Blyth Spartans undone by clinical Stranraer

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Blyth Spartans were beaten by Scottish opposition for the second Saturday in succession, as a clinical Stranraer side ended their own pre-season campaign on a high.

In truth, however, the two-goal winning margin flattered the Stair Park side, with the Green Army matching their visitors from Dumfries and Galloway for large periods of the game.

But the Blues were the quickest to settle, their high-tempo approach forcing Spartans to cover a lot of ground early on.

They created two chances of note in the first ten minutes as Sean Winter’s teasing cross narrowly evaded forwards Craig Malcolm and Jamie Longworth, before the latter two almost combined to fire the visitors in front – Longworth’s square ball a touch too powerful for his strike-partner to connect with.

The hosts’ best chance of the first half fell to Matthew Wade on 28 minutes.

Under concerted pressure from Robbie Dale, Stranraer goalkeeper David Mitchell sliced his attempted clearance straight to Wade, poised 30 yards from goal. With Mitchell in no man’s land, the midfielder took aim but agonisingly cleared the crossbar.

Spartans were made to pay for that miss within minutes as the visitors got their noses in front in soft fashion.

One of four trialists in the home side was harshly penalised for handball deep inside his own half and, from the resultant set-piece, captain Frank McKeown rose unchallenged to plant a powerful header high into the net.

Tom Wade’s side were forced to weather something of a Stranraer storm as the first half headed towards a climax.

On 38 minutes, Longworth headed wastefully wide from close range, having had time to pick his spot. Seconds later, Winter fired a powerful effort just the wrong side of the post from 35 yards, with Spartans struggling to keep the visitors at bay.

Despite a trio of substitutions early in the second half, the hosts fell further behind on 50 minutes as Longworth converted Stephen Stirling’s in-swinging cross with a powerful header from six yards.

But, rather than surrender meekly to the Scottish League One side, Spartans responded superbly and were dominant for the remainder of the game.

They created their first chance of the half on 54 minutes as Neal Hooks – Spartans’ outstanding performer on the day – saw his goalbound strike from the edge of the 18-yard box deflected narrowly over the crossbar.

The home side were taking charge of the game in midfield and deservedly halved the deficit on 62 minutes.

Substitute Jarrett Rivers – deployed in a forward role – was proving too tricky for the Stranraer backline to handle, and, having jinked past two or three challenges, the former Team Northumbria man rounded goalkeeper Mitchell before teeing up fellow summer recruit Chris Moore, who swept the ball into an empty net from close range.

Spartans squandered a series of chances to pull level in the closing stages.

As well as Rivers, another substitute – Paul Robinson – was also proving a constant thorn in the side of the Stranraer rearguard, and his smart turn and shot from 20 yards forced Mitchell into a fine stop.

With time running out, Spartans continued to press.

On 77 minutes, Robinson and Rivers combined, with the former sending the latter through on goal with a peach of a through ball.

However, Rivers just overdid it slightly – he delayed pulling the trigger, and allowed a visiting defender the time to get back and block his effort.

Stranraer failed to deal with the resultant corner and the ball fell to Robinson just inside the area, but his rasping effort was courageously blocked and the Blues averted the danger.

With the rain beginning to pour, Stranraer made sure of a 100 per cent pre-season record with a third goal late on.

In a rare foray into the Spartans half, Kieran Maxwell and Chris Aitken worked the ball wide to substitute Jamie Watson, who checked inside before finding the bottom corner of the net – albeit via a wicked deflection.

The final scoreline was undoubtedly harsh on Tom Wade’s side, particularly on the back of their second half display, during which they had largely controlled proceedings.

However, there is ample room for optimism at Croft Park, and the manager and his troops can look forward to another big test next Saturday as Scottish Premiership side St Mirren arrive in Northumberland for Spartans’ flagship pre-season friendly.

Blyth Spartans: Trialist, Trialist, Parker, Trialist (Mullen 70), Watson, Moore, Hooks, Horner (Sayer 49), Wade (Robinson 49), Trialist (Rivers 49), Dale. Scorer: Moore 63.

Stranraer: Mitchell, Rumsby (Russell 49), Longridge (Woods 86), Pettigrew, McKeown, Stirling, Robertson, Gallagher (Maxwell 64), Malcolm (Watson 36), Longworth, Winter (Aitken 64). Scorers: McKeown 33, Longworth 51, Watson 88.