In 1978, competing in the fifth round of the FA Cup, Blyth Spartans were described as the most famous non-league club in the country. Forty years on, it’s a line the club still use on their official website – but it’s a tag they are seeking to shed.
At the time of their cup exploits, Blyth were residing in the Northern League and tended to be one of the more dominant teams, winning the title in three of the previous six seasons, but with promotion at that time not on the club’s agenda, they continued to compete in what was classed as the eighth tier of English football.
Yet, remarkably, in 1978 Blyth saw off Third Division Chesterfield and Second Division Stoke City, who had only been relegated from the top flight the previous season, not to mention several other non-league teams, to reach the fifth round of the FA Cup.
Their reward was a meeting with Third Division Wrexham, who denied Blyth a local derby by shocking Newcastle United in the previous round, and the non-leaguers very nearly caused another upset at the Racecourse Ground, conceding a late equaliser from an incorrectly-awarded corner which the referee ordered to be retaken twice – with Blyth repelling the threat on both occasions – because the corner flag had fallen over.
In front of over 42,000 fans at the replay, hosted at Newcastle’s St James’ Park and more than for any home league game that season, Blyth would have fancied their chances of making it to the sixth round against Arsenal at the second attempt, but this time they were beaten 2-1.
The country’s most famous giant killers have made it to the first round or beyond several times since, reaching the third round in 2015 when they led 2-0 against Birmingham City only to lose 3-2, but now Blyth have ambitions far beyond the odd cup run.
Finally deciding to step up to the Northern Premier League in 1994, the Northumberland outfit are now challenging for a play-off position in the sixth-tier National League North. Should they win another promotion, the club and its fans will have some more decisions to make.
“Another promotion will bring its own issues as we will need to decide on whether we become a full-time team,” chairman Tony Platten says.
“We only train two nights per week and cannot ask our players to miss up to two days of work if they’re scheduled to play a midweek game at Torquay, as was the recent case with Gateshead.
“Also, Blyth would be the most northerly team in the fifth tier and our travelling expenses would increase from the estimated £15,000 per season spent in the North division, which includes a visit to Leamington.”
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Budget issues in the event of securing promotion was a topic raised by General Manager Anthony Seghini, who is the only current paid employee at the club.
“We have been sensible with our finances over the years, with any surplus from our operating costs allocated towards the playing staff.
“We are now budgeting for a home crowd of 800 in this regional sixth tier, but average attendances to date for this season have amounted to 920, which does include some concessions.
“Should we win promotion, we will need attendances of approximately 1,200 to cover the additional travel costs and overnight stays, extra player wages and the administrative complexities required for the National League.”
As is the case for many non-league teams in the region, attendances can be affected by being located within the catchment area of Newcastle United, and regularly attracting 1,200 spectators to Croft Park could be difficult.
However, a crowd of more than 3,500 watched their FA Cup defeat to Birmingham a few years back despite Newcastle playing at Leicester on the same afternoon. That may have been a one-off match for Blyth, but club officials are determined to attract more local fans on a permanent basis.
“The local Blyth population will be asked whether they wish to see their team progress,” Seghini says. “There are still too many people donning their black and white tops when visiting the local pub to watch a Newcastle away match on arguably illegal TV.
“They should come out into the fresh air and watch some decent football in their home town.”
There would, of course, also be advantages of promotion, and the near-5,000 capacity Croft Park with covered stands on all four sides would not require much work to meet fifth-tier standards.
“We will receive more TV coverage, especially on BT Sport, and our famous name should guarantee a few live games which certainly helps with the cash flow and budgets,” Platten says.
“The extra coverage would also help us when we soon renegotiate sponsorship deals with Ascent Homes and our other five sponsors. Another good cup run would also help.
“Furthermore, some of the more traditional powerful teams at National League level should bring a decent away following to Blyth. Less than 50 Salford City away fans attended a recent game here.”
Securing promotion will be difficult and maintaining their fifth-tier status an even bigger challenge, but should Blyth succeed and eventually become a Football League team, their label of the ‘most famous non-league club in the country’ will be removed with much pleasure.
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