Blyth Spartans are still the best known non-League club from the north-east thanks to their 1978 FA Cup exploits. But, as Ken Sproat explains, their centenary year has not gone smoothly
Increasingly, the term “north-east football” means only Newcastle United, Sunderland and Middlesbrough. The arrival of George Reynolds has brought some cheap publicity to Darlington, but Hartlepool rarely get a mention and at non-League level Gateshead’s sporadic forays into the Conference attract little attention either nationally or locally.
This season, Bishop Auckland’s fine run to the quarter-finals of the FA Trophy brought recollections of the famous amateur teams of the 1950s, but arguably the region’s most famous non-League team is Blyth Spartans, now of the Unibond Premier. They have a proud and rich history with the enviable record of having never suffered relegation.
Blyth are like a big club but on a human level. They have season tickets, organised away travel to every game, contract catering anda fair amount of genuine obsessives. This year is their centenary and, with an irony perhaps only football fans can appreciate, they have been struggling, often woefully, to avoid marking it with their first ever drop. Like a small-scale West Ham, they have a reputation as “a good football team” but by Christmas Blyth had managed to have 11 players sent off.
Worse was to come. In an event that would have been rejected by the World Wrestling Federation as too preposterous, players and officials of Hyde United clashed with their opponents from the north-east corner in a no-holds-barred on-pitch brawl. The result of the FA inquiry is pending, but a damaging points deduction is rumoured.
Confidence and patience were exhausted (penalties were missed as a matter of routine) and in the greatest indignity in living memory, Blyth were knocked out of the County Cup by Ponteland United of the Northern Alliance, a league four rungs below theirs.
The blame for these disasters can fairly be pinned on the bizarre player/managership of John “Budgie” Burridge. Supporters at any of the 20 or so clubs where he was a player will find it easy to imagine the kind of regime he built at Blyth. His vocabulary consisted of 60 per cent f-word, 35 per cent cliche and five per cent apology, for when soft long range shots would flop through his hands into the goal: “F***ing sorry lads, I f***ing lost it in the f***ing sun.”
When Blyth were drawn at Blackpool (where Budgie first made his name) in the FA Cup, the tie received almost blanket coverage in the north east. A documentary showed Burridge sleeping with his keepers’ gloves on, clutching a football, before awakening at some ridiculously early hour to jump instantly into his lunatic keep-fit behaviour. Thankfully it never showed him coming back from away matches walking up and down the aisle of the team coach stark naked – the most fearsome thing seen on the A1 since Dick Turpin’s ghost. Blyth lost 4-3, with Burridge badly lacking on Blackpool’s last-minute winner.
Then suddenly Burridge was gone, after being convicted and fined for dealing in counterfeit leisure wear. Prime evidence was film of the Blyth players at the Blackpool game wearing some of Budgie’s “hot” fashions. Burridge pleaded poverty and went off to coach the Oman national team. Regulars at Croft Park were left to muse on the horribly apt punishments that might await a miscreant goalkeeper in the Gulf state.
The board turned to Alan Shoulder, a hero of the milestone/millstone 1978 FA Cup run, but he failed to inspire the team. After caretaker player-manager John Gamble presided over the cataclysmic start to the centenary campaign, he too had to go.
Blyth is just ten miles north of Newcastle, so support tends to filter off to the glamour of St James’ or the Stadium of Light. Spartans have a hard core of about 350 but this is about 100 down on last season. Having said that, finances are reasonably strong, especially compared to those of local rivals Gateshead, who have an incredible £1.5 million deficit.
There is a fairly small pool of players on the north east semi-professional scene and they transfer between the half dozen or so clubs at an alarming rate. The best chance of success is to attract a quality manager who will then have the clout to assemble the best players. Spartans’ centenary season may yet be rescued from disaster now that they have such a manager. Mick Tait is well versed in the ways of north-east football, having been a player at Darlington and Hartlepool and manager at the latter.
On arriving at Blyth he was immediately struck by the off-field professionalism of the club: “They have a kit man to wash the strips,” he noted. “I had to do it myself at Hartlepool.”
From WSC 159 May 2000. What was happening this month