Spartans in need of a change in fortune

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IT was more painful than ironic for Blyth Spartans manager Steve Cuggy on Saturday when his side conceded the first goal of three in their match at FC Halifax on 25 minutes.

The Blyth boss had been quoted in the run-up to the Blue Square North fixture saying that if his side could hold on till the 25-minute mark then maybe they would be in with a chance.

On Saturday, things had been going quite well for the Spartans until that point.

A new line-up saw Blyth starting with David Knight back in goal, Ritchie Slaughter at right back, Carl Jones, returning from injury, accompanying Wayne Buchanan in the centre of defence and Greg Pearson, usually employed as a centre back, at left back.

Across the middle were Wayne Phillips on the right, Neal Hooks and Dan Groves in the middle with Phil Cave pushed up from left back.

Strikers Jamie Mole and Glen Taylor were up front with Graeme Armstrong on the bench.

The home side gave an immediate indication of what was to come when within minutes of the start their left winger James Walshaw beat Slaughter, and when his cross was not cleared by Pearson, Simon Garner fired over the bar.

Early play was fairly even and Blyth should have done better when inter-play between Cave and Mole found Taylor who tried to turn his defender on the edge of the penalty box when a lay off to Hooks would have been the better option.

On 15 minutes came what Cuggy was later to call the turning point in the game.

A strong shot from Phillips was deflected and Simon Eastwood in the Halifax goal parried the ball away to Phil Cave whose shot was helped in the net by Taylor.

But Taylor was deemed to have been offside and the goal was disallowed.

Walshaw was giving Slaughter a torrid time. So much so that Cuggy moved the right back into midfield after 20 minutes and Groves dropped back.

Inevitably Halifax took the lead on 25 minutes after Blyth gave the ball away in the middle of the pitch.

A deep driven cross from the right found Jamie Rainford six yards from goal and unmarked he headed past Knight.

Then Walshaw ‘s penetrative running caused confusion between Blyth’s Knight and Groves but the chance came to nothing.

Walshaw’s moment, however, was to come when on 34 minutes Knight parried a shot into his direction and he stabbed home despite arguments from the Blyth players that Knight had retrieved the ball and had two hands on it.

Despite the setback Knight continued to thwart, with the able assistance of a committed Buchanan, the home attack.

Five minutes after the break Mole’s poor pass gave Halifax the chance to push forward and Knight was once more called into action, pushing the ball away for a corner.

Mole was sharply replaced by Armstrong. Jones was withdrawn after 64 minutes and Rob Briggs came on.

Halifax were well on top with Blyth struggling to match them in midfield or attack.

Groves must have been relieved when Halifax took Walshaw off.

However, any thoughts of an easier afternoon were quickly dispelled when his replacement Jason St Juste proved to be as quick and tricky.

Blyth were kitted out in their change strip – red shorts, white shorts. Observers remarked on the similarity to the 1930s Arsenal kit. Unfortunately for Spartans fans the similarity ended there.

With a quarter of an hour to go Cave was withdrawn in favour of Chris Emms.

The change did little to improve on Blyth’s performance with Halifax’s Tom Baker in absolute control of the midfield.

Blyth went three goals down on 84 minutes when neither Buchanan nor Knight were able to prevent St Juste nipping in to prod home from close range following a cross.

The Spartans had a few reasonable late efforts as the home side eased back.

Armstrong headed straight to Eastwood before a Taylor shot was similarly claimed by the keeper. On 90 minutes Phillips dragged his shot wide.

Boss Cuggy said: “I’d expected more from us. We did OK early on but the first goal did for us.

“I couldn’t understand why the offside decision was made. We had a similar situation when we played Vauxhall.”

Regarding the line-up, he added: “We put Greg [Pearson] in at left back to try and counter Halifax’s tall wide man Rainford and pushed Cave forward.

“Walshaw was giving us all sorts of problems but Dan [Groves} did really well when he filled in. He’s a versatile lad.”

Commenting on the goals, Cuggy added: “The first shouldn’t have happened. Rainford got between our two centre halves and powered his header home.

“For the second, Knight had the ball in his hands. He has a stud hole in his glove and stitch in his palm to show for it!

“There was a bit of confusion for the final goal but by that point in the match they were just pinging the ball around and we were chasing it.

“We did have a little flurry at the end but the best team won.

“We’d hoped to keep in it for 25 minutes and try and get their crowd on their backs but it didn’t come to be.”

Blyth entertain Altrincham on Saturday, kick-off 3pm.

It’s always seen as indicative of a real struggle to avoid relegation when a team is bottom of the league at Christmas.

With the Spartans currently occupying that unenviable position a muted yuletide lies in store for the club unless a good result is gained at the weekend.