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Graham Fenton exclusive: South Shields, Aston Villa Cup glory & Martin O'Neill row

Few people in English football have had as varied a career as Graham Fenton.

During an 18-year professional career the former Aston Villa, Blackburn Rovers and Leicester City attacker won the League Cup twice, was transferred for over £1m and made nearly 100 Premier League appearances.

He also spent seven years playing non-league football with Blyth Spartans and North Shields, before deciding to start his coaching career in the tenth tier of the English league pyramid.

Now the co-manager of South Shields FC in the Northern Premier Division, Fenton has his eyes firmly set on the Football League and is ready to use all his experience within English football to help him get there.

Since taking over as co-manager with Lee Picton, South Shields have secured two promotions and just missed out on a third last season.

Refusing to be disheartened, South Shields currently sit top of the Northern Premier Division, with promotion to the National League North in their sights once again.

"It has been well documented that our owner Geoff Thompson would like to progress up through the leagues and that has always been the priority," Fenton told Tribalfootball.com.

"We still know we can perform better and if you are one point clear at the top and know you can perform to a higher level, it is a good place to be."

In order to help the club reach their ambitions, South Shields have struck up a relationship with League 1 side Sunderland.

The relationship has allowed South Shields to take Sunderland youth players on loan, and Fenton argued it has been really beneficial for his side.

"They were kind enough to bring their first team for a pre-season game during the summer which was fantastic," Fenton said.

"We had a very good gate and it was a lovely occasion. We have struck up a good relationship since and I am working with Kevin Ball closely."

Former Sunderland and Middlesbrough midfielder Julio Arca also spent a few seasons with South Shields at the end of his career and Fenton credits him with helping professionalise the club.

"I couldn't speak highly enough of Julio," he said.

"He came in the season before Lee and I took over and was the catalyst for the attendances rising rapidly. He set high standards for others to follow and he was a perfect role model for the rest of the squad."

Fenton made his league debut in 1994 with West Bromwich Albion while on loan from Aston Villa, the club he joined as a trainee in 1990.

"As soon as I walked in the door at Aston Villa aged 15 I knew it was the right place for me," he said.

"The football club was really well run, with really good people and after a week-long trial I told my parents that if I was offered anything Villa was the club I wanted to sign for."

Returning from West Brom, Fenton made 13 appearances for Villa between February and the end of the season, including 90 minutes in their 3-1 League Cup final win over Manchester United.

"Winning the League Cup was one of the highlights of my life," Fenton reflected.

"I was only in a few squads before the game at Wembley and I was over the moon to just be part of the group travelling down. The day before we were training at Bisham Abbey and Ron Atkinson told us the team and I was in it. I just couldn't believe it. It was either my fourth or fifth game playing for Aston Villa against Roy Keane, Eric Cantona, Mark Hughes and Ryan Giggs at Wembley."

Following on from his surprise call up for the League Cup final, Fenton struggled to nail down a place at Aston Villa and in November 1995 he joined Premier League champions Blackburn Rovers for £1.5m.

Despite scoring seven goals in just 30 appearances, Fenton was mainly used as a substitute during his two seasons at Ewood Park.

"At Blackburn the opportunities I did get were limited because of the forward options that were available to Ray Harford such as Alan Shearer, Chris Sutton and Mike Newell," he explained.

"I started nine games and scored seven goals, so I feel I did alright."

In search of more first team opportunities, Fenton joined Leicester City in 1997 where he made 47 appearances across three seasons.

However, he and manager Martin O'Neill didn't always see eye to eye.

"I am not afraid to speak my mind because I have read stuff in his books where has had a pop at me so, he just wasn't for me," Fenton said.

"I work for people who are down to earth and give information that they expect you to follow, but he was a character who didn't give clear information and then slagged you off for not doing what was expected. There are players who performed well for him but I just don't like that type of person."

After leaving Leicester Fenton's career never reached the same heights and after spells at St Mirren, Stoke City and Blackpool, among others, he settled at non-league club Blyth Spartans in 2003.

"Blyth Spartans was where I got my love of the game back," Fenton explained.

"After my first season they asked if I wanted to be a player assistant manager which was great and they obviously saw some leadership skills in me. I snapped their hand off and I just enjoyed the seven years I had there. It was the start of ambitions within the managerial side of the game."

Looking back on his playing career now Fenton is proud of what he achieved and it is clear he has always understood what makes a manager good at their job.

"The two managers I most enjoyed working for were Ron [at Aston Villa] and Ray Harford at Blackburn Rovers," he said.

"They were very hands on in terms of getting their points across to you and being out on the training pitch, putting fun sessions on a making it very clear as to what was expected of you.

"Under Ron you weren't under any illusions about what he wanted you to do. In terms of man management he was great and I just found him fantastic to work for.

"Working with good managers is the best experience and what you look on the TV is not always the same as what you see on the training pitch."

Fenton has not only just learned lessons from the likes of Atkinson and Harford, but also puts in significant research and preparation as part of his role.

South Shields are unusual for a non-league club in the sense that they use video analysis work extensively between matches and are looking to go full time.

"Sir Bobby Robson said in his late 70s that he was still learning about the game, so if it is good enough for Sir Bobby then I am sure we can all understand that there is a still lot to learn about a game that is always evolving," he explained.

Fenton still follows the Premier League closely and will attempt to use what he sees on the pitch and translate it to his players in training.

When asked about Jack Grealish, a player who also emerged from the Aston Villa academy at a young age, Fenton was clear in his assessment.

"I would take Jack Grealish at South Shields," he joked.

"I love watching him play, he is courageous and will accept the ball anywhere and has great composure. That bravery stands out a mile and hopefully he gets an opportunity in the England squad."

As South Shields prepare for the busy Christmas period, Fenton will have plenty of work to do to keep them on top of the league.

While the competition being tough makes the job harder for managers, it is such a level of quality that makes Fenton confident that non-league football can offer a lot for players and managers looking to progress.

"You have high profile cases, none more so than Jamie Vardy, who was picked up from non-league and became a Premier League winner, so he has kind of set the benchmark," he said.

"There are lots and lots of good players in non-league and I am hoping league clubs see non-league football is progressing because it is getting highly competitive."

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William Dodds

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