to Horsley Hill for the replay and a rare bumper crowd of over 20,000 were in attendance for a 1-0 South Shields win with Jack Smith on the scoresheet, a big upset for a team struggling in the division below. A 2-2 draw at home to Swansea Town in the next round, however, was followed by a defeat for Shields in the replay. 

Jack Smith goalscoring hero against both Balckburn and The Wednesday in those two big FA Cup ties spent seven years at the club and in three of those seasons finished top scorer. He eventually moved to Portsmouth to join ex Shields manager Tinn, and at Pompey, he played in two cup finals and was capped three times by England.

During those difficult years that culminated in relegation, a league defeat at Middlesbrough in that 1926-27 season is also worth mentioning. The game in question became known as the battle of Ayersome Park with three Boro players suffering serious injury, resulting in a full-time dressing room that the Northern Echo described as looking like a 'field ambulance station'. George Camsell who scored a hat-trick for the Boro that day played much of the game with a broken thumb after a collision with Cyril Hunter, whilst a serious foul on Willie Pease saw him suffer a broken collar bone with the culprit again Hunter who was this time ordered off the field. A later tackle on Boro's Joseph Miller saw him also stretchered off, in his case for concussion. Nasty scenes indeed.

Cyril Hunter was banned for 6 months for his part in the Middlesbrough antics. Having been signed from Brentford in 1924 the Pelaw born player spent four years at the club making 105 appearances before moving to America and playing for a club called Fall River Marksmen in Massachusetts. He then returned to England and played for Lincoln City, whilst later playing for Gateshead's reserve team where more dangerous play saw him banned from football for over a year. Not the most well behaved of players.

Relegation was not the only problem affecting Shields as the club found themselves in financial trouble. Although come the end of the 1927-28 season they had made a small profit, this was effectively down to outgoing transfers, without which the club may have ceased to exist. Players continued to leave throughout the summer, but two wins and draw in their opening three games raised hope of an immediate return to Division Two. Three defeats on the bounce followed however and what turned out to be a mixed season eventually saw the club finish in 10th place.

With attendances down even further, 1927/28 onwards had seen Shields' home fixtures now usually coincide with Sunderland's instead of Newcastle's, and despite Shields being based in South Tyneside, Sunderland's Roker Park ground was actually less than three miles away. This hardly helped matters and crowds began to hit an all time low. Some matches saw crowds lower than what Sunderland's reserve team were getting, never mind their first eleven. Because of these low crowds, the club's chairman warned: "If we don't get better support there won't be any club after next season". On the pitch, the club finished 7th but for much of the season, there were rumours that the club was to leave town. Talk that the club was going to up sticks and move to Newcastle turned out not to be true as a new ground called Redheugh Park was to be built in the town of Gateshead along the river from Shields, and on 22 March 1930 the club announced that with Football League permission the club were to move to Gateshead for the following season and play in the league as Gateshead Football Club. South Shields would no longer be home to a Football League club. 

There have been several incarnations of a South Shields Football Club since their relocation to Gateshead in 1930, but none have come anywhere near making it back to the Football League.

In part two (coming soon) we look at Gateshead FC's thirty year stay in the Football league and their sad exit from England's professional divisions.

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