IT’S a simple trip, we are told – “straight down the A1” – from Blyth in Northumberland to Stamford in Lincolnshire. But it’s also slightly ridiculous that non-league football, at Step 3, should involve a 400-mile round trip.
That’s how far Blyth Spartans had to travel to get to Stamford for their Northern Premier League match. A game played in front of 485 people on the outskirts of the delightful town that is Stamford.
Stamford is a place that Game of the People has visited frequently, not least Christmas 2015 when the GOTP team spent three days at the excellent George Hotel, where none other than Sir Alex Ferguson was in residence during the festive break.
Football leagues will always have their outposts, the clubs on the fringe on geographic allocation, and Stamford is certainly one of them. As it happens, Blyth Spartans are the northern-most team in the division, so we are talking about two extremes.
North v South clashes always have a bit of edge about them, and the arrival of enthusiastic fans from the North-East certainly added something to this game. “We’re the most famous non-league club in the world,” said one native of Blyth, with a grin.
I wasn’t so sure, thinking of teams like Sheffield, the world’s oldest club, Yeovil for their FA Cup exploits many years ago, and not to mention the plethora of former Football League outfits now playing in non-league. But when you think of clubs from the north-east, Blyth certainly come to mind.
In a bygone age when stereotyping was permitted, you’d make comments like, “we’ll have to get some Newcastle Brown in for the Blyth fans”, and similar remarks emphasising regional characteristics. It was interesting to hear the lady on the turnstile being referred to as “bonny lass” and “pet” by the arriving Blyth fans, who also described the new Stamford ground as “canny”.
And they arrived in force, despite the distance and the dire weather. Blyth turned up at Stamford as league leaders, although they have Darlington 1883 breathing down their neck. Blyth didn’t seem to like “Darlo”, given the financial benefits they seem to enjoy and the general feeling was that Blyth will probably have to settle for a play-off place as Darlington have games in hand. “They have to win them, though,” said one green and white scarved fan.
Stamford, however, are in trouble. Wallowing in the bottom four, they had recently drawn at home with fellow strugglers Marine and were trounced 4-1 at home by “Darlo”.
As the crowd tried to shelter from the wind and rain, over the tannoy came an address – presumably from Reverend Bob – on the meaning of Easter. His programme notes also made reference to Stamford’s relegation fight, but added: “Hope is a big part of all of our lives and comes in all shapes and sizes from, I hope, the team this afternoon, to hoping for bigger, more personal, life-changing things.” Nothing wrong with any of that, but it does show that in this PC age, we have become accustomed to playing so safe that references to “Jesus” make some people feel a little awkward. Eyebrows from either end of the A1 were raised.
If some might have found this uncomfortable, on paper, this looked like an easy 90 minutes for Blyth, but Stamford did their best to make life difficult for their visitors. Stamford had the best chance of scoring an early goal when the Blyth defence went missing and Jake Duffy ran through only to hastily shoot over the crossbar.
Blyth’s languid Rob Dale impressed in midfield. “He can turn it on, this lad,” I was told by someone who seemed to know an awful lot about the tall number 11. “Some pro clubs have sniffed at home, but he’s got his own pub and he’s doing quite nicely, so he’s stayed put.”
Also eye-catching was Daniel McGuire, a small, buzzy forward who looked dangerous throughout. But whatever Blyth did, they had to get past Paul Bastock, Stamford’s veteran goalkeeper who continues to defy the advancing years. I last saw Bastock at St. Neots and over the years he’s turned up at a number of local non-league clubs. He looks as fit as a fiddle and very agile – someone told me he is in his mid-40s.
The first half became a little niggly for a while, largely due to the feud between Stamford’s robust centre forward Greg Smith and Blyth’s Arran Wearmouth. By half-time, it had calmed down and in the second half, Smith was left in isolation as Blyth peppered Bastock’s goal with shots from inside and outside the area.
Dale’s left-foot drive looked to be heading for the top corner when a defender’s body deflected the ball for a corner, and a long-range fierce drive from Alex Nicholson was parried by Bastock, who also had to be at his best to prevent Nathan Buddle from scoring with another effort from 25 yards.
In the 60th minute, Blyth at last got on the scoresheet. Bastock was again on form as he stopped another shot from Buddle, but he could only push the ball to McGuire, who shot the rebound into the net and made straight for a group of Blyth fans behind the goal.
Stamford manager Graham Drury took immediate action and replaced three players, and for a while, it looked to be working. Greg Smith went close with a volley over the bar, and substitutes Jordan Smith and Callum Rzonca both played their part in stepping-up the pressure on Blyth.
At the other end, Stamford were always vulnerable to Blyth’s counter-attacks. Bastock saved again from McGuire and then Damen Mullen raced through and had time and space to put the result beyond Stamford, but his shot rolled wide of the target. Bastock came to the rescue again in the final seconds, saving from McGuire. The single goal was enough to win it for Blyth.
The Blyth manager, Tom Wade, praised his team for playing for some football, particularly in the second half. I asked him if his youngsters were feeling the pressure at the top of the table. “No, not at all – we relish the challenge. We expected a hard game today, but we kept going.”
His opposite number, Drury, has a tough task in the next few weeks to keep Stamford in the Premier Division. “I cannot fault the endeavour today, but we should have tested their keeper more. But Blyth are top for a reason and they showed it – although I must admit, I thought Darlington were a better side.”
It wasn’t a bad game, but the swirling wind made it difficult for both sides and the supporters. At least the Blyth fans had three points to take back with them to Northumberland. As for Stamford, I hope they stay up. I’m rather fond of the place.