LONG road delays on the journey to Cheshire and back meant Blyth Spartans FC had to endure an eight-hour round-trip to Stalybridge Celtic, and on the pitch both sides discovered the route to goal was also blocked as they played out a 0-0 draw at Bower Fold.
With two contenders for the league’s golden boot in Celtic’s Phil Marsh and Blyth’s Paul Brayson on show, not many would have predicted the defences would come out on top in Tuesday night’s Blue Square Bet North encounter.
But despite an early onslaught from the hosts in which Greg Wilkinson twice rattled the Spartans’ woodwork, it was a game of ew chances and one which nearly went in favour of the away side at the death, with Brayson almost notching his 24th league goal of the season to clinch victory for Blyth.
Following the debacle at Hinckley on Saturday, Blyth manager Mick Tait changed the formation of his side to 4-5-1 and recalled goalkeeper Dan Lowson and left back Phil Cave, both of whom missed the weekend’s game through injury.
Liam O’Mahoney was also given a rare start in the absence of Neal Hooks.
Tait said: “We set up differently and I was pleased with the way it worked. We restricted them to very few chances and that was our aim.
“We looked solid, just like we had been before the Hinckley game, and keeping a clean sheet will restore a lot of confidence.”
Stalybridge have a reputation as an excellent passing side and this is certainly justifiable, particularly on the evidence of the opening 20 minutes.
Wilkinson gave Blyth an early scare when he hit the outside of the post from 20 yards, and the same player struck the woodwork again minutes later, this time after a surging run into the area.
Lowson then tipped an effort from Lloyd Ellams over the crossbar before saving at full stretch from Marsh with the hosts looking the more likely to take the lead.
Blyth, however, regained composure after a shaky start and showed their opponents that they too can play slick attacking football.
Following a flowing move, Nicky Deverdics whipped in a deep cross which just evaded Rob Dale at the back post.
Spartans then began to dominate possession without ever truly threatening Jan Budtz in the Stalybridge goal.
Michael Tait passed up the chance to shoot in the area with the ball caught under his feet and instead teed up Dale, but his shot was wayward.
The frustration was evident amongst some of the home players and Kristian Platt was fortunate to stay on the field after first receiving a booking for a late challenge on Deverdics and then minutes later making another rash tackle, for which referee Mr Powell deemed not worthy of a second yellow card.
After the interval Blyth continued to look the more dangerous going forward, courtesy of some well constructed counter attacks.
The manager said: “We were doing well to win the ball back quickly and on the break we looked dangerous, it was only our end product that was lacking.”
Blyth’s lack of ruthlessness in front of goal was apparent when Brayson supplied O’Mahoney, who failed to test Budtz from 20 yards.
There was no repeat of the sustained pressure the hosts applied in the opening stages of the game but they still looked dangerous on the odd occasion.
With 15 minutes remaining Lowson made a fine save to deny Connor Jennings following the best move of the game.
The second period saw some strong challenges from players on both sides and Blyth’s Alan White was lucky not to get his marching orders.
Tait added: “I think Platt should have been sent off in the first half but I also think Whitey (Alan White) was lucky not to go as well.”
In the latter stages of the game Blyth looked the fitter and stronger side despite competing against a full-time outfit and Tait admitted to being surprised at this.
He said: “I expected them to finish stronger but we looked the more likely to score and were piling on the pressure.
“Even though it was fair result I was a little disappointed we couldn’t sneak one at the end.”
And Tait’s side almost did ‘sneak one.’
Firstly Rob Dale was unable to get a decent connection following a superb cross from Cave and then Brayson with a flick header two minutes into added-on-time was denied by Budtz who flung himself across the goal-line to tip wide.
Blyth Spartans are now looking to finish the season positively again after putting the weekend horror show behind them with the respectable point at Stalybridge.
The boss added: “We’ve had a good season and we deserve to finish high in the league, hopefully we can build on this result now.”
Blyth Spartans: Lowson, Groves, Cave, Tait, Buchanan, White, O’Mahoney, Turnbull, Brayson, Deverdics, Dale.
On Saturday Spartans entertain Gloucester City at Croft park, kick-off 3pm.