Monday 22 January 2018

The Famous Blyth Spartans

Due to their heroic performances on the pitch they have in the past claimed to be 'the most famous non league team in the world' having in years gone by have made a name for themselves with their giant killing cup runs. Based roughly fifteen miles north of Newcastle on the Northumberland coast I am of course talking about Blyth Spartans.

I am here at Blyth's Croft Park home, it is a 40 minute bus journey north from the village just past where I live and although today's home game with Salford City is my fifth visit here it is my first appearance in these parts for over six years. Despite the fact that local non league football is usually where I end up when not watching my beloved Newcastle United, it is Blyth's North East rivals Gateshead who are actually my usual team of choice. Even though as well as Gateshead I've also visited various other local teams so far this season, I rarely venture north to places such as Blyth, somewhere which you could argue is enemy territory for someone with Gateshead connections like me.

I arrive in Blyth an hour before kick-off, so time for a pint and to watch the end of Newcastle's trip to Chelsea on Sky Sports. Stood in The Masons Arms with a pint of the local 'Spartan Ale' in my hand I am watching the TV screen to the sound of 'We hate Darlo'. That chant seems to be a very popular amongst the visiting supporters of whom there are many in this pub. I wasn't aware of any rivalry between the two sides and if there is it certainly isn't a local one as the town of Darlington is several hours away from Salford. Mind a friend told me that Darlo fans smashed up this very pub when playing away here last year so I am sure the Blyth supporters on the premises would echo the same sentiments towards Darlo as those Salford fans clearly do. A lot of Gateshead fans don't particularly like Darlington either. Does anyone? 

Today's match is a Vanarama National League North game which is the sixth tier of English football but come to think of it all my previous visits here have been for FA Cup matches, and on several occasions over the years the FA Cup is where Blyth have made their name. There have been two third round appearances for Blyth in the past ten years, but I'll start back in the 1977/78 campaign. 'We are the famous Blyth Spartan's and we're going to Wembley' they started to sing in what would become the most famous season in the clubs history as the minnows then of the Northern League ended up being seconds away from reaching the quarter finals of what is the worlds oldest knockout competition.

Blyth's first major scalp that season came in the second round  when they beat Chesterfield then of the old Third Division 1-0 at home. A 1-0 home win against fellow non league side Enfield followed before a fourth round trip to Stoke City who that season would win promotion to the First Division finishing third in Division Two. A Stoke side including a young Garth Crooks were defeated 3-2 and Blyth were through to the fifth round, having already been through eight rounds in total to get that far after partaking in four qualifying rounds against varying non league opposition before they even reached the first round proper. Blyth almost played near neighbours Newcastle United in round 5, but after beating the Magpies in a replay it was soon to be Third Division champions Wrexham who would be the opposition.

As a child I was brought up with many football stories from both my granddad and my uncle Kevin, and with my dad not being much of a football man it was they who helped me further my interest in the beautiful game. One of the stories I heard from them many times is Wrexham's injury time equaliser at home to Blyth, and the replay in front of over 40,000 spectators at St James' Park that followed. Blyth were leading 1-0 at Wrexham's racecourse ground when a corner that had came to nothing had to be retaken at the request of the referee after the corner flag had fallen down. It was from this retaken corner that Wrexham ended up equalising and scandalously according to some, were given a second bite at the cherry.

A quarter final tie with Arsenal would be the prize for the winners of the replay and with a huge crowd expected it took place not a Blyth's Croft Park ground but at St James' Park, home of local big boys Newcastle United. 42,167 people turned up for the game and many more were locked outside. There were so many people inside the ground that my uncle claims he was squashed against a wall at one point and could barely move, something that would thankfully never happen nowadays in the post Hillsborough world we live in. Before long Wrexham found themselves 2-0 up with the first goal coming from the spot after dodgy penalty decision, and although Blyth pulled one back, Wrexham held on for the win and sadly Blyth's FA Cup heroics had finally came to an end.

Lincoln City last season are the only non league team to have progressed further than Blyth in the FA Cup, losing a Quarter Final tie to Arsenal the team Blyth almost faced. Lincoln however won promotion to the Football League not much more than a month after that game and had entered the FA Cup at the final qualifying round stage, whereas in contrast the Blyth team of 1977/78 entered the competition three qualifying rounds earlier. Other non league teams have matched Blyth's achievement in reaching round 5, but again they all entered the competition several qualifying rounds later than the Spartans did, making Blyth's achievement all the more remarkable.

Perhaps however not quite on the same level as 77/78, there have actually been other impressive cup runs at Blyth. Me and Kevin stood on the terracing at the clubhouse end of Croft Park in 2008 as thousands of us went absolutely wild when with only minutes of the game left, Blyth scored to go 1-0 up against then League Two AFC Bournemouth in an FA Cup second round replay. This was a game which had the carrot of a third round tie with then Premier League side Blackburn Rovers for the winners dangling before both sides. The terracing where we stood that night was at the time uncovered but as I walk past after entering the ground today it is now fully covered with a roof and identikit to the terracing at the other end of pitch. That end is where the Blackburn fans were housed in the third round after Blyth won that Bournemouth replay. Back at the clubhouse end of the stadium I have the clubhouse bar to my left in the corner behind where the main turnstiles are and the main stand that seats over 500 spectators on the left hand side of the pitch. On the right hand side here is also covered terracing which covers part of that side and this stand is taller than the other terraced stands at either end. All of this is mostly unchanged from the 08/09 season and that big night with Blackburn...

Heading back to 2008 then, and prior to the Bournemouth game Blyth had beaten League Two side Shrewsbury Town 3-1 at home in round one. I wasn't in attendance that day but after witnessing the Bournemouth victory I made sure I grabbed myself a ticket for the visit of Blackburn at the beginning of January 2009, with me and Kevin once again stood on those same terraces. Sadly though despite a brave display Blyth lost 1-0 to the top flight side who were at the time managed by former Newcastle United manager Sam Allardyce. The streets had been buzzing with local TV and radio people for many hours before kick-off that evening, interviewing fans, filiming and taking photos. Although I can't seem to find it on youtube, an excited Spartans fan shown on the following night's BBC Look North news screaming 'BLYTH SPARTAAAAN'S!' at the camera before right in it's lens saying 'coo coo ca choo, who are you?' is definitely a memorable highlight. You get some strange folk up in these parts!

In 2011 I saw the Spartans lose 2-0 at home to Gateshead in the first round proper of the cup, whilst in January 2015 Spartans were once again in third round action. This apperance came after beating fellow North East side Hartlepool United in the second round. A 2-1 Friday night win over the then League Two side in front of the BBC Two cameras at Hartlepool's Victoria Park home saw them join the big boys in third round once more. In round 3 they faced Birmingham City of the Championship at home and not in attendance on that occasion I missed a cracking game. Two Robbie Dale goals saw Blyth 2-0 up at half-time only to end up 3-2 losers come full-time in another heroic FA Cup display.

Back to today's game and visitors Salford City are owned by ex Manchester United players, Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes, Nicky Butt, and Gary and Phil Neville, and were promoted to the National League North last season alongside league winners Blyth. Salford find themselves comfortably top of the league going into today's game, with Blyth three places behind in fourth and looking for a third league win in a row. Last season's promotion via the play-offs was Salford's second in three seasons whilst Blyth won the league after losing out on promotion the previous campaign thanks to a last minute goal in a 4-3 play-off defeat having finished second in the table on 99 points. They would have actually ended on 102 points and still finished second if they had have won as opposed to lost in their final league game, but nevertheless even to finish on 99 points yet still miss out on promotion is pretty insane.

As the match kicks off I have one last scan of the team sheet I was given and see a few familiar names from watching Gateshead over the past few years. Unfortunately however I do not have a programme having been told they were not delivered on time, a minor disappointment as I do like to collect programmes from my trips. Today's match sees Salford on top in the first half and on 36 minutes Jack Redshaw scores from the spot after Blyth keeper Peter Jameson is deemed to have brought him down, but there seems to be little contact as far as I can tell. Redshaw had seen a shot of his deflected wide earlier on in the half whilst also prior to the penalty a Salford free-kick was headed wide by a Blyth defender. Spartans do make a few forays into the opposition half but Salford definitely have the better of the opening 45 minutes.

Desperate for the toilet I head into the clubhouse several minutes before the half time whistle and it is already packed. I've always said that too many English football fans spend so much time at the bar that they actually miss half of the match itself! If only we could drink on the terraces like they do on the continent...

Having moved to the terracing along the halfway line before the first half kicked off I am back behind the goal for the second period and its a noisy affair full of Blyth fans chanting, singing, and roaring on their team. The Salford fans occupied this end during the first half but as is often the case in non league games without segregation (as most usually are), they swapped sides with the home support at half time and now occupy the opposite end. 

In stark contrast to the first half Blyth totally dominate the second period. The half starts with Sean Reid having two shots blocked in quick succession. A couple of minutes later the home support are outraged as Salford's ex Gateshead player Gus Mafuta who had already received a yellow card for an earlier trip, is not given a second one after another foul. A resulting free kick for Blyth is met by the head of another ex Gateshead player in Nathan Buddle but his header is saved. On 59 minutes David McGuire shoots wide for the hosts, whilst 5 minutes later he shoots over the bar. A Touray shot dips over the bar for Salford but it is definitely the Spartans who are dominating and they have a Jarrett Rivers shot cleared off the line by the visitors whilst before the end of the game Adam Wrightson, again ex Gateshead, fires over the bar from just outside the box. Finally two efforts from Robbie Dale - the second cleared by Liam Hogan believe it or not also ex Gateshead - fail to find the net. 

That is that and Dale who I must say has been at the club longer than I care to remember ends up on the losing side and the home support in the 1,004 strong crowd trudge away in disappointment. Disappointment after a hard thought second half in which they have had more than enough chances to claim at least a point but unfortunately end up with nothing.

For me it is straight onto a bus towards Newcastle to meet friends for what turns out to be an enjoyable Saturday night out, coming after a thoroughly entertaining 90 minutes at the home of Blyth Spartans, that old non league team steeped in FA Cup history who have produced many a great story through the ages and will hopefully continue to do so for years to come (just not at the expense of Gateshead).

Playing in England North of the Border

It's a classic pub quiz question. 'Which English football team actually plays in the Scottish leagues?' The answer is of course Berwick Rangers. Based in the in the north Northumberland town of Berwick-upon-Tweed and right on the Scottish border, the Scottish League Two part-timers are however hardly one of the bigger names in Scottish football. Nicknamed The Borderers and playing in Black and Gold, they have never appeared in the country's top flight and three Quarter Final defeats are the furthest they have ever progressed in the Scottish Cup. Nevertheless Berwick are a prominent feature in the lower divisions of Scottish league football and have been so for nearing 70 years now.

Berwick have been playing at their modest Shielfield Park home since 1954 and prior to that playing on an adjacent pitch known as 'Old Shielfield Park'. The new ground was completed when Berwick effectively went into the transfer market to purchase Bradford City's old grandstand for £400, and was opened with a friendly match against then English Third Division North side Darlington.
The ground is surrounded by a cinder track that is used by fellow stadium tennants the Berwick Bandits speedway team, and which was also briefly used for Greyhound racing in the 1990's. Shielfield Park has a a capacity of  4,099 with 1,366 seated in the main stand which runs along one side of the pitch, there is partly covered terracing along the other side and the aforementioned speedway track separates spectators from the playing area.

Sitting in the main stand during a match you will notice it is a very family orientated affair with plenty of parents and grandparents sat alongside small children enjoying an afternoon out and hopefully some entertaining football. It really feels like a club where all are welcome. Head around to the terraces on the other side of the pitch however and it is a far more noisy event with many of the Berwick faithful passionately screaming and shouting their way through the ninety minutes, and the roar of the crowd prevalent when the team surges forward. Shouts of 'Come on Berwick!' and 'Come on you Gers!' are also common place amongst the wee band of locals who stand on the terraces every other week supporting their team.

Formed in 1881, having played in the Border League and then it's replacement the East of Scotland League, the club did not join the Scottish Football League until 1951. Since then Berwick's league history has certainly had it's ups and downs, both on the pitch and off it. Under the stewardship of manager Dave Smith and with record appearance holder, goalscorer, and future player manager Eric Tait in the team, the club spent two seasons in the second tier of Scottish football between 1979-1981, having previously only played at that level when the league only had two divisions. That was probably the clubs high point in terms of league football but it did not last long as by the end of the 1980's they were nearly bankrupted, and for a brief period even locked out of their ground and having to play elsewhere. In more recent times with the four division set up in the league, Berwick have plied their trade in the bottom two tiers, having since 2008 continuously been stuck in the bottom division these days known as League Two. A fourth placed finish followed by a play-off semi final defeat to East Fife in 2013 is the closest they've came to promotion in the years since, whilst at the time of writing they find themselves in sixth place out ten having played 12 league games under the supervision of ex player at the club Robbie Horn who was appointed manager in August of this year.

The above mentioned play-off season will also be remembered for the four games with Glasgow Rangers. The giants of Scottish football had gone bankrupt earlier that year and the reformed club were forced to start life in the bottom Division of the league. 4,140 turned up at Shielfield Park in  the third game of the season as the minnows of Berwick held out for a 1-1 draw, whilst the Glasgow side won 3-1 at Berwick in the February with another bumper crowd of 4,476 in attendance. There were 4-1 and 1-0 defeats for the Black and Gold when they travelled to Rangers' Ibrox home. Those league games with Rangers brought back memories of several famous cup ties played between the two sides over the years. There may have been only limited cup success for Berwick Rangers in years gone by but the club has certainly had it's moments, particularly against the blue half of Glasgow.

28 January 1967:  It was considered one of the biggest upsets in Scottish football history. Little Berwick Rangers knocked the mighty Glasgow Rangers out of the cup. The clubs had met three times previously with the Glaswegians winning 4-0 each time, and this occasion was expected to be no different. Having been through two preliminary rounds Berwick entered the first round of the Scottish Cup as massive underdogs, but the 13,365 who crammed into Shielfield Park were not to be disappointed. It was Sammy Reid who blasted the ball home on 32 minutes to seal the victory as try as they might the Glasgow giants could not find an equaliser in what is possibly the most famous match in Berwick Rangers' history.

The pair met again in another famous Scottish Cup tie in 2002. This time the youtube footage is not quite so grainy and a 0-0 draw at Shielfield Park forced a replay with an eventual 3-0 home win for the blues.

Other cup success has mostly been limited to a League Cup semi final defeat in 1964, also against Glasgow Rangers, and three Scottish Cup quarter final defeats having never progressed beyond that point in the competition. The first of those came in 1954 where a 4-0 defeat at you guessed it Glasgow Rangers had followed a 3-0 home win against Dundee. The second two came against Hibernian whom in 1980 they took to a replay after a 0-0 draw at home, whilst in 14/15 they lost 4-0 away. In the Challenge Cup competition played amongst league clubs outside the Premier Division the club has also never progressed beyond the Quarter Finals. The club may have never came close to winning a cup of any sort, however events such as those in 1967 will long live in the memory for Berwick supporters and one can only wonder if we'll ever see many occasions like that at Shielfield Park again?

Yes they may be minnows in Scottish football, indeed their average attendance last season was just 427, but they are the team that has on occasion put the little town of Berwick-upon-Tweed on the map, and the hardy souls that turn out to support them come rain or shine can be proud of their club and what it has achieved as outsiders inside the Scottish game.

Berwick Rangers:

Full Name: Berwick Rangers Football Club
Nicknames(s): The Borderers, The Black and Gold
Founded: 1881
Ground; Shielfield Park
Capacity: 4,099

Honours: 1 Scottish League  Division Two (third tier) title, 1  Division Two runner up position, 1 Division Three title, 2 Division Three runner up positions, 3 Scottish Cup quarter finals, 1 League Cup semi final.

5 Year Record:
16/17 League: 8th League Two, Scottish Cup: 2nd Round, League Cup: Group Stage, Challenge Cup: 1st Round, Ave att: 427
15/16 League: 6th League Two, Scottish Cup: 2nd Round, League Cup: 1st Round, Challenge Cup: 2nd  Round,  Ave att: 461
14/15 League: 8th League Two, Scottish Cup: Quarter Final, League Cup: 1st Round, Challenge Cup: 2nd Round, Ave att:  466
13/14 League: 5th League Two, Scottish Cup: 4th Round, League Cup: 1st Round, Challenge Cup: 2nd Round, Ave att:  468

Matchday Guide: 
Getting to the Stadium: Walking to the ground is a 31 minute stroll from the railway station passing through the town centre and then across the River Tweed via Bridge End. Alternatively you can get the B2 bus from Railway Street next to the station and alight at Shielfield Terrace.

Eating and Drinking: The stadium has it's own clubhouse with a bar that is usually busy on matchdays, whilst heading away from the ground The Grove pub is also popular. There are also a few other pubs and takeaways along the route from town towards the stadium but most of main pubs, bars, cafe's, and restaurants are situated in the town centre itself. The Curfew Micropub and Barrels Alehouse are popular pubs in the town whilst Bear Claw Brewery in Spittal is also worth a visit. Upper West Street offers Sandwiches and afternoon tea whilst Maisie's Chocolate Parlour & Creperie offers many sugary delights. If dinner is what you want then Limoncello Italian restaurant, and Foxtons Restaurant and Wine Bar will both offer you a hearty meal.

Buying a ticket: Games never sell out so unless there is to be another colossal cup tie again then it will always be a case of paying at the turnstiles for each match. Tickets are priced at £12 for adults and £7 for concessions.

Getting to Berwick-upon-Tweed: 
If you are not driving, the town's railway station is situated right on the East Coast mainline that runs between London and Edinburgh, and various services stop at Berwick before heading north of the border. For those travelling from further afield, the nearest airports are Edinburgh in Scotland, and Newcastle to the South.

The Town:
The historic town of Berwick upon Tweed was for many centuries disputed territory between the kingdoms of England and Scotland, with both having laid claim to the town at one point or another.
Founded as an Anglo Saxon settlement in the 10th century, the first English invasion came two centuries later when Henry II captured the town which by that point had came under Scottish rule, whilst Richard I later sold it back to Scotland to help fund his campaign in the Crusades. Between 1315 and 1318 Scottish armies besieged and blockaded the town, finally invading and capturing it in April 1318, however the English retook Berwick shortly after the Battle of Halidon Hill in 1333. In 1461 Berwick was ceded back to Scotland in return for Scottish help in Henry VI's fight against against the Yorkists during the Wars of the Roses, then in 1482 England recaptured the town and it has remained on the south side of the border ever since.

A very short walk from Berwick train station takes you to the castle ruins. Berwick Castle was built in the 12th century and for many years a key stronghold in the battles between the English and the Scots. Perched on the banks of the river Tweed, when standing amongst the castle ruins you can see the impressive Royal Border Bridge. Built between 1847 and 1850, the railway viaduct designed by Robert Stephenson son of famous engineer George and opened by Queen Victoria is still used by the East Coast mainline today.

Other architecture of note in the town includes the historic Town Hall. Building work began on the structure in 1750, and Monday-Friday between Easter and the end of September there are daily tours of the building where you can visit the old town courtroom and jail.

During his life famous painter L.S. Lowrey regularly holidayed in the town, and the Lowrey trail throughout Berwick offers you the chance to follow in his footsteps and visit some of the places he discovered on his trips there, taking in the Elizabethan walls and crossing the river into Tweedmouth. Sadly there is no permanent exhibition of his work in the town.

Finally, another popular attraction in the town is The Maltings Cinema and Theatre. Opened in 1990, it was built in the ruins of an early 19th-century malthouse that had been destroyed by fire in 1984.
For a small town Berwick upon Tweed has a very big history, and it's quaint town centre with antiques shops, second hand book stores, and delightful tea rooms is definitely worth a visit. The town has some excellent historic architecture, and set in beautiful surrounds of the Scottish Borders along the river Tweed there are plenty of walking trails with lots of pleasing countryside, making not just the town itself but also the surrounding area a delightful gem before you head north of the border.