(With pre-emptive apologies to Harry Pearson – it’s impossible to have read The Far Corner and write about non-league football (and non-league football in the North-East, especially) without succumbing to the temptation to imitate his style…)
My home town Morpeth – securely and perhaps smugly middle-class – is located at something of a crossroads. Leave the self-styled “ancient market town” and venture north or west in the direction of the Scottish border and you find yourself in the romantic “Northumbria” of the postcards and tourist brochures: mile upon mile of unpopulated scenic countryside, picturesque castles and expansive, unspoilt, golden beaches.
But climb aboard a 2A bus in the opposite direction and you could be forgiven for assuming that the painfully circuitous route to Blyth is tracing Dante’s circles of Hell. South-east Northumberland, it has to be said, is unrelentingly grim: flat, drab and offering vistas about as romantic as being fingered behind the bike sheds. This afternoon the drizzle is only conspiring to accentuate its unloveliness – it’s a bit like catching Ann Widdecombe without her make-up on. Still, at least the bus’s steamed-up windows help to cocoon us passengers from the outside world – even if they do make working out when to alight a challenge so hard even Vinnie Jones would be inclined to jump out of the way.
Blyth – pronounced “Blayth” in the idiosyncratic micro-accent of its residents – is primarily renowned/infamous for three things: boasting the UK’s very first offshore wind farm, at the time home to the largest offshore turbines in the world; becoming a mid-90s heroin hotspot, for which it featured in a 1997 episode of Panorama (not such ancient history, perhaps); and its characteristically doughty football team, Blyth Spartans.
As a footballing hotbed, the town might stand very much in the shadow of its near-neighbour Ashington, birthplace of Newcastle Utd legend Jackie Milburn and the Charlton brothers Bobby and Jack, but, for a club who have never played league football, Spartans’ FA Cup exploits are astounding. They’ve made the First Round 32 times, the Second Round 15 times, the Third Round four times (most recently in 2008, when Sam Allardyce’s Blackburn squeezed to a 1-0 win at Croft Park) and the Fourth Round once, in 1978, when they beat Stoke to set up a Fifth Round tie with Wrexham. Having held the Welsh side to a 1-1 draw away, they then went down 2-1 in the replay at adopted home ground St James’ Park in front of a mammoth crowd in excess of 40,000. It was fitting, then, that the arena of that brave defeat provided some of the seating for the refurbishment of Croft Park some years later.
As might be expected given the two clubs’ geographical proximity, Spartans’ connections to Newcastle are legion and their eager acceptance of Toon hand-me-downs extends beyond mere seating. Goalkeeper Adam Bartlett is among those who have turned out for both sides, while Geordie forward Graham Fenton, both a Spartans player and assistant/caretaker manager between 2003 and 2009, was the man who took bittersweet responsibility for hammering the final nail into the Toon’s title bid in 1995/6, scoring twice as a Blackburn substitute to overturn a 1-0 deficit. (A more tenuous connection concerns the fact that Ali Dia, who famously hoodwinked former Newcastle boss Graeme Souness into believing he was George Weah’s cousin, also turned out for Blyth. As at Southampton, the imposter managed just one solitary substitute’s appearance – but enough to make Souness feel just a little less gullible, perhaps…)
These days the path between the two Parks remains well travelled. Striker Phil Airey made the direct trip most recently, having been released by Newcastle in the summer, while left back Joe Kendrick took a route so roundabout as to resemble my own today – via the south coast (Torquay), Germany (TSV 1860 Munich), his native Ireland (Sligo Rovers, Drogheda Utd and Bray Wanderers) and even Azerbaijan (Neftchi Baku). The man Airey and Kendrick call the gaffer, though, can boast a more illustrious playing career in black and white. Tommy Cassidy made 180 appearances for Newcastle between 1970 and 1980 and also won several caps for Northern Ireland, the last coming as a substitute in their famous win over hosts Spain at the 1982 World Cup.
Cassidy’s task this season is a tough one: rejuvenating a club still reeling from demotion from the Conference North, the first formal relegation in their 113-year history. Life in the Northern Premier League Premier Division didn’t start well, either, with a 2-1 defeat at Witton Albion courtesy of an injury-time penalty. Thing improved dramatically, though, with the 5-0 thumping of Stocksbridge Park Steels in midweek, which featured two goals from Airey’s new strike partner, much-travelled former Carlisle man Craig Farrell.
When I arrive at the ground for Spartans’ match with Hednesford Town, ‘Don’t Worry, Be Happy’ is playing over the public address system – a verbalisation of the message the team sent out to the faithful with that performance against the Steels, perhaps. And, as if to reinforce the point, less than four minutes have elapsed when Spartans strike. Lee Mason tackles his opposite number just inside his own half, advances purposefully while brushing off a challenge and delivers a bouncing centre that Airey sweeps home emphatically.
Unlike the Steels, though, it’s soon evident that Hednesford aren’t going to roll over and have their tummies tickled – on the contrary, they prove they have real claws, only a superb Conor Grant save and an even better sliding block denying the visitors an almost immediate equaliser. Grant is rather less convincing when he absent-mindedly fumbles an overhit through-ball to set hearts leaping into mouths and prompt a character worthy of the pages of The Far Corner into action. This chap is possessed of a bellow so loud it could compete with the foghorns of boats in Blyth Harbour. “HAVE YOU BEEN DOWN TO LADBROKES?“, he enquires, at ear-popping volume, adding “HAVE YOU PUT A BLOODY BET ON?” just to ensure he’s made his point.
Surveying the Fergy Space Stand, it’s noticeable that there are very few women present – non-league football being more the preserve of the male, perhaps? There is however a female assistant referee, and when Town ‘keeper Dan Crane moans about an offside decision that wasn’t given, the Bellower is vociferous in his defence of her: “THAT WAS NEVER OFFSIDE. YOU SEXIST PIG“. It’s at this point that I start to notice a distinction between the terraces and the (seated) Port of Blyth Stand opposite. Those who’ve paid their extra quid for the privilege of parking their arse on plastic appear far more willing to offer polite sporting applause than those stood up around me, who often seem react to such magnanimity with bemusement bordering on bile.
A hum of anticipation arises all around the ground, however, whenever Robbie Dale gets the ball. A local legend, the surprisingly lanky winger scored his 100th goal for the club in that opening-day defeat at Witton, and now starts to stretch the Hednesford defence. Nevertheless, the kids next to me are soon back showing greater interest in their polystyrene trays of chips smothered under tomato sauce, as Town are unfortunate to see a flurry of efforts whistle past the frame of the Spartans goal.
The home side’s lead remains intact until half-time, though, and I toddle over to the refreshment van. Behind me in the line, two blokes discuss their preferences. “Chicken curry and chips?!“, says one, incredulously. “Aye“, says the other, “I’ve chanced it before and it was alreet“. It’s like he’s limbering up to play the fast food version of Russian roulette. When I get to the front of the queue, I discover the hot water boiler’s out of order. A moment of panic: this is a tinderbox situation, a riot waiting to happen, if people are denied their half-time Bovril. You’ve heard of the Arab Spring; well, this could be the Northumbrian Late Summer. Thankfully, though, the powers-that-be sense the discontent in the air and hastily whack on ‘Don’t Worry, Be Happy’ again to pacify any would-be revolutionaries.
The second period begins with an Airey volley which fails to trouble Crane, before a Town shot rattles off the base of the post. The visitors aren’t to be kept at bay for long, though. Barbados international Neil Harvey capitalises on some calamitous defending and celebrates Usain Bolt-style in front of the away following behind the goal. Suffice to say that Croft Park in the drizzle is a rather less glamorous setting for the celebration than the Olympic Park after winning gold in the 100 metres.
I’m now stationed behind the goal Blyth are attacking, still well within earshot of the Bellower, but increasingly aware of another notable spectator: a scrawny teenage lad clad in turquoise tracksuit bottoms (“£40“, he boasts with incomprehensible pride to anyone who’ll listen) who takes it upon himself to try unsettling the Town ‘keeper. His weapon of choice? The taunt “Fat nose“, uttered at every opportunity. Crane withstands this psychological warfare admirably, but you have to wonder he’ll go on to develop a complex about his not abnormally proportioned proboscis.
Even the Bellower and the Taunter fall silent when Hednesford complete the turnaround by taking the lead. Captain Dave MacPherson – a classy presence in front of defence, blessed with a neat turn out of trouble and accurate passing ability – caps a man-of-the-match-winning display by rolling the ball into the bottom right-hand corner of Grant’s net after more defensive hari-kari by Spartans.
This is the cue for the rest of the home crowd to follow the Taunter’s lead and take pleasure in dishing out abuse. When the visitors’ portly physio waddles on to deal with an injury, he’s greeted with the inevitable “Who ate all the pies?” “Not at those prices” is the comment at my elbow. Smiles are in short supply, though, as the game peters out into a feast of misplaced passes (Spartans) and time-gobbling substitutions (Town). As the grumbling grows, Cassidy’s assistant is sent to the stands and even fans’ favourite Dale’s head goes down before the referee puts the game out of its misery.
Leafing through the match programme on my way home, I note Cassidy claiming in his column that even after the 5-0 trouncing of Stocksbridge Park Steels he still felt there was room for improvement. This defeat certainly proved his point. There had been no post-match airing of ‘Don’t Worry, Be Happy’ – perhaps because, in the circumstances, it would have seemed sarcastic rather than reassuring.