BLYTH SPARTANS claim they are the most famous non-league club in the world, which is a bold statement given there’s been some pretty notable teams down the years, some not too far away from the Spartans.
But in 1977-78, Blyth were arguably the most talked-about club outside the Football League. For a start, the very name Blyth Spartans was different. They played in green and they were from the mysterious north-east. In that memorable campaign, Blyth Spartans captured everything that was good and romantic about the FA Cup.
It wasn’t the first time they had enjoyed a good FA Cup run, however. In 1971-72, they had beaten Crewe and Stockport to reach the third round, drawing with Reading before being trounced 6-1 at Elm Park. A couple of years later, they held Grimsby Town to a draw and in 1974-75, drew at home to Preston before losing a replay. There was a pedigree building.
Furthermore, in the Northern League, Blyth had won three titles in four years in the early 70s, going through the 1974-75 season unbeaten in the league.
In 1977-78, Blyth had an excellent team and some of their squad went on to play in the Football League. The most noted of their players was Alan Shoulder, a former miner who had arrived from Bishop Auckland. Shoulder would move to Newcastle United soon after the 1977-78 season, earning Blyth a £20,000 fee. Steve Carney, a defender, would also join Newcastle. Meanwhile, Blyth had Terry Johnson, who had played around 250 Football League games with Brentford and Southend United, and at the back, Ron Guthrie had been in Sunderland’s 1973 FA Cup winning team. In goal, Dave Clarke, who had tried his luck with Newcastle, Darlington and Doncaster, was considered one of the best custodians in the non-league game.
Blyth’s cup run began in the first qualifying round and included a series of relatively local opponents in Shildon, Crook Town, Consett and Bishop Auckland. Into the first round, they beat Burscough before meeting FL opposition in Chesterfield, whom they beat 1-0. The third round saw Blyth avoid league opposition and come up against Enfield, Shoulder’s header proving enough to win the tie. That paired Blyth with a Stoke City team that included Howard Kendall, Garth Crooks and Terry Conroy. Johnson put the Spartans ahead but Stoke, who had just been relegated from the top flight, went 2-1 up. Steve Carney levelled after Guthrie’s free kick had been pushed against the woodwork and Shoulder’s follow-up had hit a post. It looked all set for a replay, but in the dying seconds of the game, Johnson scored the winning goal. “I might as well retire, what else can I do after this?,” beamed manager Brian Slane. Matchwinner Johnson added: “This is the greatest day of my life, I can hardly believe what’s happened.”
Slane, who was in his first season in the dugout, was assisted by coach Jackie Marks, a great character who became something of a club legend. Years later, Slane said that Blyth were always confident of getting a result. “We didn’t fear anyone and there was no pressure on us.” Marks added, “We never tried to be defensive, we just went and played.”
The win put swashbuckling Blyth into the last 16 where they were drawn against Wrexham, who had players like Bobby Shinton and Micky Thomas in their dressing room. By now, the Spartans had captured the imagination of the public and the tie at the Racecourse attracted huge interest. The Blyth players, described as “engineers, fitters and sales reps” by the media, paraded a banner to pay tribute to their followers: “Super fans OK” before kick-off. Blyth stunned the home crowd when Johnson put them ahead on 12 minutes, latching onto a defensive slip to prod the ball through the legs of the Wrexham keeper Dai Davies. They were denied victory in the last minute when a twice-taken corner was bundled home by Dixie McNeil.
They replay was switched to Newcastle’s St. James’ Park, attracting a crowd of more than 42,000 and thousands of people locked out. In front of a hostile, partisan audience, most urging Blyth on, Wrexham went ahead from the penalty spot and by half-time were 2-0 up. Blyth pulled a goal back in the 82nd minute through Johnson but were beaten 2-1. “It was a once-in-a-lifetime occasion,” said Marks, who had a secret ingredient, “speed oil” that was part of his training regime. The much discussed “oil” was in fact whiskey!
Blyth may have been out of the FA Cup, but they had won the hearts of the public up and down the country. They finished runners-up in the Northern League, six points behind Spennymoor, but scored 107 goals in the process. It’s arguable that if they had not embarked on that protracted FA Cup run, they might have won the title. But then, the world would have been deprived of one of the most romantic cup stories of all time.
The Blyth team of 1977-78 was: Dave Clarke, John Waterson, Ron Guthrie, Eddie Alder, Ronnie Scott, Tommy Dixon, Alan Shoulder, Keith Houghton, Terry Johnson, Steve Carney, Rob Carney and Dave Varty. Heroes all in a small coastal town in Northumberland!