Blyth Spartans endured a baptism of fire on their return to the Vanarama National League North as they went down 2-0 to Alfreton Town.
Luke Shiels headed in with five minutes of the first half remaining before Andre Johnson – who had to swap shirts with Craig Westcarr earlier in the contest, due to an error on the team sheet – nodded in himself on 65 minutes.
Potential injuries to Jordan Laidler and Daniel Maguire added injury to insult, before referee James Bell withdrew himself with a calf injury on 86 minutes. Assistant James Purvis took over in the middle but, with no available qualified official in the ground to run the line, the final four minutes and an extended period of added time were played with only two officials.
The visitors named new signing Peter Jameson on the bench, with fellow summer recruit Shaun MacDonald given the nod in goal. Meanwhile, debutant Dale Hopson took his place in midfield alongside Lewis Horner, who was making his first competitive appearance since returning to the club from Inverness Caledonian Thistle.
Blyth, wearing their new grey away kit for the first time, were nearly caught cold within the first 60 seconds. Ryan Jennings released Johnson in the area, but the forward scuffed his shot wide across MacDonald with Craig Westcarr following in.
With another minute on the clock, Spartans could have taken the lead themselves in similar circumstances. Daniel Maguire struck low across Chris Elliott from a tight angle, but it went the wrong side of the far post.
Maguire looked to turn provider on five minutes when he knocked the ball back to Horner on the edge of the area and he hit a first-time effort which was headed clear before it reached its target.
In a repeat of Alfreton’s first chance of the afternoon, Johnson got in again on the left of Spartans’ goal soon after. This time he looked to cut the ball back to Westcarr, but Jordan Watson cut out the pass and cleared the danger.
The visitors pushed forward again on eight minutes and had a good shout for a penalty when an Alfreton body blocked Laidler’s cross behind. The forward was adamant it had struck a hand, but referee Bell awarded only for a corner.
Robert Dale was next to go close for Blythwhen Michael Liddle won a free kick 25 yards out just after the ten-minute mark. The Spartans captain opted to strike at goal but his attempt was blocked by the wall.
A frantic first 15 minutes continued when Johnson broke through Blyth’s backline, but MacDonald rushed out to claim the ball and thwart the danger.
MacDonald was called into action moments later and rose to the occasion to keep his clean sheet intact with two fine saves.
He raced out again to produce a strong save to deny Westcarr one-on-one, before getting his body behind the ball to keep out Johnson’s strike from the resulting corner.
Westcarr then looked to profit from a clever corner routine on 24 minutes, but his run to the edge of the area saw him blaze a first-time strike well over the bar.
Alfreton twice shouted for a penalty for handball from Jennings’ cross just after the half-hour mark, but Bell was not convinced by either claim.
Horner struck from the edge of the area following a smart dummy from Laidler. However, in a case of déjà vu for the former Hibernian man, his 37th minute strike was headed clear when it looked destined to find the inside of the far post.
Spartans were incensed on 38 minutes when Maguire went down in the area under a challenge from Billy Priestley. The vocal travelling Spartan army behind the goal roared for a penalty, but their shouts fell on deaf ears.
Their misery at that decision was compounded a minute later when Alfreton broke the deadlock from Tom Platt’s long throw. Tom Allen flicked it on at the near post and Shiels was quickest to react to head home.
Things looked to get even worse for Alun Armstrong’s men two minutes before the break, when Westcarr broke through into the box.
MacDonald saved well at his feet, but the ball squirmed back into the path of the Town striker, and looking to tap in to an empty net and double Alfreton’s lead, Westcarr was only denied by the assistant’s flag being raised for offside as Spartans’ goal escaped further punishment prior to half-time.
The same could not be said for their players, however, after a late challenge in the air saw Dale wind up with a black eye. From the resulting short free kick, Laidler pulled up with an injury and was replaced by David McTiernan at the break.
Alfreton started the second half at the same ferocity as they ended the first and could have went further ahead straight from the restart. Marcus Marshall put Johnson through, but the forward got the ball caught up in his feet in the area and MacDonald was able to make himself big for an easy save.
Maguire fired downwards on the half-volley two minutes later to try and put Spartans back in contention, but Elliott, who had been on trial at Croft Park earlier in the summer, got down well to his left to stop the striker from scoring his first goal at this level.
A sweeping Blyth move on 53 minutes saw Hopson play a great ball into the path of Dale, for the talismanic winger to run on to. Dale hit one first time with his left foot but his cross-shot went wide across goal with Maguire desperately racing in to turn it home.
Ryan Hutchinson played a one-two with Maguire soon after, with last season’s top scorer back-heeling it into the defender’s path, and he struck a low ball across the face of goal but Elliott dropped down to get a vital hand on the ball and claim at the second attempt.
Jarrett Rivers broke down the right with 57 minutes on the clock and opted to test the Town stopper from long range, but his effort fizzed over the bar.
Blyth continued to dominate the early part of the second half and Hopson was next to try his luck on the hour mark, with his fierce shot from outside the area being spilled by Elliott. The Alfreton keeper recovered quickly enough to gather the loose ball, despite Maguire’s best predatory instincts to try and force home a rebound.
With Spartans pushing forward, they were caught out by an Alfreton break five minutes later that ended with a second goal for the hosts. Westcarr crossed over from the left and Johnson headed past a helpless MacDonald at the back post in acres of space.
The action continued to go back and forth and both sides could have scored in the 73rd minute. A last-ditch Hutchinson clearance denied Town a simple tap-in after good work down the right from Marshall before substitute McTiernan headed over from the resulting Blyth break.
Spartans looked like they might have set up a nervy finish when Hopson picked out Rivers on the right and the winger looped a shot towards the far post. Elliott was scrambling across his goal but managed to do enough to palm away the shot and deny the visitors a way back into proceedings.
Rivers was not the only winger to fancy his chances either as Dale tried to curl a shot in moments later. His effort was deflected up into the air though and McTiernan could only head wide from a tight angle as the ball dropped.
Another Alfreton break looked to have troubled Blyth with ten minutes to go. Free on the left, substitute Billy Whitehouse picked out Craig Disley at the near post. The cross bounced off Town’s captain and Johnson blasted over on the follow up.
A miserable afternoon was compounded when Maguire limped off injured with four minutes remaining after being caught late on the ankle by Platt, who received a yellow card for his challenge.
Following Maguire’s substitution, proceedings ground to a halt as referee Bell limped off with a calf injury and assistant Jarvis took over for the final few moments, with no assistant on the far side.
Amid the confusion, Alfreton nearly scored again as MacDonald could not hold Westcarr’s strike. The striker looked destined to finally put his name on the scoresheet, but J Watson did brilliantly to hack the ball away on the line during the extended period of added time at the end of 90 minutes.
Spartans will look to recover from this defeat when they welcome former Football League side York City to Croft Park on Tuesday night, for their first home game of the season (7.45pm kick-off.)
Blyth Spartans: MacDonald, Hutchinson, Liddle, Horner, Buddle, J Watson, Rivers, Hopson, Maguire (Mullen 86), Laidler (McTiernan 46), Dale.
Subs not used: Cartwright, I Watson, Jameson.
Spartans Man of the Match: Dale Hopson.