Berj’s late equaliser secures Spartans a deserved replay

Tom Berj's header finds the top corner for Spartans' injury time equaliser during their FA Cup clash on Saturday. Picture by Bill Broadley.
Tom Berj's header finds the top corner for Spartans' injury time equaliser during their FA Cup clash on Saturday. Picture by Bill Broadley.
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A MUCH improved second half performance ensured Blyth Spartans summoned up that famous old Green and White FA Cup spirit and were rewarded with an FA Cup replay as they fought back to gain a draw against Blue Square North side Workington.

It would be energetic midfielder Tom Berj who headed home a 93rd minute equaliser to send the vast majority of the fans inside Croft Park wild, a Croft Park that broke the 500 mark for the first time this season.

In what was your stereotypical game of two halves it was the Reds who took charge early on and controlled the tempo from kick-off as Spartans struggled to come to terms with their higher level opponents.

In Portuguese winger Andre Da Costa, not only do Workington possess one of the more exotic names Spartans will face this season but also one of the most dangerous wingers too.

And it would be Da Costa who was at the heart of everything dangerous Darron Edmondson’s side did. On eleven minutes the first chance of the fell to Reds striker Jordon Connerton but it was really all about Macclesfield Town loanee Da Costa who drove at Spartans’ makeshift left back Sam Hodgson, his lay off found Connerton but his effort was deflected over from 12 yards.

Hodgson was on for Jordon Mellish, who had been taken up with a facial injury in a clash with Workington striker Johnny Wright.

On 25 minutes Da Costa had the best chance of the game as he headed a Rowntree cross over from eight yards.

However a minute later there would be no let off for Spartans as the visitors took the lead.

Again it was Da Costa who got on the ball and found Will Vaulks just inside the box.

The young midfielder on loan from Tranmere Rovers struck a low shot from 12 yards that struck Joe Kendrick and dribbled past a helpless Conor Grant and into the net.

It was a lead that the Reds deserved on the balance of play and a one they should have extended on the brink of half-time, although not before a penalty shout by Spartans was turned down by referee Glen Hart.

Robbie Dale ran at full back Niall Cowperthwaite and in a tangle of legs was brought down, but Hart waved away vociferous Spartans appeals.

The last chance of the opening half fell to Reds striker Wright as a Mark Boyd looped ball found the forward on the penalty spot and his first time volley was superbly saved by Grant, who leapt on the loose ball and ensured that his side only trailed by one at the break.

Tommy Cassidy replaced debutant Martin Brittain at the interval with former Workington man Shaun Vipond in order to try and stem the flow of play, and despite an early second half chance for Connerton, it was really all about Spartans.

A relatively low key opening to the second period saw the game burst into life as a Kendrick cross found Spartans skipper Wayne Buchanan at the far post, his knock down was perfect for Phil Airey. Without time to take a touch the front man struck a low effort that was blocked by a bunch of Workington defenders on the six-yard box and cleared to safety.

Five minutes later man of the match Shaun Utterson won a block tackle on the half way line with goalscorer Vaulks and changed the flow of play instantly.

Right back Utterson put the Reds defence on the back foot and received the ball 20 yards from goal after a one-two with Airey.

The diminutive defender struck a rasping shot narrowly wide of Aaran Taylor’s goal, but the effort certainly raised the backing from the Croft Park faithful who sensed blood.

Those noise levels were further raised on 75 minutes as referee Hart turned down a penalty for Spartans when a Dale cross-field pass found Mason in the box. As he span marker Rowntree he was pulled back but neither Hart nor assistant Phillip Yates saw any foul despite the howls of derision from Spartans supporters.

Cassidy took one last throw of the dice as he threw on another debutant in former Workington striker Callum Hassan, who replaced a tiring Airey.

The powerful striker’s presence led to all sorts of problems for the visitors back four and he tried an acrobatic overhead kick from a Dale cross that was easily saved by Taylor.

But it was siege time for Spartans as they threw everything at the Reds in order to force a replay.

It seemed that all hope was lost as the clock ticked over 90 minutes when another Dale cross found Craig Farrell at the far post. Spartans’ top scorer cut inside his man and tried to bend an effort from 12 yards that went well over, but it was a chance the normally clinical front man would take.

As the third of four minutes injury time came, Spartans went all out.

Skipper Buchanan was now playing as a striker and it would be the Irishman at the heart of the goal.

A Dale cross found Buchanan at the far post and he looped a header to the near post and found Berj who headed into the roof of the net from five yards out.

It was just reward for Spartans who were much the better side in the second half and earned themselves another chance of causing an upset on Tuesday evening as they travel to Borough Park for the replay.

Blyth Spartans: Grant, Utterson, Kendrick, Berj, Buchanan, Mellish, Mason, Brittain, Dale, Farrell, Airey Subs: Vipond, Hunter, Hodgson, Hassan, Mullen.

Attendance: 502.