Our man in the north, Ian Sandford, casts an eye forward to our next game, Blyth Spartans away.
It seems like only 5 minutes ago, we were making the longest trip of the season to south east Northumberland, just 13 miles the other side of Newcastle. It is far too fresh in the mind, that Blyth narrowly escaped relegation thanks to the Bulls final day capitulation in April. Certainly my lowest point as a member of the Radio Hereford FC commentary team and as low as I’ve ever felt as a Bulls fan, save only for the Brighton game in 1997.
Relegation for The Spartans would have represented a devastating blow for the near 40 000 population as Blyth has been in decline for decades, since the demise of its principal industries, coal mining, ship building and fishing. Whilst the town has seen some regeneration in recent years, namely some retail development and the windfarm off the harbour, however these capital investments fall far short of replacing what they once had.
What they do have is a famous old non-league club, the most famous non-league club in the world they would claim; to many of the world-weary locals, it is all they have. In truth Spartans have been playing Russian Roulette with their National League North status for a few seasons. Reprieved by aborted seasons and relegation being cancelled. It’s not that many seasons ago that they were genuine playoff contenders, however long-time chairman Tony Platten decided that he could no longer finance the club to the extent he had been. This, combined with the retirement (twice) of their talisman Robbie Dale, have proved recent campaigns to be tough.
If this is the season the Green Army is to return to the Northern League it would represent another hammer blow to this beleaguered town. Interestingly Dale has come out of retirement for a second time and turns out for Ashington Town, along with another Spartans legend Dan McGuire. Between them they scored 350+ goals for the north east club; it is unlikely they will see the likes of them for a very long time, if ever. Robbiedinho, as he is known locally is now immortalised with a mural adorning the side wall of the chippy outside the ground!
Whether Blyth will eventually re-emerge form its economic slumber is debateable, the area has been teased with a new dawn in recent years, the advent of a car battery giga factory employing 3000 people; however, the chances of this seem to be rescinding and production on any scale looks to be 5-10yrs away. Whether Spartans will re-emerge from its footballing slumber is equally debateable.
Recruitment in the pre-season has been modest, bringing in youngsters who may turn into half decent players in the future, along with former Bull Jack Bodenham, after his unsuccessful trial at Aldershot. Finn Cousin-Dawson has re-signed on loan from Bradford City, who looked a very decent centre back when we were there in April and their “marquee” signing appears to be JJ Hooper who has league experience with Port Vale, Grimsby, Wrexham & Barnet; he played the second half of last season with Gloucester City! I suspect it will be another long season for Graham Fenton’s men.
At one end of the ground is a quote from Greek philosopher Plutarch – “Spartans do not ask how many are the enemy, but where they are?” A metaphor for the hardiness of the locals.
The good folk of Blyth are undeniably some of the friendliest we meet on our travels and Croft Park is one of the best grounds we visit in the NLN.
I recommend the long trip this weekend, the club house is excellent and they have their own beer. After the match the Spartan’s Smooth is on me!
This article first featured in the sell-out edition of Talking Bull, TB139 “Caddis: New Era”.