Northern League season so far: Sunderland RCA chief targets more Vase heroics '“ and further league progress
Sunderland RCA manager Martin Swales is looking to maintain the Meadow Park club's progress in 2017.
And they have a huge match to start the calendar year, with a Buildbase FA Vase fourth round trip to AFC Mansfield looming next Saturday.
Boss Swales said: “I think we’ve moved up to 10th now. We finished 13th last year and have progressed the last three years.
“I want to finish top-six. We have steadily climbed this season and are currently on a five-game unbeaten run.
“Colin Larkin, an ex-pro, has stood out – he’s doing smashing this season. The two centre-halves – Greg Swansbury, who’s now the skipper, and Ross Preston – have made a major difference in stopping conceding silly goals.
“Stephen Callen, a local lad, is on 12 goals this season and Luke Richardson, another local lad, is getting his chance and doing really well – he’s played the last 14 games, and doing smashing.
“We’ve brought a lad back who we sold to Washington, Reece Noble.
“We have a big Vase game on January 7. Last year, we made it to the last 16 in the Vase, which was a big achievement.
“We want to emulate that, if not better it. Stockton and Dunston gave us tough games, but we’re hoping to go to Mansfield and make good progress.”
Swales is relishing life with his staff, hailing the influence of former Sunderland midfielder Thomas Butler, Steven Stewart, his assistant manager; and player-coach Larkin.
Seaham Red Star are gradually establishing themselves as a Division One side, with a second top-half finish in a row looking likely.
Seaham currently lie seventh in the table, with 42 points from 28 games.
From late August, Red Star went on an impressive 10-game winning streak in all competitions until a 1-1 draw with Newton Aycliffe on October 4 ended their magnificent run.
Red Star began to slip down the table, with inconsistency an issue. One week in November, they went from beating West Auckland 5-1 to losing 3-0 to Bishop Auckland – both at home.
Last season’s top score, Robbie Bird, has some competition for top spot on the Seaham goal charts this year, with former Sunderland player Craig Lynch impressing in his first full season at the club.
The pair have already scored 28 goals between them, with Lynch, last season’s players’ player of the year, netting 15 times so far and Bird 13 times in the league. The lively duo have scored just under half of Seaham’s goals this season.
With the bulk of games already played, Seaham will be hoping to push on and improve on last season’s creditable ninth-placed finish.
Paul Johnson has come in as joint manager alongside Chris McCabe and brought a couple of exciting 17-year-olds in Aaron Duell and Alex Ramshaw.
Defending champions Shildon are still hopeful of retaining their title, but the battle for top spot promises to be a cracker with North Shields leading the way from South Shields, Shildon and Morpeth Town.
Manager Gary Forrest said: “There are four really good sides at the top, with neither teams dropping any silly points. My players are doing really well but the two who have stood out are Lewis Wing who has been excellent, he’s scored 19 goals from midfield, and David Ferguson who has done superbly.”
“The FA Vase is still the priority, which we have a game a week on Saturday. We are league champions and want to keep is that way.
“We’re looking for a double title, which I’m told is an impossible task, but I’ll out it to the lads and see what they can do.”
“Of the field, we have lots of ground developments and a planning application is in for a new stand and club house. The affiliation with Sunderland is going well now, which we’re hoping to make use of with the youth development programme.
“It’s a total different place from even five years ago. I’m just concentrating on winning trophies.
“The Vase is the only trophy I’ve not won since being here, so I am particularly interested in that.”
South Shields are second in the table, five points behind North Shields with a game in hand.
It has been a true team effort from the Mariners so far, but midfielder Robert Briggs has been particularly influential, dictating the play while also chipping in with 12 goals and a number of assists. David Foley has also been impressive, whether used as a wide man or forward, and has 15 goals to his name in all competitions.
Carl Finnigan has led the line excellently and has 16 goals so far, while ex-Spennymoor Town forward Gavin Cogdon has chipped in with 13 and looked excellent whenever he has been available.
Former Sunderland star Julio Arca has been his usual self in central midfield, rarely putting a foot wrong and inspiring those around him, and Jon Shaw has been imperious at centre-back or up-front.
The Mariners are now aiming for promotion and know they need a top-three finish to do so, as long as they finish ahead of the division’s only other promotion applicant, Bishop Auckland.
North Shields deserve credit for continuing their outstanding form under boss Jon McDonald, who took over when Graham Fenton left to become joint manager at South Shields.
The win at Mariners Park at the start of November was the example of what the club has been about this season. Although they have played good, passing and entertaining football, everyone one works hard for each other. With the Robins doing that on a consistent basis, there is no wonder as to why they deservedly top Division One at Christmas.
Consett are having a fine season and finished the year in fifth position, with 14 wins and seven draws from their 27 games played to date.
A very healthy goal tally of 73 is evidence of their strengths, but they are very strong at home and if their current form continues, they have an excellent chance of breaking into this season’s top three or four places.