Thanks to fixture congestion, squad rotation and an often unhealthy fascination with top-four finishes, lower division clubs advancing to the later rounds of the FA Cup is not as rare as it used to be; but one name will always be synonymous with the world’s oldest knockout competition after the non-league outfit reached the Fifth Round in 1978 and for a while became one of the most famous teams in the game – that name is Blyth Spartans.
In the mid '70s Spartans were something of a force in lower league football having been Northern League champions in 1973, 1975 and 1976. And in reaching the First Round proper that season they had faced strong opposition in Shildon, Consett, Crook Town and Bishop Auckland; but there was little evidence of what was to come from the team who played in distinctive green and white stripes.
The First Round at Croft Park had seen Blyth overcome Burscough thanks to a very routine 1-0 win, while in the Second Round they had another home draw, this time against Chesterfield, who they also disatched quite comfortably.
As one of just a handful of non-league sides left in the cup and with the Third Round of the competition seeing sides from the top divisions entering the draw, Spartans fans would have been forgiven for dreaming of drawing nearby Newcastle United or reigning European champions, Liverpool; but as it turned out they drew the equally unfancied Enfield.
The Isthmian League side had knocked Blyth out of the FA Amateur Cup at the semi-final stage six years previously, and nobody was taking anything for granted with a crowd of over 5,000 turning out for the battle of the minnows which was settled thanks to a headed goal from Spartans’ debutant Alan Shoulder.
The win not only secured Blyth a place in the Fourth Round of the FA Cup, but meant they were now the sole representatives for the game’s lower reaches, in an era before full-time contracts and well paid professionals outside the top fight.
Their reward was an away tie against Stoke City who, despite recently being relegated from the First Division were still seen as a giant of the game, having won the League Cup six years earlier and boasting names such as Howard Kendall, Terry Conroy, Alec Lindsay and Garth Crooks.
But the club, the players and the supporters would have to wait for the biggest game in the team’s history as the elements that had caused havoc that winter intervened with the FA Cup schedule; but when the game finally did take place, the winners knew that they would face either Wrexham or Blyth’s near neighbours Newcastle in the next round – a huge incentive for both sides but especially Spartans.
Sadly the Blyth fans, who weren’t able to fight their way through the treacherous conditions and get down to the Midlands, were to miss out on seeing one of the biggest Cup shocks in English football at the time when the two finally faced each other at Victoria Park on February 6th.
Spartans took a tenth-minute lead when Terry Johnson pounced when Stoke failed to clear a corner, but two goals from the home side appeared to settle the match in the second half and end the non-league side's dreams once and for all.
But with ten minutes remaining a Ron Guthrie free-kick deflected off the wall and trickled against the Stoke post. As onrushing forwards charged at the loose ball Shoulder's effort rolled along the face of the goal and Steve Carney was there to hammer in the equaliser.
Incredibly, with just under two minutes still to play, Stoke failed to clear Rob Carney’s effort and Terry Johnson fired the ball home to give Spartans a victory that looked unlikely just minutes earlier.
Spartans had became an overnight sensation, making front and back page headlines, while instantly becoming everyone’s “second team,” thanks to their quirky nae, unusual kit and never-say-die attitude.
Blyth Spartans might have been a new name on most people’s radar but the club were something of a work in process for several years leading up to their moment in the spotlight and the fact that they had made it this far was no fluke.
Despite not being top name players there was genuine quality in their squad, and thanks to a relatively large fan base in the footballing hotbed that is the North East, they were able to attract some of the finest non-League talent available.
Under the guidance of coach Jackie Marks a wonderful team spirit had been generated right throughout the club. Marks even invented his own special pre-match energy drink to aid the release of tension and build courage called, “Speed Oil,” only confirming his position as a the type of character the FA Cup thrived upon.
As well as a number of home-grown heroes the Blythe team also contained a number of decent players who had played at the top level and brought with them a wealth of knowledge and experience, some of which would go on to greater things in the game.
Dave Clarke was considered the best semi-pro goalkeeper in the country and full-back Ron Guthrie had played for Sunderland in the 1973 final win over Leeds United. Former Brentford and Southend striker Terry Johnson was also key that season while the promising Alan Shoulder would go on to play for nearby Newcastle United in later years.
In a season of shocks it was perhaps fitting that another surprise result deprived Blyth of a cup tie against their near neighbours, Newcastle United. That's because Wrexham upset the odds to ensure it would be to North Wales that Spartans would travel in the Fifth Round and not down the road to St James’ Park.
By now Spartans were a big draw so it was no surprise that the Fifth Round match at Wrexham would be featured on television that night on the BBC's Match of the Day. This meant that how close Blyth came to reaching the quarter-finals, or to be more accurate, how cruelly they were denied a place in the next round would be played out to the nation.
Thanks to the recent cold-snap the pitch that day resembled something of a frozen bog and would play a huge part in the proceedings in true FA Cup tradition. Alan Hill's risky back pass to ‘keeper Dai Davies was never going to make it and Terry Johnson was onto it before most of the crowd realised the ball had bobbled-up in the mud; stroking the ball home with ease he put Spartans into an unexpected lead.
Wrexham pressed for an equaliser but were unable to find a way through until deep into injury time when one of the most bizarre and more memorable incidents ever to occur in an FA Cup tie took place that would have a huge outcome on Blyth’s run in the competition.
With the end in sight, another Wrexham attack had come to nothing and the ball had clearly gone behind off a Wrexham player’s foot, the referee gave a corner. In an effort to give himself a better angle for the cross, Les Cartwright instinctively pushed the corner flag so that it stood at an angle.
As Clarke in the Blyth goal collected comfortably and the threat seemed to have passed, referee Alf Grey noticed the flag had come out of the ground and fallen over. He ordered the kick to be retaken and the flag was forced back into the hole in the ground, which, by now, had almost completely frozen over.
The consequences of the referee's fussing were huge as the corner was eventually taken again but on this occasion the cross deceived the Blyth defence and Dixie McNeil managed to force the ball over the line at the back post in the very last minute of the game.
Blyth had been denied in the harshest of ways imaginable, yet they were still in the hat for the Sixth-Round draw, something that was unthinkable when they began their campaign back in September. The prospect was even more appealing when it was revealed that the winners of the replay would face Arsenal, at home, in the quarter finals.
They may have missed out on a dream trip to face Newcastle but on police advice it was decided that Blyth’s replay with Wrexham would now be played at the home of the Magpies after all, allowing a huge crowd to witness one of the biggest games in the club’s history.
Over 40,000 people were at St James Park for the biggest game in Blyth's history, but it seemed this was a step too far for Spartans and their loyal following. An early penalty from Graham Whittle gave Wrexham the lead before McNeill made it 2-0 and effectively kill-off the tie.
In the second half Blyth came back strongly and with seven minutes to play Terry Johnson gave them hope when he pulled a goal back. This time, however, it wasn’t enough and Wrexham hung on to win 2-1 and a quarter final tie against the Gunners.
It was a case of what could have been for Spartans and things would never quite be this good again in the years that followed; as the club failed to live up to their reputation as cup giant killers.
That epic FA Cup run of 1978 not only made the small club from the North East a household name, it also meant the £7 per week part-timers received £350 worth of bedroom furniture from a local shop as a reward.
Not only did the little club from the North East capture the hearts and imagination of the nation, they also raked in over £40,000 along the ways. Though, but for the intervention of an overly fussy referee and an unstable corner flag, who knows what riches they could have achieved had their journey not been so cruelly cut short?