Blame it on a corner flag.
The Racecourse Ground, Wrexham, the very last minute of the eleventh game of Blyth Spartans’ 1978 FA Cup run. Shildon, Consett, Crook Town, Bishop Auckland, Burscough, Third Division Chesterfield and non-league Enfield have all been disposed of. In the fourth round, Stoke City, with a side including Howard Kendall and a young Garth Crooks, are beaten 3-2, the Northern League team scoring two goals in the final ten minutes at the Victoria Ground. The game is twice postponed and the fifth round draw has already been made: Newcastle United or Wrexham at home to Stoke City or Blyth Spartans. But the Welsh side spoil the dream script with an upset of their own, cantering to a 4-1 win in the replay which follows a 2-2 draw at St James’ Park. They end the season Third Division champions, while Newcastle are relegated from the First with only six wins from their forty-two games.
February 18th 1978; the prize a home tie with Arsenal in the last eight of the FA Cup. The pitch is bone-hard, Alan Hill’s backpass underhit, and Terry Johnson, scorer of one goal at Shildon and two against Stoke, jabs his foot at the ball and slides it through the goalkeeper’s legs. Only seconds remain when Blyth’s skipper John Waterson tackles Bobby Shinton, the ball deflects off the Wrexham forward’s shin and dribbles harmlessly out of play. Waterson slips, Shinton raises his arm in hopeful appeal, and Alf Grey, who would referee the final in 1983, points erroneously for a corner. Lee Cartwright takes the kick, Dave Clark, Willie McFaul’s understudy in Newcastle United’s 1969 UEFA Fairs Cup winning team, punches away off the top of Shinton’s head. Cartwright tries again, Clark gathers the ball to his chest unopposed, but Grey signals for the kick to be retaken as the corner flag has fallen to the ground. At the third and final attempt Cartwright clears everyone except Dixie McNeill, who clatters in a headed equaliser at the far post. “And it’s gone in!” Barry Davies exclaims. “And the crowd go absolutely mad.” They weren’t the only ones. “It wasn’t a corner,” Shinton admits to Waterson immediately after the game.
Nine days later, 42,000 people turn up for the replay at St James’ Park, with an estimated 10-15,000 locked outside the ground. “We were stuck in traffic and a police officer pulled up beside the front of the bus,” remembers Clark. “Jackie Marks wound the window down and asked him if there had been an accident. The lads were anxiously waiting to hear what the situation was because we’d been stuck for quite a while. Jackie turned around and told us that it was just the traffic heading for the ground and we were going to have to be escorted. Nobody would believe him until the blue lights started flashing.” Perhaps affected by nerves, Blyth make the worst start possible, falling two goals behind in the first twenty minutes of the game. Grey awards a contentious penalty which Graham Whittle slams in at the Leazes End, before Dixie McNeill places a rising half-volley into the opposite corner of the same net. Though Johnson pulls one back with eight minutes remaining, Blyth Spartans’ fairytale has finally reached an end. A bedroom furniture supplier rewards each player with £350 worth of vouchers. Steve Carney, an electrician signed from North Shields at the start of the season, moves to Newcastle United for a £1,000 fee. Midfielder Keith Houghton eventually leaves the police force to sign for Carlisle. And, most famously of all, Alan Shoulder goes from the night shift at Hetton Colliery to playing centre-forward for Newcastle, scoring 38 goals in 117 games. “I was working down the pit on Sunday night, signed for Newcastle on Monday and made my debut against Stoke on the Saturday. It changed my life,” he later said.
It changed Blyth too. “The most famous non-league club in the world,” FA secretary Ted Croker said at the time, although their success was by no means confined to a few short months in 1977-78. Semi-finalists in the FA Amateur Cup six years earlier, in the decade and a half between 1972 and 1988 they never once finished lower than fifth in any league they played in, lifted the Northern League title on no fewer than ten occasions, were seven-time Northumberland Senior Cup winners, twice FA Trophy quarter finalists, and champions of the Northern Premier League First Division at their very first attempt.
It was off the pitch that problems were beginning to mount. By 2001 Spartans had amassed a debt of almost £300,000, with £56,000 owed to the Inland Revenue alone. “We were 10 minutes away from a winding-up order being issued,' says chairman Tony Platten, who was instrumental in saving the club from extinction. “The Inland Revenue said the cheque had to be at the Morpeth tax office by 4pm. I managed to twist some people's arms in local business on the basis that they would lend us some money and they might be paid back one day. We got the cheque to Morpeth at 3.50pm.”
With the Spartans back on a more secure financial footing, and promoted as Unibond Premier Champions in 2005, the cash from 2009’s televised third round home tie with Premier League Blackburn Rovers was used to help develop Croft Park, Blyth’s home since 1907 and now with cover on all four sides. "Spartans is a famous club because of the FA Cup,” Platten told The Telegraph. “Football supporters across the world over the age of about 40 will always associate Blyth with upsetting the odds.”
Sixth in the Blue Square Conference North following Tuesday’s 2-0 win over Redditch, Blyth nonetheless start as underdogs against Gateshead, up to tenth in the Conference Premier on the back of six straight wins and eleven goals in their last two games. The Tynesiders have brought a dozen of their own stewards, a pair of uniformed bouncers are patrolling outside the Masons Arms and families in green and white scarves are already making their way into the ground with an hour and a half to go until the game begins.
I head inside at half past two. “One student,” I say, showing my card. The turnstile operator looks at me blankly. “Nee students today,” he says. A tenner it is, then. Heavy morning rain gives way to weak, cold sunlight by 3 o’clock. Blyth line up with six former Gateshead players in their starting eleven, including Stephen Turnbull, whose elder twin Phil, an ex-Spartan loanee himself, starts in midfield (Gateshead name two more Blyth old boys, Paul Farmer and Josh Gillies, among their substitutes). The crowd is 2,719, including 967 who’ve made the short journey north. “Tynesiders, Tynesiders” and “When the Heed go marching in” start off the Gateshead fans. “Spartans! Spartans!” comes the reply, accompanied by a drum. “We are Northumbria,” from the Kingsway, “You’re just a town full of smackheads,” retorts the Plessey Road, alluding to the coastal town’s unfortunate reputation as the heroin capital of the North. The teams come out, smoke bombs and toilet rolls hit the pitch and a flag is passed along the length of one stand. “Welcome to Sparta” says a banner behind the Kingsway goal.
After a fairly even first fifteen minutes Gateshead open the scoring when a seemingly harmless cross from on-loan Sunderland left-back Michael Liddle hits the luckless Chris Swailes on the boot and spins past Dan Lowson in the Spartans goal, a mirror of the own goal Swailes scored on his Premier League debut for Ipswich Town. With their next attack, the Tynesiders make it two; skipper Ben Clark breaking through a challenge and squaring the ball for James Curtis, Gateshead’s longest serving player, to roll into the net. There’s delirium behind the opposite goal. “Press them, press them,” mutters the man to my left, who’s wearing a blue snorkel parka and smoking a cigar. With Phil Turnbull and Kris Gate utterly dominant in midfield, Gateshead cruise the remainder of the half.
Blyth, with 20-goal top scorer Paul Brayson now playing wider on the left and beginning to pose some problems for the previously immaculate James Tavernier, improve markedly after the break. Tim Deasy palms away a Brayson effort from just inside his post and Turnbull has a goalbound shot blocked, but Blyth just can’t exert enough pressure on the Gateshead defence. With ten minutes left the visitors’ Nathan Fisher (signed for £3,000 after scoring 44 goals in just 49 games for Chester-le-Street Town last season) puts a volley wide and the Spartans fans begin to drift away. “We’re going to Wemberlee,” the Gateshead fans sing in the Plessey Road end. Not even Brayson - who strikes the bar inside the final minute - can do anything to alter that.
“We got a great result and we’re delighted to be in the semi-finals,” says victorious manager Ian Bogie. “In the second half we got a bit complacent and gave Blyth a bit of a head of steam, letting them in on a couple of occasions. Credit to them, they kept going right to the end.” “We gave a good account of ourselves,” Blyth boss Mick Tait tells The Sunday Sun, “but I’m very disappointed to have lost. We did our best in the end but we didn’t give ourselves a chance because of the goals we gave away.”
Date: 26th February 2011
Three more facts about Blyth:
More than 100 players have gone on to Football League clubs from the Spartans, though none is more notorious than the Senegalese student Ali Dia, who made one brief Premier League appearance after someone purporting to be George Weah recommended him to then Southampton boss Graeme Souness. He later played for Gateshead. “His performance was almost comical,” recalled Matt Le Tissier. “He kind of took my place, but he didn't really have a position. He was just wondering everywhere. I don't think he realised what position he was supposed to be in.”
As well as 1978, the redoubtable cup fighters have reached the FA Cup first round proper 31 times, the second round on 14 occasions and the third round three times.
Their most famous current fan is England cricketer Graeme Swann, whose father Ray made his debut for Blyth CC as a 16-year-old, later playing for Northumberland and Northants.
Blyth links: Blog Spartans and Blyth Fans’ Forum.
Pre-match: Along with the Masons Arms, there are several pubs – Olivers, Oddfellows, The Steamboat and The Post Office - clustered together on Bridge Street, a 5-10 minute walk along Plessey Road towards the Quay and Ridley Park. Nearby, @Ivy does breakfast specials until 11.30am.
Getting there: Arriva’s X11 service from Newcastle stops outside the ground on Plessey Road. Day return tickets cost £4.80 from Haymarket Bus Station.
A version of this post also appeared on The Real FA Cup.