Back to the Northeast
Following three successful trips north of the border, it was time to come back closer to home.
We managed to fit in two games this weekend and the first up was Blyth Spartans v Kettering Town in the National League North.
As a Stoke City fan, the memories of Blyth Spartans beating us in the FA Cup back in 1978 still bring on fevered nightmares for those of that generation. I decided it was time to put those bad memories to rest with a trip to their home ground, Croft Park.
Blyth – Pre-Game
Using public transport to get around has its ups and downs. No need to worry about parking or vandalism while your car is left unattended, you can (theoretically) sit back and relax while someone else does the work.
This is mostly true of the train – when things are running smoothly – but buses are a different matter. Stopping at every little place along the route slows things down immeasurably and it’s no exaggeration to say that in the time it took us to get to Blyth, we could have been up watching another game in Scotland had we used the train. An hour to Newcastle and another hour to Blyth for what is in total, a 25-mile journey from my home.
On top of this, you have to remember which stop you need to get off at in an area you don’t know.
Having realised we had just gone past the Broadway Chippy where we planned to grab some pre-match scran, we pressed the button and got off at the next stop. We must have been looking a little confused or flustered upon exiting the bus because a local out walking his dog asked us if we were lost. I said, “We are off to the match at Spartans and we got off at the wrong stop.”
His reply didn’t reassure me… “Oh! You’re a long way away from the ground.”
Of course, he was a local and I was new to the area, so I was now wondering if there was another Broadway Chippy and we had somehow got off in the wrong area altogether. After taking some haphazard directional hints from the man with the dog, we set off walking, hoping we weren’t in the next town up the road. After consulting Google Maps, we realised the man had been exaggerating and my worry lines relaxed back into their usual grumpy frown.
We decided the Greggs sausage rolls we had eaten that morning would hold us until after the match and we went straight to the ground using Google Maps, not the local’s helpful assistance!
Blyth Spartans – The Stadium
We followed the trickle of people wearing green and white scarves and hats down Kingsway and turned right into a side road that leads to both Croft Park and the Blyth Spartans Social Club.
A quick pint in the friendly bar later, we made off in search of a program. We showed our print-at-home tickets at the gate and wandered into the ground proper.
Just beyond the back of the main stand, we found a small building that was used as the club shop. Well-stocked but small, was the impression I got and I almost grabbed a Spartans scarf but the memories of ’78 just wouldn’t let me do it and I meekly bought a programme instead and made off to find our area to watch the game.
The beauty of some of these smaller grounds is that you have almost complete freedom to stand wherever you like to watch the match. The only restriction at Blyth is that you can’t sit in the Main Stand unless you’ve bought a ticket for it. The rest of the ground is terracing and you can stand anywhere. Indeed the home and away fans switched ends at halftime.
We chose to stand near the halfway line, opposite the main stand, which is a reasonably sized stand that covers about one-quarter of the length of the pitch on the Northeast side of the ground. To the Southeast, is a low, covered terrace where the small band of Kettering Town fans were gathering in front of the flag they had tied to the steel girders behind them.
On the Northwest end of the ground is a corresponding low, covered terrace with more flags and banners tied to the girders. This time they were Blyth Spartans flags, which may be permanent fixtures because I didn’t see anyone taking them down at the end of the game.
On the West side of the stadium is a larger covered terrace which runs about one-third the length of the pitch and this is where we chose to stand.
I have to say, I do miss terraces at football matches and while this may not have been like standing on the terraces back in the pre-Taylor Report days, with fans swaying like cornfields in the wind, it was still nice to not have to be told to sit down by whoever happens to be sitting behind you. I am definitely an advocate of safe-standing areas being brought back into British football.
Blyth Spartans – The Game
At the time this game took place, Spartans were near the foot of the table, while Kettering still had some hopes of pushing for a playoff place, so it was imperative that the home side started well if they wanted to get something out of this game.
So, with less than a minute on the clock, it didn’t look promising as Kettering took the lead following a comical defensive mix-up at the back. Spartans were trying to play like prime Barcelona, passing the ball out from the back but after the goalkeeper kicked it to the first defender, he was tackled and Kettering got an easy early goal, scored by centre forward, Callum Stead.
As with most home crowds when the team aren’t performing well in the league, there was a little stick thrown the way of the players and a level of acceptance of what was sure to come.
However, the Spartans equalised through a deflected direct free-kick from veteran centre forward, Robbie Dale. At 37 and with the grey starting to win the battle for his main hair colour, Robbie was still one of the better players on display for Blyth on the day.
Blyth looked the better team for a period and they were unlucky not to take the lead following a blocked shot which led to a goalmouth scramble before the ball eventually went wide.
The third and final goal of the encounter came five minutes before the break when midfielder, Jordan Crawford cut in from the left side of the box and jinked past a couple of defenders before his shot deflected up and over the Blyth keeper.
This followed yet another mistake from a shaky home defence and although my judgement comes from a single match, the defence looked to be the biggest area in need of improvement if Blyth wants to push on from relegation scraps again next season.
The second half was somewhat of an anti-climax following an exciting blood and thunder first half, as the visitors were happy to sit back and defend their lead and look for the counter.
It gave me plenty of time to ponder the size of the linesman, or assistant referee as they like to be known these days. Was he really eight feet tall, or was it just my imagination? Either way, whenever he approached the halfway line, he blocked a good portion of my view of the action and I couldn’t help but take a photograph of him so that you could decide for yourselves.
The full match report, for those interested, can be read here via the Blyth Spartans website.
Attendance – 750
Entrance Fee – £12.00
Programme – £2.00
Blyth Spartans – Stadium Gallery
Blyth Spartans – Match Highlights
Blyth – After the Game
We walked out at the Northwest end of the ground so that I could get a photograph of the famous slogan on the lip of the roof at that end of the stadium. It states Spartans do not ask ‘How many are the enemy?’ but ‘Where are they?’ (Agis II, 17th King of Sparta)
Another thing that caught my eye while we were waiting for the match to start, was a mural on a building in the corner between the Northeast and Southeast stands. We walked around the ground and found ourselves in front of a superb mural and it said on it that the artist was Frank Styles – hats off to you sir.
It depicted a much younger, less grey, Robbie Dale wheeling away to (presumably) celebrate a goal over the background of a green and white banner. Above it was a Spartan helmet with a green and white crest, which is the club’s logo.
Best of all? The building it was painted on was Gino’s chip shop where we filled up on much-needed energy stocks while we waited for the two-hour bus journey home again.