BY MARK CARRUTHERS, BLYTH SPARTANS PRESS OFFICER
Exaggeration seems to be common place in modern day football doesn’t it? For example saying Manchester City are a club in crisis after going two games without a win or calling Steven Gerrard or Frank Lampard England greats after consistently failing to make an impact at a major tournament? Actually, throw hypocrisy into that opening line.
Can the FA really blame grassroots football for underachievement at the top level when there is a serious lack of real investment in the game at that level? Or can top clubs really bemoan the attendances at FA Cup fixtures when they use the greatest domestic club competition in the world as a reason to play fringe players in their squad?
However, every now and again something happens that makes you realise just why you fell in love with football. For me, this season, it has been working at Blyth Spartans during their epic cup run to the Third Round. The club has a young squad, a home town manager and a group of what Chris Hughton would no doubt call “good lads”. I’ll openly admit not much was expected of them in the FA Cup, but boy, have they delivered some special moments.
Seeing Hartlepool United supporter and Spartans keeper Peter Jeffries save a penalty at the home of Pools’ bitter rivals Darlington to help his side gain a replay in the First Qualifying Round was special. And being there to witness Jarrett Rivers ninety third minute winner in the Third Qualifying Round at Mickleover Sports will live long in the memory.
The tie that secured passage to what I hate to call the “proper rounds” can certainly be branded under epic. Leek Town were Spartans’ hosts and quite frankly battered them in the first half, deservedly taking a 2-0 lead into the half time interval. Had it not been for the brilliance of Jeffries it could have been more too. Whatever was said or thrown in the Spartans dressing room worked, and within twenty five minutes, they were 4-2 up.
The drama hadn’t finished though. With ten minutes remaining, Leek striker Andrew Kinsey scored a penalty to bring his side back in with a shout of a replay before a remarkable six minutes of injury time were scheduled. In the final minute of added on time another penalty was awarded to the home side, but this time Kinsey smashed his spot kick over the bar, and with it came the final whistle, much to the delight of over 400 travelling Spartans supporters.
A 4-1 First Round demolition of Conference side Altrincham in front of a delirious Croft Park was a superb beginning to the “proper rounds”. Braces from club legend Robbie Dale and last season’s top scorer Dan Maguire were enough to see off the Cheshire side and seal a North East derby in the Second Round with Hartlepool United.
That was when things got a little crazy! The national press focused on Spartans as scaffolder Jeffries was pictured with the FA Cup on a building site in more than one newspaper, players were lined up dressed as Spartans on a freezing cold Thursday night press call at Croft Park. The announcement came that the tie would be shown on BBC Match of the Day and then things got very crazy.
Newcastle United and England legend Alan Shearer was invited into the Spartans dressing room before the game, much to the chagrin of Sky Sports presenter and Pools supporter Jeff Stelling. Spartans 1977/78 cup run hero Alan Shoulder was invited in too in a move that almost brought a tear to the eye of manager Tom Wade, a man who watched Shoulder and his team mates make their way to the Fifth Round and come within a minute of a Quarter-Final tie against Arsenal, only to be denied by a cruel refereeing decision against Wrexham.
Pools dominated the first half and went one up thanks to Jonathan Franks, a lead they held on to until the half time break. However, Stephen Turnbull levelled things up with what Shearer described as “the greatest FA Cup free kick I have seen” before a player who works in his parents newsagents – Jarrett Rivers – stylishly rolled the ball home in the final minute of the game to send over 1,100 Spartans fans wild and put their side in the Third Round for the first time since 2009.
Birmingham City were to visit Croft Park in the Third Round and again severe media attention was shone on Spartans. The tie was snubbed for live TV coverage and both BT and BBC missed an absolute classic. It seems ridiculous that I have barely mentioned Robbie Dale, a living legend in Blyth and a player I would describe as mesmeric on his day.
This was his day as he led a City defence containing three full internationals on a merry dance. Two quickfire goals from the winger – the second a wonderful solo effort – put Spartans two to the good at half time. Croft Park was rocking in disbelief and delight.
Reality hit and hit hard in the second half as three goals in six minutes from the Championship side ensured Spartans wonderful cup run came to an end and there were emotional scenes on and off the pitch, but what an effort it had been.
The following days topped off a remarkable run with Dale being immortalised with his own customer made Subbuteo figure, Luis Figo following Spartans on Twitter, Dale’s second being nominated for BBC Goal of the Round and the club being awarded Team of the Round by the Beeb.
It’s been on honour and a privilege to work alongside hardworking, honest lads on this cup run and to see them thrust from their run-of-the-mill day jobs and into the national limelight. Not to mention seeing the club set alive the romance of the FA Cup that seems to have diminished in the past decade. Proud to be a Spartan? You bet I am, and there is no exaggeration in that!