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).

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