It’s Northern League Day today, a chance to celebrate the second oldest football league in the world. With this in mind, we have reached back into the archives for the story of a Northern League club that came within a whisker of making the quarter-finals of the FA Cup, all the way back in 1978 – Blyth Spartans.

When the draw for the First Round of the FA Cup is made every year, there are some names, unfamiliar to many, that cause the pulse of some people of a certain age to quicken somewhat. Part of the fabric of the FA Cup is that some clubs, such as, say, Leatherhead or Altrincham, become household names in their own way. In the late 1970s, one of the most immediately recognisable names came from the Northern League – Blyth Spartans. 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 that harks 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 taker of the corner. 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 club of their size  at the time.

Things would never get quite this good again for Blyth Spartans. 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. It turned out to be the same for the Northern League itself. Reorganisation of the non-league pyramid meant that Blyth Spartans now play in the Blue Square North. Over three decades on, though, their name continues to raise the heart rate of people from a certain generation, and the Northern League itself does the same. If you can make it to a game today, Northern League Day certainly deserves your support.

Highlights of Wrexham vs Blyth Spartans in the Fifth Round of the 1978 FA Cup:

You can find out more about Northern League Day here.

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