Even though the FA Cup has regained some of its sheen over the last couple of years, the new financial realism of the modern game tends to take its toll on any pretensions of “the romance of the cup”. There is a tendency to look at everything through the eyes of an accountant these days – how much will we get if we get through? What is today’s result worth to us? It wasn’t however, always like this. It’s the FA Cup First Round Proper this weekend, so we’ll be running stories from the history of the competition on here all week, starting with Blyth Spartans’ extraordinary run to the Fifth Round of the competition in 1978.
When the draw for the First Round Proper of the FA Cup was made last Monday, you may have heard a faint gasp coming from the general direction of Shropshire. For younger Shrewsbury town supporters, the name of the team that Shrewsbury drew, Blyth Spartans, probably doesn’t mean very much but, for supporters over the age of thirty-five or so, a certain unease in their parts at the task ahead could probably be forgiven. In the late 1970s, Blyth Spartans were the FA Cup giant killers – the team who came within a hair’s breadth of becoming the only non-league club in living memory to reach the quarter-finals of the competition.
Spartans, with their distinctive green, white and black kits and a name which seems to hark back to the classically inspired origins of the amateur game, had won the Northern League in 1973, 1975 and 1976. They were nobody’s fools. Even in the four qualifying rounds they had overcome four very strong clubs from their own backyard in the form of Shildon, Consett, Crook Town and Bishop Auckland to get through to the First Round Proper. The First Round draw did them a favour with a 1-0 win against Burscough at Croft Park, and in the Second Round they had another home draw, this time beating Chesterfield by the same scoreline.
The Third Round of the competition in the 1977/78 season saw six non-league clubs taking part. With sides from the top divisions entering the draw for the first time, Spartans may have been hoping for a local derby against Newcastle United or a match against the European champions, Liverpool, but they were drawn against Enfield, the Isthmian League powerhouses who had knocked them out of the FA Amateur Cup at the semi-final stage six years previously. A crowd of over 5,000 turned out at Croft Park for the match. It was a tight affair, with both teams missing chances to seize the advantage before Spartans’ debutant Alan Shoulder headed the only goal of the match in the second half.
With the other four non-league competitors having been eliminated from the competition, press attention turned to Blyth, who were drawn away to Stoke City in the Fourth Round. This was a strong Stoke team – they had been relegated from the First Division the previous season and would go on to be promoted back in 1979. It was a team that contained, amongst others, a young Garth Crooks, former Liverpool defender Alec Lindsay and Stoke legend Terry Conroy. The match was called off twice, and by the time that the match went ahead, Blyth already knew that they would face a Wrexham side that had knocked Newcastle United out in the Fifth Round if they got through. Blyth started strongly, scoring an early goal through Terry Johnson, but Stoke came back strongly, taking a 2-1 lead with goals from Viv Busby and Garth Crooks. Towards the end, however, Alan Shoulder crossed for Steve Carney to level the scores and then, with just under two minutes still to play, Rob Carney’s flick wasn’t successfully cleared, and Terry Johnson drove the ball into the roof of the net to give Spartans a memorable and unlikely victory.
A trip to North Wales to play Wrexham in the Fifth Round was their reward and Johnson, the hero of the Fourth Round, gave them an early lead at The Racecourse Ground. Wrexham pressed for an equaliser but were unable to find a way through until deep into injury time. A Wrexham corner had been safely gathered by Blyth goalkeeper Dave Clark, but the referee ordered a retake because the corner flag had been taken out of the ground by the corner’s taker. The retaken free-kick was powered in by Wrexham striker Dixie McNeill, forcing a replay. By the time of the replay, which was switched to Newcastle’s St James Park on police advice, the prize for the winners had already been decided: Arsenal, in the quarter-finals.
The Fifth Round replay was watched by a crowd of over 42,000 people at St James Park, but Blyth’s luck had run out with that late retaken corner at The Racecourse Ground in the previous match. A foul on McNeill gave Wrexham an early penalty which was converted by Graham Whittle before McNeill doubled the visitors’ advantage before half-time. In the second half, though, Blyth came back strongly and with seven minutes to play Terry Johnson pulled a goal back. This time, however, it wasn’t enough and Wrexham hung on to win 2-1 and claim a place in the quarter-finals of the competition. Spartans made over £40,000 from their FA Cup run in 1978. A very tidy sum for the club indeed at the time.
Things would never get this good again for them. They lost to York City in the First Round the following season and took Hull City to three matches in 1981 before losing a second replay at Elland Road. This season is their first appearance in the FA Cup in eleven years – their last win against Football League opposition came with a 2-0 win at Bury in 1996. Over three decades on, though, the name of Blyth Spartans continues to raise the heart rate of people from a certain generation. Shrewsbury Town, who have caused a few cup upsets of their own over the last few years, would do well not to underestimate them.