Spartans rescue a point

IN a game that had everything, including – six goals, a sending off and plenty of incidents aside this Bank Holiday Monday clash between Blyth Spartans FC and Harrogate Town saw the home side come from behind twice to rescue a deserved point.

The home side made the worst possible start as they found themselves two goals down within the opening six minutes.

But determined not to lose their third Blue Square North fixture in a row they clawed their way back with strikes from Dave Coulson and Dan Groves.

Those expecting a quieter second period were sadly mistaken as Wayne Phillips was dismissed by referee Glen Hart for a second bookable offence.

Laurie Wilson then fired the visitors back in to the lead before a dramatic late leveller from Coulson earned his side a share of the spoils.

Despite all this, post match discussions centred around two second-half incidents – both concerning Blyth’s captain Graeme Armstrong.

Twice the striker was brought down when racing through on goal, first by Harrogate goalkeeper Mark Cook and then by ex-Blyth defender Richard Pell, and on both occasions a yellow card was brandished with many believing the colour should have been red.

Contentious refereeing decisions were not the only adversities that Blyth manager Steve Cuggy had to put up with as Matt Hunter, Phil Banister and Glen Taylor all joined the injury list.

Pell was not the only former Spartan to feature for Harrogate, with Stephen Turnbull and Paul Brayson both in the starting line-up.

There was no return, however, for Michael Tait, who missed the contest through suspension.

The Spartans squad also had three players facing their former club with Armstrong and Phillips both leaving Harrogate to join Blyth in the summer, and Chris Emms, who had played for the Yorkshire outfit earlier in his career.

The match was predictably feisty but also produced some excellent football at times and was somewhat reminiscent of a classic cup-tie played at a frenetic pace.

Blyth went close early on with Phil Cave crossing for Armstrong who could not direct his header past Cook.

Cuggy’s side then conceded first for the sixth game running on four minutes when Peter Bore glanced a header past Matt Hunter in the Spartans goal.

The visitors doubled their advantage two minutes later when Brayson nodded across the face of goal for Callum Hassan to score from seven yards out.

This Blyth side is used to an early wake-up call, or two, and set about finding a way back in to the contest immediately with Armstrong narrowly missing the target from 16 yards.

The hosts managed to halve the deficit on 20 minutes when Coulson powered home a deep corner by Neal Hooks with his head.

Soon the disastrous start would be forgotten with intense pressure from the home side culminating in an equaliser.

A neat lay off from Banister allowed Armstrong a sight of goal but his left footed strike whistled past Cook’s far post.

Within the space of a minute, Coulson then had two opportunities to add to his tally.

Unmarked at the back post he met a Hooks free kick with his head which was turned behind by Cook.

With Hooks the provider again from the corner, Coulson struck a powerful volley which was well held by the overworked Cook.

On 25 minutes, Armstrong found space to unleash an effort which was spilled by Cook, allowing Dan Groves to slide home from six yards.

Croft Park erupted as dreams of a famous reversal were now being realised.

A rampant Blyth almost took the lead as another Hooks delivery caused the visitors problems as Armstrong headed on to the roof of the net from eight yards.

Armstrong continued to run the Harrogate defence ragged as he surged down the left to cross for Bannister – six yards from goal – who was brilliantly denied by a well timed tackle from Craig Radcliffe.

Blyth were then almost punished by Brayson, who produced a delicate chip which beat Hunter but thankfully for the young goalkeeper clipped the top of the crossbar and went out for a goal kick.

Before the break Cuggy was forced in to making a substitution as Bannister limped off to be replaced by Taylor.

To add to the injury concerns for the Blyth manager, young goalkeeper Matt Crook took the place of Hunter at half-time, who had also taken a knock.

With Harrogate’s failure to deal with Blyth’s aerial threat in the opening period, the imposing Taylor was bound to cause them problems.

And this was evident in Blyth’s first attack after the interval when he headed just wide of the mark.

Pivotal moment number one occurred on 52 minutes when Armstrong raced clear of the Harrogate defence to be brought down by the on-rushing Cook, just outside the area.

Cook was lucky to escape with just a caution as Armstrong appeared a certainty to score having knocked the ball past the advancing keeper.

Six minutes later referee Hart took more decisive action, which was once again to the detriment of the home side.

A coming together between Harrogate’s Ian Ross and Blyth’s Phillips resulted in both players receiving a yellow card, but for Phillips it was his second caution of the afternoon and he was off down the tunnel for an early bath.

To make things worse for Cuggy, two minutes later substitute Glen Taylor was stretchered off the field of play with a suspected broken metatarsal.

Taking full advantage of their greater numbers, Harrogate took the lead once more when Wilson hit a powerful shot through a crowd of players past Crook in the Blyth goal.

Blyth rallied again with Cave instrumental in engineering his side’s next two attacks.

First he picked out Groves with a fine cross, whose header only missed the target by inches before flashing the ball across the face of goal which both Armstrong and Groves somehow failed to connect with.

Armstrong had been a thorn in Harrogate’s side all afternoon and almost found himself one-on-one with Cook before a cynical foul by Pell brought the forward crashing to the ground.

With the Croft Park faithful unanimous in their decision that Pell should be dismissed, the referee produced a yellow card which sparked a furious reaction on the terraces.

From the resultant free kick, Emms struck a shot destined for the top corner which was saved emphatically by Cook.

With the clock ticking and the ten men of Blyth tiring, an equaliser was appearing more and more unlikely before a moment of inspiration from Armstrong provided Coulson with a chance for his second of the afternoon – which he duly took.

A long ball which looked destined to be cleared by Pell was nicked away by Armstrong before the striker pulled back exquisitely for Coulson, who took one touch before blasting home from eight yards.

Cue delirium around Croft Park and a heartfelt reaction from Armstrong as he raced towards the Spartans supporters to celebrate.

In what would have been a cruel but expected twist of fate on such a day, Brayson had a chance to clinch victory for his side in the dying seconds with a free kick from 25 yards.

Home supporters breathed a huge sigh of relief when the ball sailed over the bar.

Blyth Spartans: Hunter (Crook), Groves, Cave, Jones, Coulson, Buchanan, Forster, Hooks, Armstrong, Banister (Taylor) replaced by Emms, Phillips

Attendance: 559

Blyth are in league action again on Saturday when they travel to Nottinghamshire to face Eastwood Town in the Blue Square North.