Mark Carruthers: Challenging decisions must be made for the good of the club’s future prospects after play-off exit for South Shields

The uncomfortable sense of familiarity was palpable as the full-time whistle echoed around the 1st Cloud Arena on Tuesday night.

By Mark Carruthers
Wednesday, 27th April 2022, 4:11 pm

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Mark Carruthers: Challenging decisions must be made for the good of the club’s future prospects after play-off exit for South Shields. Picture by Kev Wilson.
Mark Carruthers: Challenging decisions must be made for the good of the club’s future prospects after play-off exit for South Shields. Picture by Kev Wilson.

Just seconds earlier, South Shields defender Jordan Hunter had seen his penalty saved by Warrington Town goalkeeper Dan Atherton to spark contrasting emotions from both sets of players.

The scenes felt like echoes of the not-too-distant past as the Yellows celebrated yet another notable win on South Tyneside - three years after inflicting a 2-1 defeat on the Mariners in the 2019 play-off final.

Hunter sunk to the floor, knowing his missed spot-kick had left his side to contemplate yet another season as a Northern Premier League club as thoughts of progression into non-league’s top two tiers are parked for another year.

It was a cruel set of circumstances given the former Liverpool and Sunderland defender was unquestionably the Mariners’ most impressive player during the 120 minutes that preceded the role he played in the game’s decisive moment.

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Hunter has been one of the real highlights of the last two seasons for the Mariners and he has already shown enough character to suggest he will bounce back from this obvious disappointment.

A moment of silence was only punctuated by the muffled celebratory tones of a hearty bunch of away supporters as they rejoiced at seeing their side move within 90 minutes of a place in the National League North.

Their victory was deserved - of that, there is no question whatsoever.

The Yellows showed more energy and composure in pivotal moments and their key players came to the fore in decisive moments in the game.

Their hosts made the better start and took the lead when Darius Osei fired them in front midway through the first-half - but it was an all-too-rare moment of positivity in an otherwise well below-par performance.

Put simply, far too many of those carrying the hopes of the majority of those inside the 1st Cloud Arena failed to meet the standards required to keep alive their hopes of spending next season in the National League North.

A feature of the successful Mariners sides in recent years has been their energy, intensity and near-monopoly of possession - all three aspects of play were conspicuous by their absence on Tuesday night.

There were too many misplaced passes, an inability to release pressure by holding on to possession at the top end of the pitch and poor decision-making across the board.

Despite all of that, Kevin Phillips’ side still had two golden opportunities to set up a final meeting with Scarborough Athletic on Monday afternoon.

Just seconds after Mariners keeper Myles Boney produced a stunning save of his own, Warrington counterpart Atherton surpassed that effort with a top-class save to keep out a volley from Darius Osei with minutes remaining in extra-time.

Even then, with the drama of the penalty shoot-out raising tension and nerves, Boney gave his side an opportunity to progress when he saved from Mark Roberts.

Unfortunately, just as he had at the end of the additional 30 minutes, Atherton produced a similar stop to deny Mariners youngster Will Jenkins.

That handed the momentum to the visitors and they ultimately progressed thanks to a successful spot-kick form Evan Gumbs and Atherton’s third notable moment of the night as he saved from Hunter.

A visibly disappointed Kevin Phillips offered an open and honest assessment of his side’s performance and broached the subject of the “tough decisions” that now lie in wait.

Determination began to outshine the disappointment as Phillips turns his focus towards putting his own print on a new look Mariners squad during the summer months.

Some have speculated the former Sunderland and England striker could leave the club after missing out on promotion - the main reason he was appointed to succeed Graham Fenton.

Statistics can be used to back up such a suggestion with former boss Fenton securing an average of 2.04 points per game from the 23 league fixtures he oversaw this season.

Since Phillips took charge and got his reign underway with a 2-1 win at Warrington, he has secured an average of 1.63 points per game during the first 19 games of his managerial career.

Some may well use that statistic against the current Mariners boss - but he must be given an opportunity to put his own mark on the club this summer.

In his own words, the squad “needs an overhaul” and he has been given enough time to assess the options available within the ranks at this point in time.

Some decisions may prove unpopular and some departures may well surprise South Shields supporters - but based on Tuesday night’s performance, change is most certainly required on the pitch.

Some of the buzz and the energy that has become commonplace on and off the pitch at the 1st Cloud Arena felt like it was missing throughout what should have been a momentous occasion.

Putting it bluntly, something just didn’t feel quite right.

That previous play-off defeat against Warrington provoked a response of defiance from the Mariners as they heralded the start of their progression towards a full-time, professional status.

This latest defeat must provoke action and what could and should be a transformative summer on and off the pitch.

The echoes of the past must now be quelled - and difficult, challenging decisions must be made for the good of the club’s future prospects.