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FA Trophy | Clubs begin Wembley dream

The 2023-24 campaign marks the 55th year of the Isuzu FA Trophy, and before a ball has been kicked, the current incarnation of the Mariners have managed their best outing in the competition.

Due to Shields’ promotion last season, Julio Arca’s side are now introduced into the fold at the second round of the competition, surpassing their previous best performances, reaching the first round three times since 2019-20.

The last four seasons saw Shields fall at the hands of Southport, Ashton United, Marine and Warrington Town, albeit all were tight affairs and the deciding games were away from home.

The previous side bearing the name of South Shields reached the semi-final of the Trophy in 1973-74, the final season before the club folded.

Shields returned to the competition in 2017 following their promotion from the Northern League, and after beating Scarborough Athletic and Farsley Celtic in thrilling ties, they were beaten by Stafford Rangers in the second qualifying round.

The following season saw them reach the third qualifying round before a defeat at Stratford Town, and 2019-20 was a first round exit against Southport.

Ashton United did for Shields at the same stage of the pandemic-affected 2020-21 season, with Marine beating them in a penalty shootout the following year.

Last season resulted in a defeat in the first round at Warrington, who went on to be promoted alongside the Mariners from the Northern Premier League.

With 79 sides, alongside Shields, still in the competition, many will look to this weekend to kickstart their cup campaign. Some, however, have already enjoyed cup success this season.

Eighth tier Cray Valley PM host Hampton & Richmond Borough just days after their first round Emirates FA Cup replay against Charlton Athletic, after forcing them to a draw at The Valley. They will now search for an alternative route to Wembley.

High-flying Ramsgate were knocked out of the cup last round following a defeat away to Hythe Town, while Marine were swept aside by St Ives Town.

In some of the more eye-catching ties of the second round, Macclesfield travel to Alfreton Town and Blyth Spartans will also make the journey to the North West, facing another Vanarama National League North outlet in newly-promoted Warrington Town.

Gateshead and Hartlepool United will not be included until the third round, which sees the addition of all National League Premier sides.

The Heed Army enjoyed last season’s campaign, earning their place in the final against the now-defending champions, Halifax Town, who triumphed 1-0 at Wembley.

With the inclusion of teams only from tiers five to eight, the Trophy is seen as a step above the all-familiar FA Vase, which is open to those from the ninth tier and below. The Wembley stage is shared for the finals on Non-League Finals Day.

Shields manager Julio Arca starred on that stage in 2017 with his Mariners team-mates as they culminated a remarkable campaign with a 4-0 win over Cleethorpes Town in the Vase final, securing the club's first national trophy.

The Mariners now travel to Southport to battle for a place in the third round, which is due to take place on Saturday, December 9th.

The competition will then build to a conclusion on Sunday, May 12th.

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