BY MARK GODFREY
On Saturday, I climbed out of my sick bed to mosey on down to Croft Park, home of Blyth Spartans, to stand amongst the faithful and absorbÂ the mixed restorative properties of fresh, early-Spring air and Bovril fumes. We were rewarded with a comfortable 4-1 win over Stamford, including an own goal that would have done Gary Neville and Paul Robinson proud.
It seems like forever since they were splashed all over the national media for their FA Cup exploits in dumping Hartlepool out in front of Alan Shearer, Dan Walker and the BBC cameras on a freezing Friday night on the North Sea coast. The third round tie at home to Birmingham City saw over 3,600 folks shoehorned into Croft Park to witness an unlikely two goal lead evaporate in six whirlwind minutes of Blues pressure.
It was a period in the spotlight that the town and the club are rarely afforded; even Portuguese legend and wannabe-Sepp Blatter-usurper Luis Figo started following Spartans on Twitter during their FA Cup adventure. Such footballing heroics happen on a semi-regular basis in Blyth â€“ they ran Premier League Blackburn Rovers close in the third round in 2008/09 earning themselves over Â£400,000 in TV appearance bounty along the way. Far from kickstarting a rise up the non-league ladder, Blyth just avoided relegation from the Conference North that year, and although improvements were made to both the ground and the squad â€“ as well as some debt consolidation â€“ with their unexpected windfall, the club gradually regressed.
With some valuable lessons perhaps learned, Blyth â€“ now back in the Northern Premier League after eventual relegation from the Conference North in 2013 â€“ are attempting to use the most-recent FA Cup run as a springboard to a promotion push.
It wonâ€™t be easy though; at one stage during January, thanks to a combination of mid-Winter postponements and cup engagements, Spartans had an incredible 12 games in hand on then-leaders Skelmersdale United and at least 6 or 7 on everybody else in the division. Even now, a glance at the league table shows that Tom Wadeâ€™s side are still playing catch up. Marchâ€™s fixture list is more congested than Trevor Francisâ€™ sinuses with ten games scheduled in just 28 days; Arsene Wengerâ€™s increasingly sour face would surely turn violet with rage at the thought if Arsenal were subject to such a pile up.
Blythâ€™s pre-season performances against Scottish league teams Cowdenbeath, Stranraer and St.Mirren hinted at a potentially decent campaign ahead. And even when the team were â€˜languishingâ€™ near the wrong end of the table, having so many games in hand, the old adage that the league table never lies did nothing to dent confidence that they belonged to a significantly higher station in the standings. Form and results since that defeat at home to Championship-side Birmingham have been exemplary; barring a hangover loss to Frickley Athletic just three days later, Spartans have gone seven league games unbeaten with five well-earned victories propelling them to ninth spot and the fringes of the play-off picture.
The small, but tight-knit squad will have its work cut out to maintain the momentum built up in the aftermath of the FA Cup run. The upcoming home fixture with fellow promotion-challengers Ilkeston will provide a stern test of Blythâ€™s credentials, and while defeat will hardly define the remainder of the season given the backlog of games on the horizon, a win and three points could be a timely shot in the arm with such a heavy work load ahead. And who knows, if exhaustion doesn’t take its toll on the difficult run-in, automatic promotion may not be entirely out of the question.