Blyth Spartans’ dream shattered in seven second half minutes

Blyth Spartans captain Robbie Dale scoring one of his two goals in the FA Cup tie against Birmingham City. Picture by  Bill Broadley
Blyth Spartans captain Robbie Dale scoring one of his two goals in the FA Cup tie against Birmingham City. Picture by Bill Broadley
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For 45 minutes or so FA Cup immortality beckoned once more for Blyth Spartans as dreams were played out in glorious green and white on the sort of cool, crisp Northumberland day that oozes romance.

A baying crowd saw that a giant was on its knees, downed by a team inspired by their enigmatic leader, this was their time in the sun.

Then reality hit hard and it hit fast.

A remarkable opening half saw Blyth head into the dressing room of their Croft Park cauldron with a two-goal lead over Championship side Birmingham City thanks to a brace from the ever inspirational Robbie Dale.

An electric atmosphere enveloped the famous old home of the Spartans and there was no need to question whether the romance of the FA Cup has diminished.

But then dreams were shattered, and to their credit the giant that was Birmingham City got back on their feet and fought back.

The first blow landed by a familiar foe as Geordie lad Lee Novak struck just seven minutes into the second half.

That was quickly followed by a double strike by striker Wes Thomas, and they were to be ultimately knockout blows as brave Spartans bowed out of the FA Cup.

Spartans manager Tom Wade made two changes from the side that had knocked Hartlepool United out in the second round with Joel Dixon and Damen Mullen coming in for Alex Nicholson (knee injury) and Matthew Wade (virus).

Nerves fluttered around Croft Park in the opening exchanges as the Blues looked to impose their professional status on an anxious looking home side.

Within six minutes they had the ball in the net as former Valencia striker Nikola Zigic headed home. But he was denied the somewhat unique honour of becoming the first Serbian international to score at Croft Park by referee Michael Jones as he spotted a pull on Blyth captain Dale.

The giant front man had another chance just two minutes later as former Gateshead man Novak caused all sorts of problems down the right hand side. He bamboozled Jordan Watson before finding Zigic ten yards from goal but he could only fire high over Peter Jeffries’ crossbar.

Blyth’s only chance of the opening quarter almost provided them with a comical opening goal.

Blues goalkeeper Colin Doyle took his time clearing a back pass and was closed down by Dan Maguire and the once capped Republic of Ireland keeper’s attempted clearance struck the Blyth striker before looping agonisingly wide of the right hand upright.

Perhaps buoyed by the chance, Spartans grew in stature and in confidence. They gradually fought there way into the game, hassling and pressurising their opponents while being roared on by the Croft Park crowd that could sense some magic appearing.

Then ten minutes before the break immortality came one step closer. The hero of the win at Hartlepool United, Jarrett Rivers, danced down the left and that led to indecision from Blues full back Neal Eardley and Rivers punished him by rolling the ball across the face of goal to find the on-rushing Dale who crashed the ball home from eight yards out.

Six minutes later Croft Park – or at least three quarters of it – were in dreamland as Dale grabbed his second.

This time it was all of his own doing as he collected a quick free kick from Stephen Turnbull before gliding past three weak challenges from Blues defenders to create the opening to roll home into the far corner from just inside the box for his eighth FA Cup goal of the season.

An almighty roar greeted the half-time whistle and one that reverberated around Northumberland as Spartans made their way to the dressing room with the unyielding appreciation of their supporters echoing in their ears.

But if they needed a warning that nothing had been won yet it came within four minutes of the restart as Marc Duffy raced through on goal and should have scored, but the winger was denied by the quick thinking of Spartans keeper Jeffries as the former Bishop Auckland man raced off his line to slide the ball clear.

It was a temporary reprieve for Spartans. On 52 minutes Novak was given time and space to cut in from the left and he punished the error by firing low and hard past Jeffries from the edge of the area.

Two minutes later the Blues could have been on level terms as Zigic was again wasteful in front of goal. An Eardley cross from the right found the Serb’s head but his effort was tame and dropped well wide of the Spartans goal.

But City landed a second blow only three minutes later as they deservedly got the equaliser.

A long ball forward allowed Thomas to beat Ryan Hutchinson to the ball and he smashed past Jeffries to the delight of the boisterous away support behind the Spartans goal.

Dazed by the quick double, Spartans looked shell-shocked and that led to a third for the visitors. Duffy was afforded time to pounce upon a headed clearance and managed to pick out the perfect cross to allow Thomas to head home from point blank range.

To their credit Spartans recovered and wrestled the initiative from their Championship opponents.

Dale sensed a hat-trick was there for the taking as he looked to further impose his already well celebrated name into the annuls of Spartans history.

Maguire held up a clearance by holding off the attentions of former Newcastle United defender David Edgar. He released the ball to Dan Hawkins who in turn rolled out wide to Dale and the winger struck a low left foot drive from the left hand side of the area that fizzed past Doyle’s near post.

Spartans were creating chances and from a nervy silence Croft Park was once again a hub of fervour and excitement.

A Turnbull corner from the right was met with a brave header by Hutchinson that dropped wide of the near post with the Spartans defender perhaps feeling he could have done better.

The clock ticked down towards the last ten minutes and the Blues were almost gifted a fourth.

Novak continued to threaten and when he crossed from the left Jordan Watson saw the ball deflect off his thigh and onto the roof of the Spartans net with Croft Park holding its breath.

There was to be one last hurrah from Spartans but it was to ultimately lead to disappointment.

Dale took a corner from the left that curled to the far post. Substitute Danny Parker had only been on the pitch for three minutes as he rose above his marker to head at goal but Doyle managed to tip the ball around his right hand upright. Referee Jones awarded a goal kick and with that decision he marked the end of a titanic battle between Spartans and City and the end of Tom Wade’s side’s involvement in this season’s FA Cup.

In battle they were brave and if anything the tie against City was a reward for a remarkable FA Cup run by Spartans.

They saw off challenges from Darlington and Skelmersdale United where many expected them to fall. They ventured to Mickleover Sports and Leek Town where they were met by dogged opponents and dug deep within themselves to grind out fine wins that sealed their passage to the ‘proper’ rounds of the famous old competition.

They were met with the challenge of Conference side Altrincham who were seen off by a glittering show by Dale and his team-mates as they blitzed their opponents in front of a passionate Croft Park faithful.

That win earned them a ‘tie of the round’ in the second round with a north east derby at Hartlepool United that will live long in the memories of the Green Army.

A largely underwhelming first half performance at Victoria Park gave way to a bubbling second period as a one goal deficit was overturned thanks to a sublime Turnbull free kick and a late but equally brilliant individual goal from Rivers.

And so came the clash with the Blues and with it a brave but proud exit from the competition. Where the names Slane, Alder and Carney once walked they are now joined by Jeffries, Rivers, Buddle and of course Dale as the 2014 class of Spartans have given their glorious band of followers moments to treasure. Is there a more romantic vision in the modern day game than that?

Spartans: Jeffries, Dixon (Nicholson 90), Watson, Hutchinson (Parker 82), Buddle, Turnbull, Mullen (Richardson 67), Rivers, Hawkins, Maguire, Dale Subs not used: Wearmouth, Hooks, Wade, Harrison.

Birmingham: Doyle, Eardley, Edgar, Duffy (Arthur 80), Thomas, Novak, Reilly, Hancox, Zigic, Morrison, Moussi Subs not used: Grounds, Cotterill, Shinnie, Caddis, Gray, Randolph.

Attendance: 3,644.