The Giant Killers

Every F A cup giant killing since 1888

All time greatest F A cup giant killings

Number 77

 

Stoke City 2-3 Blyth Spartans

 Fourth Round: Monday February 6th 1978

Attendance: 18,765       

Scorers: Terry Johnson {12}, Viv Busby {57}, Garth Criooks {59}, Steve Carney {82}, Terry Johnson {88}     

Ranked at the time: 52

18 year old prostitute, Helen Rytka becomes the eighth victim of the Yorkshire Ripper, John Travolta and Karen Lynn Gorney were dance partners in ‘Saturday Night Fever’ while ‘The South Bank Show’ began on TV and Althea & Donna were ‘Uptown Top Ranking’ at the top of the charts.

The part timers of Blyth Spartans had already played more cup rounds than the eventual winners, Ipswich would have to fight through and their appearance in the draw for the quarter finals made them the only Non-League club since the formation of the Third Division in 1920 to survive a match in the last sixteen of the competition. The side were all North East born and bred and all had to hold down full time jobs while fighting their way through the competition but they weren’t all unknowns.

Dave Clarke had been second choice keeper at Newcastle when they won the Inter Cities Fairs cup [now the Europa League] in 1969 but with chances there limited, he dropped into the lower divisions with Doncaster. It was a similar story for Terry Johnson while Ron Guthrie had been a first teamer at St James’s Park at the start of the ‘70s before achieving greater fame as part of the famous Sunderland cup winning side of 1973.

The rest of the side embodied the spirit of Non-League and amateur Football though. Eddie Alder and Ronnie Scott were long standing Spartans loyalists with over a decade each at the club, Keith Houghton was a police officer by day, Steve Carney an electrician and Alan Shoulder worked down the pit at Hordon colliery.

Manager, Brian Slane was a school teacher by trade and was himself in the starting eleven when the cup kicked off at local rivals Shildon in the fading summer sunshine of September. A comfortable victory that day enabled Spartans to navigate the remaining qualifying rounds at the expense of other local sides, Crook, Consett and Bishop Auckland.

Those results took Spartans into the first round proper where they were given home advantage in a clash with another Non-League side, Burscough. Few outside the North East took much notice when they won that tie by a solitary Ian Mutrie goal but when Third Division Chesterfield fell by the same score in round two, Blyth’s cup run was gaining them attention.

They were among six Non-League sides safely through to the third round draw but had mixed feelings when they were paired with one of the other five, Enfield. There was a bit of bad blood between the sides too, dating back to a meeting a few years earlier. It added spice to a packed Croft Park who raced onto the pitch to celebrate when Alan Shoulder’s header earned Spartans a place in round four.

Now they had the romantic media all to themselves. The other Non-League sides were all gone and the draw paired them with a trip to Second Division Stoke City.

The 1970s had promised to be the greatest decade in Stoke’s history. An exciting side was built that threatened to win the League and cup but ultimately missed out on both and had to settle for winning the League Cup in 1972 instead. In 1977 things all went wrong and The Potters were relegated and their moment was gone.

Jackie March, Alan Bloor and Terry Conroy all remained from the ’72 team while Alec Lindsay and Howard Kendall were in the twilight of careers that saw them help the two Merseyside clubs win the title earlier in the decade. And yet, despite being a club filled with top flight experience, Stoke were struggling and were lying sixteenth with no wins in four games when George Eastham was relieved of his position as manager. Alan A’Court stepped into the manager’s position but would be made to wait for a first game in charge due to the poor weather in The Potteries.

That wintery conditions made life very difficult and indeed costly for the players and fans of Spartans. Their fourth round tie at the Victoria Ground was scheduled for Saturday January 28th. Blyth was in the grip of a blizzard but it didn’t stop over forty coaches leaving for the game. Over 4,000 fans were already in or near the ground when the game was called off due to a waterlogged pitch despite the best efforts of the Stoke staff to try and save the game. The late postponement came only after yet another deluge a couple of hours before the game. The match was rescheduled for the coming Wednesday but in the meantime the excitement of the tie was heightened by Spartans being handed their dream tie as a reward. They would visit First Division Newcastle in round five once the Magpies overcame their formality of a replay of their fourth round tie with Third Division Wrexham.

The rescheduled fixture on the Wednesday also failed to pass a pitch inspection, although thankfully this time the coaches hadn’t left the North East yet. The players however were all still taking time off work and losing pay as a result. The game would be set for a third attempt the following Monday.

Both managers were upbeat going into the game. Brian Slane certainly felt that an unsettled Stoke side were very beatable while A’Court countered by claiming a Non-League opponent made an ideal baptism for the new regime.

The Blyth directors decided to bring the team down the day before the tie, once Stoke were able to declare with certainty that the game would go ahead and just over a thousand fans were still able to make the trip. The better part of three thousand ticket holders would have to miss out and listen to the game on the radio. There would be no refunds, declared the Stoke board.

A’Court’s starting eleven was the strongest he could field, containing ten players who had played at the highest level and included their exciting young prospect, Garth Crooks. Brian Slane resisted the temptation to put himself into his side and stayed in civvies as his side took the field in a new Hibernian styled change strip. Stoke planned to wear their regular home kit but were asked by the referee to switch to their yellow and blue away colours to avoid a clash of both side’s white shorts and socks. There was nothing odd in this for the older Stoke fans in the crowd who well remembered that it used to be cup tradition for the home side to change in a kit clash.

It was no surprise that the pitch was in poor condition after being unplayable for the better part of a fortnight and in the early stages Viv Busby almost took advantage of an early slip to force a good save from Clarke. The early good fortune fell to Spartans though when Rob Carney’s corner was misjudged by Jones who rose to catch the ball unchallenged and instead flapped it behind him to Terry Johnson who volleyed into the net from barely four yards.

Stoke showed little in the first half, although there were scares when Conroy miscued a good chance and then Kendall’s drive was headed clear but half time came with Spartan’s twelfth minute lead intact.

In the second half Stoke upped the tempo and both Crooks and Busby had scorned good chances to equalise before the Potters finally did in the fifty-seventh minute. There was an element of good fortune about it however when a free kick fell kindly to Busby to fire past Clarke. Stoke were well on top and appeared to finish the tie off two minutes later when Garth Crooks stooped low at the far post to head home a corner from barely a yard out.

Spartans battled hard to try and get back into the tie but as it headed into the final ten minutes they were tiring and increasingly looking like gallantly falling short. With eight minutes left they got a controversial lifeline when Ron Guthrie’s free kick looped up off the Stoke wall, evaded Jones and hit the post. Alan Shoulder appeared to have blown their great moment to equalise when his follow up came off the other post but Steve Carney was on hand to make certain with the third attempt. The Stoke players were furious and angrily chased the referee back to the half way line to argue for an offside flag but the referee was unmoved and the goal stood.

Spartans needed the lift to get them to the finish but a well-earned draw turned into dreamland in the final minute when another free kick wasn’t dealt with by the Stoke defence. Waterson’s ball to the edge of the box was headed by Houghton, flicked by Rob Carney and then fired past Jones by Terry Johnson.

There was barely time for Stoke to save themselves and they left the field to a hail of torn up season tickets, scarves and boos from their disillusioned fans. The home fans did manage to raise applause for the Blyth players and by season’s end would perhaps have reason to be thankful. Under A’Court, Stoke improved greatly to finish a respectable seventh.

Eddie Alder was of the opinion that Stoke thought they were home and dry when they went 2-1 up and took their foot off the gas. Howard Kendall agreed but wished them well in the next round and praised Spartans as deserving winners. There was a downside for the victorious Spartans players who naturally assumed they were going to a big day out at First Division Newcastle. Alan Shoulder said “When we heard they had lost 1-4 we were angry more than anything. We’d been let down by Newcastle yet again.” In another major shock, Wrexham, flying in the Third Division, tore the struggling top flight outfit away.

So Blyth were off to Wales instead as only the third Non-League side since the reorganisation of the cup in the 1920s to reach the fifth round, although their detractors pointed out that the other two, Colchester and Yeovil had both defeated top flight teams to get there while Blyth hadn’t. You can only beat what you’re up against and Blyth’s backers could counter by stating that both of the other two had been among the top semi-professional clubs in the land. Blyth by contrast were technically an amateur team and wouldn’t be considered for membership of the new elite Non-League planned for later in the year. There was of course one way to silence any detractors. Beat Wrexham, become the first Non-League cup quarter finalists for over sixty years and almost certainly draw a top flight club.

There were serious doubts over the state of the Racecourse Ground pitch with many of the Wrexham players feeling that the game shouldn’t go ahead on a pitch that appeared frozen in places. Not only were the Television cameras in place but thousands of Blyth supporters were already making their way to Wales and it’s possible that the referee may have been swayed on the side of letting the game go ahead.

The Blyth players came onto the pitch in a brand new kit donated by Bukta and their wives and girlfriends certainly weren’t bothered by any wages lost in the cup run as every player had been taken to a local furniture warehouse to pick out a whopping £350 worth of furniture as reward for beating Stoke. The median wage in 1978 for a full time worker was just £76 a week!

They were also greeted by a huge band of traveling supporters whom they thanked before kick-off, unfurling a banner stating Blyth Spartans – Super Fans OK. On a bitterly cold day it soon became apparent that the pitch was more like a rock hard ice rink as players struggled to maintain their footing throughout the game. The mistake that gifted Blyth the lead however could not be put down to the conditions as Terry Johnson was live to an under hit back pass to shoot Spartans into the lead twelve minutes in.

Wrexham dominated the game after that but didn’t truly begin to turn the screw until their substitute, Lyons was shown a straight red card for reacting to a nasty challenge by Steve Carney with a vicious full blooded kick in the stomach. Carney picked up his second yellow card of the game for the incident and also made for the dressing room.

The game will everlastingly be remembered for the controversy of Wrexham’s equaliser in the last minute. John Waterson appeared to have forced a goal kick off Wrexham’s Shinton only for the referee, Alf Grey to wrongly point for a corner. As Wrexham went to take it, Grey raced over to fix the corner flag, which appeared to be falling over. The corner was taken and punched behind by Clarke for another corner. The crowd felt sure that if Blyth could deal with it then they would be in the quarter finals. Yet again the corner came in and this time Clarke jumped unchallenged and clutched the ball to his chest. What happened next haunts Blyth fans to this day. Alf Grey pointed to the corner flag, lying on the ground and ordered the kick to be retaken. It was, and this time Dixie McNeal headed home a last gasp equaliser.

For Blyth fans it has remained a cruel piece of over officiating after a bad decision but it should also be pointed out that most of the Wrexham forwards made no attempt to attack the disputed corner, which allowed Clarke to gather as they were already aware the referee had ordered a retake. It was still a cruel way to miss out on a quarter final of the cup, although history was still made when their name was in the hat. The potential opponents would be mighty Arsenal. Finally, a top flight side.

The replay too has become folklore in Tyneside. Newcastle’s dismal season of 1978 is well documented. The humiliation against Wrexham has already been mentioned and crowds barely rose above 20,000 as they ultimately stumbled to relegation. So when the Wrexham players arrived on Tyneside for the replay to find St Jame’s Park packed with over 40,000 fans and another 10,000 locked out, they were stunned.

It was even more shocking for the Blyth players when their team bus had to be escorted by the police to get to the ground. No Non-League team had played in front of such support since Southern League teams were reaching the final itself in the Edwardian era. To their credit, Wrexham’s players rose to the noise and intimidating atmosphere in the ground. They were a side high on confidence and they started strongly on the night, assisted by an early penalty that looked distinctly soft. Their second goal was worthy of winning a cup tie though but Blyth regrouped in the second half and began to grow into the game. Terry Johnson pulled one back late in the game but Wrexham hung on and the longest cup run of the modern era, eleven games in nine ties was over.

The story was far from over for the players though as Steve Carney and Alan Shoulder both found themselves signed by the now Second Division Newcastle before the year was out. Keith Houghton too took the opportunity to step up to full time Football, walking away from the police to sign for Carlisle. There was interest in other players too but they resisted and remained in the semi pro game.

Every time Blyth have appeared in the F A cup radar since that run, the players can usually expect to be called upon to relive 1978. In 2003 the entire team were brought back together for a reunion, though Steve Carney later lost a battle with cancer aged just fifty-nine.

For Blyth the march of the Non-League pyramid eventually caught up with them and the Northern League. The longer it tried to stay aloof from the pyramid the further down the system it fell until today it rests at level nine, some three tiers below where it was considered to have lain in 1978. Spartans remained loyal to the League but paid dearly for it, not achieving sixth tier status officially until 2006.

City: 1:Roger Jones, 2:Jackie Marsh, 3:Alec Lindsay, 4:Howard Kendall, 5:Alan Dodd, 6:Alan Bloor, 7:Steve Waddington, 8:Geoff Scott, 9:Viv Busby, 10:Terry Conroy, 11:Gart Crooks, Sub:Jeff Cook: Manager: Alan A'Court

Spartans: 1:Dave Clarke, 2:John Waterson, 3:Ron Guthrie, 4:Eddie Alder, 5:Ronnie Scott, 6:Tommy Dixon, 7:Rob Carney, 8:Keith Houghton, 9:Steve Carney, 10:Alan Shoulder, 11:Terry Johnson: Manager:Brian Slane