BY MARK GODFREY
If you think the Premier League and Championship title races are exciting, then itâ€™s nothing compared to the battle to top this seasonâ€™s Evostik Northern Premier League. North East rivals Blyth Spartans and Darlington 1883 enter the final stretch locked in a fight thatâ€™s almost certainly going to go down to a final day decider on April 23rd.
Blyth, managed by local lad Tom Wade, are more renowned for their FA Cup giantkilling acts down the years while former Sunderland defender Martin Grayâ€™s Darlington are a phoenix club formed in 2012 from the ashes of the former league club whose fortunes took a terminal nosedive after the folly of ex-chairman George Reynolds and their white elephant of a stadium.
Both sides have taken a significant step forward from last seasonâ€™s league achievements; Darlington finished second in the First Division and gained promotion through the play-offs while Spartansâ€™ huge fixture backlog after their FA Cup exploits caught up with them, helping to derail their ownÂ hopes of aÂ return to the Vanarama NorthÂ division via the play-offs, from where they were relegated in 2012 â€“ the only relegation the club has suffered in its 116-year history.
This campaign began with Blyth in scintillating form, playing some of the most entertaining and attractive football ever witnessed at Croft Park. Director-in-chief was midfielder Stephen Turnbull, who many will remember for his stunning free kick goal against Hartlepool in a BBC-televised FA Cup tie in 2014 which Blyth won 2-1. Turnbullâ€™s vision and range of passing was pivotal to Wadeâ€™s fast pass and move game which swept almost all before them before the turn of the year. Down the A1, Turnbullâ€™s twin brother Phil fills a similar role for Darlington.
Also among the early title contenders were BBC darlings and Class of â€™92 playthings Salford City. They suffered a post-Christmas wobble â€“ defeated twice by Darlington and once by Blyth â€“ which has left them trailing back in third spot and likelyÂ booked for a place in the bun fight of the play-offs.
Spartans too experienced a recent dip in results which has left the door open for Darlington to pip themÂ to the sole automatic promotion spot. At one point the Quakers had seven games in hand over the Northumberland club and, with a seemingly relentless run of victories that coincided with Blythâ€™s struggles, they have become title favourites as they breathe down the neck of the leaders.
Going into this weekend Blyth have just four games remaining while Darlington are having to cram games in to catch up; they played Saturday (won), Tuesday (lost) and Thursday (won) in the week just gone and turn out again this Saturday and next Tuesday to complete a punishing schedule.
Blythâ€™s blip now seems to be over which heaps the pressure on Darlington to continue winning. Recent victories over play-off chasers Workington (3-0) and Hyde United (4-0) sandwiched an incredible comeback win at Ilkeston. Spartans trailed 3-0 after 35 minutes but came back to win 4-3 with a 97th winner by skipper and club legend Robbie Dale.
Only one of the Turnbull brothers will have a hand in the title run in; Blythâ€™s Stephen left the club in January to go to sea for several months as part of his marine engineering degree, and for a while, his absence threatened to stymy Spartansâ€™ chances.
The fact there is such an enthralling conclusion to the season in the first place is a point of controversy. Darlington were charged with fielding an ineligible player â€“ Anthony Bell signed from Cardiff City â€“ for eight games in the early part of the season. They were hit with a fine, but more crucially, the maximum 12-point deduction given to them was suspended meaning they faced no immediateÂ censure for the error. It was an issue that left several clubs in the division incensed. Nantwich Town chairman Tony Davidson told the Northern Echo, â€œWe would like to know why Darlington FC havenâ€™t lost those points in this case, but the league are refusing to explain.
â€œItâ€™s all about consistency.
â€œSeveral of us have been charged for fielding ineligible players in recent seasons, and weâ€™ve gone down to Wembley to fight our corner, but still been deducted pointsâ€.
Whatever the reasons, the point is now moot (unless Darlington offend again) but for the fans of Blyth and Darlington the excitement is reaching a crescendo as attendances are booming at both grounds and supporters feverishly check social media to see how the other is doing, hoping for the slip up that will give them the upper hand. Incredibly, both of those teams are likely to break the magicalÂ 100 point barrier this season, yet only one of them will be rewarded with silverware in two weeks time.
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