Significant improvement from Spartans – even in defeat

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It is only 45 days since AFC Fylde travelled to Croft Park and took apart Blyth Spartans with a 5-0 hammering.

But on Tuesday night Tom Wade’s side showed that there have been significant improvements since early March as they only went down 1-0.

While they may not have taken any points from Kellamergh Park, they did push the Evo-Stik Northern Premier League play-off challengers all the way.

It was a first half goal by former Manchester United academy player Michael Barnes that broke Spartans resolve but they put in a disciplined show in Lancashire and came away deserving a point at least.

With several players unavailable due to work commitments Wade called recalled Phil Airey, Jordan Mellish, Neal Hooks and Tom Berj while Conor Grant was given the chance to stake his claim for the regular spot between the sticks next season.

There was also a change of formation with Daniel Maguire asked to play a lone striker role as Wade sought to frustrate the home side.

Frustrate is exactly what Spartans did in the opening quarter of an hour as the Coasters had plenty of possession but were met by a solid looking Spartans marshalled well by the experience of Wayne Buchanan and Joe Kendrick at the back.

They did in fact restrict the home side to shots from distance and it was eventual goalscorer Michael Barnes who had the first effort but had to wait until seventeen minutes to do so.

The midfielder found himself twenty five yards from goal and crashed an effort towards Conor Grant’s top right corner only to see the former Gretna and Dundee United keeper produce an outstanding stop - it wouldn’t be his last.

The Coasters kept applying the pressure but were kept at bay the hard work and discipline of Spartans who gradually found their way into the game.

They had a great chance on the half hour mark as Neal Hooks found striker Maguire on the left side of the box.

He teased Steven Haslam and curled a cross to the penalty spot and that was met by Lee Mason who could only head past the far post.

That miss was punished five minutes later and it came as no surprise that it was Barnes who gave his side the lead.

He had tormented Spartans during the first half and sent his side into the interval in the lead as he benefited from some intricate approach play before firing a low shot from the edge of the box inside Grant’s near post.

Spartans came out for the second half looking focused and forced a couple of early corners that came to nothing but were taking to the came to their hosts.

On the hour a quick throw-in from Airey released Mason into the right hand side of the box and the former Hartlepool United man hit a snap shot just over the bar from 15 yards out.

Spartans continue to apply the pressure and only some desperate defending from Paul Scott saw the Coasters centre back deny Mason and Hooks with efforts from the edge of the box.

As the half wore on Spartans were taking more risks going forward and were at risk of being caught on the break.

It was Barnes again at the heart of Fylde’s best work although it was Michael’s namesake Brad who tested grant from twenty yards.

It was a test Grant was more than up to as he saved well low down to his right hand side.

He was called into action again five minutes from time and it was probably the save of the night.

A Haslam cross found winger Jack Dorney just inside the box, he took one touch and crashed a low shot from twelve yards that Grant managed to tip around the post to ensure his side could go into the closing stages with a chance of gaining a richly deserved point.

However, for all of their bravery and endeavour they were unable to find a way past Ben Hinchliffe and the Coasters back four and the home side took the points.

After three consecutive away fixtures and clocking up over 1,300 miles in the space of seven days Spartans should be applauded for their efforts against a side that are still in with a shout of Blue Square North football next season.

It is testament to the commitment of the players and the organisation of Wade that they managed to push the home side all the way and if they apply the same efforts in their final four games of the season then they can round off a tough year in style.

Spartans’ man of the match Conor Grant.

Blyth Spartans: Grant, Airey, Kendrick, Mellish, Buchanan, Mason, Turnbull, Berj (McGorrigan 82), Hooks, Maguire, Dale. Subs not used: Cook, Donnelly.