The greatest non-League FA Cup run of the past 100 years could have been even better. Ken Sproat remembers when a floppy corner flag robbed Blyth of more glory
When you support a non-League team it can feel enough, and be a matter of quiet pride, that the club is known and respected in its own town. This has largely been the case in the Northumberland port of Blyth for generations, but in 1978 the town’s team transcended their apparent lot completely. Blyth Spartans became one of the most famous teams in the entire football-speaking world.
The 1977-78 FA Cup run began ordinarily enough with a qualifying-round schedule that saw four local sides disposed of, followed by another team of part-timers, Burscough, in the first-round proper. Third Division Chesterfield were the next visitors to Croft Park. Blyth beat them 1-0, a superb result but not beyond recent experience because both Crewe and Stockport had been beaten in 1971-72.
The third-round draw was both disappointing and brilliant. Home again, but to another non-League club: Enfield. No glamour, but Blyth took the opportunity, squeezing through. The reward for Alan Shoulder’s header was a trip to Second Division Stoke City.
This was a bad winter for weather and the Stoke tie was called off twice. Fans who couldn’t get down to the Midlands for a third time were to curse the postponements – they lost out on seeing one of the biggest Cup shocks in English football history. Stoke were a recent top-flight team, had won the League Cup six years earlier and had Howard Kendall, Terry Conroy, Alec Lindsay, former Newcastle striker Viv Busby (he was playing when Hereford’s Ronnie Radford scored that goal) and a young Garth Crooks. By now the draw for the fifth round had been made. If, by a miracle, Stoke could be defeated, then the reward would be a trip to Newcastle (once they had disposed of Wrexham).
Spartans took a tenth-minute lead when Terry Johnson slid in a spilled corner, but two Stoke goals fairly soon after the break appeared to settle it. With ten minutes left, though, a Ron Guthrie free-kick spun off the wall at a daft angle and bobbled against the left post. Blyth forwards charged at the loose ball and Shoulder headed it against the opposite one. Steve Carney was standing in the right place to lash in the equaliser. Incredibly, and it seems even more incredible now than it did then, Blyth scored a last-minute winner, from another free-kick. This time it seemed to be overhit, but the ball found its way back into the danger area and Terry Johnson rammed it in.
But at Wrexham, Newcastle suffered a 4-1 stuffing. So Blyth fans were denied a chance to witness what would have been the most glorious of days at St James’ Park. Still, the Stoke result made Spartans a nationally supported underdog. Blyth had it all – a great and unusual name, an odd strip, a solid history to show they were no mere fly-by-nights, eccentrics in the dressing room (cue excruciating footage of the players singing Zip-a-de-doo-dah), the de facto support of Newcastle and Sunderland fans, and for the papers an easy headline – Blyth Spirit.
Coach Jackie Marks handled the publicity duties. Of solid north-east non-League credentials, he imbued Spartans with team spirit, tactics and, to media delight, “speed oil”, a special pre-match drink to aid the release of tension and build courage. That Blyth were so good in this period was no fluke – the squad had been assembled and improved upon for about ten years. Having a relatively large support meant that they were able to attract the cream of north-east non-League talent – Dave Clarke, for instance, was considered the best semi-pro goalkeeper in the country. Full-back Guthrie had played in that other great north-east Cup adventure, for Sunderland when they beat Leeds in the 1973 final. A key signing that season was a League journeyman fed up with slogging it around the motorways, former Brentford and Southend striker Terry Johnson.
In that era, being on Match of the Day was an event of note for the fans of any club, even those of Liverpool or Arsenal. The sudden prominence of Spartans meant it inevitable that the fifth-round match at Wrexham would be featured. The nation could therefore witness how close Blyth came to reaching the quarter-finals and how cruelly they were denied.
The pitch, as they say all too often, is the same for both sides. However, it is not the same for forwards and defenders. As the Wrexham back line tottered around on the frozen, bone-hard surface, full-back Alan Hill opted for a safety-first back pass to keeper Dai Davies. It was weakly hit and Terry Johnson was on to it before most of the crowd realised the error. He found the net easily, wheeling away with a knowing smile.
Blyth were on their way. Frustrating Wrexham, the semi-pros scrapped it out. With the end in sight, another home attack floundered against green-socked shins. Although the ball had clearly gone behind via a Wrexham player’s foot, referee Alf Grey gave a corner. To give himself more room, midfielder Les Cartwright moved the corner flag so that it stood at an angle. As Clarke in the Blyth goal collected comfortably, Grey noticed the flag had fallen completely over. He ordered a retake and the flag was balanced into its frozen hole for Cartwright to swing the corner over again. Once more the defence repelled the threat but, incredibly, the flag had fallen over again. Another retake. This time the arc of the cross caught out the Blyth defence and Dixie McNeil managed to force it over the line at the back post. It was the final minute.
Blyth had been denied in the harshest of ways. The sense of injustice was tangible. It still is. But Blyth were in the sixth-round draw – Arsenal at home – and there was an indignant belief that we would surely win the replay, and perhaps even the Cup.
Despite being denied a trip to St James’ Park by Newcastle’s ineptitude, the town of Blyth could have its big night out at the “Toon” anyway: police pressure meant the replay would take place at St James’ Park. Long before kick-off the turnstiles were closing one by one, causing people to roam round in ever increasing packs in search of a chance to gain entry. Thousands were locked out and the game started in front of the incredible noise generated by 42,000 cheering as if the world depended on it.
Though Blyth didn’t play badly, Wrexham established a 2-0 lead by the 20th minute. No one gave up, though, not on the terraces, nor on the pitch; with eight minutes left Terry Johnson blasted in a volley. But despite some close calls, the equaliser would not come.
The knowledge of what could have been if things had happened correctly was an impossible legacy for subsequent Spartans team to live with. Current matches at Croft Park involve a Blyth team struggling apparently in perpetuity in front of a few hundred regulars. One of these is Jackie Marks, dispenser of the “speed oil” and, if you stand within earshot, an accurate summariser of modern players’ weaknesses.
The £7-a-week part-time players each received £350 worth of bedroom furniture from a local business. Two of them transferred to Newcastle: Steve Carney, a central defender, and more famously Alan Shoulder, who adapted to life away from the Northern League superbly. Terry Johnson, goal poacher supreme, the man who nearly put Spartans into the FA Cup quarter-finals, can still be found every Saturday afternoon in Blyth – Blyth market that is. The fruit and veg sold at his stall has a special aura to a certain generation.
No other non-League team has been this far in the FA Cup since before World War One. An FA Cup fifth-round replay is not only as good as it got for Blyth Spartans, but for every non-League team.
From WSC 218 April 2005. What was happening this month
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