IN THE end it was a step too far, a gulf in class too wide for the part-timers to bridge, but Blyth Spartans’ magical FA Cup run came to a fittingly heroic conclusion against Blackburn Rovers last night.
It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for Blyth’s players and supporters to test themselves against Premier League opposition and they did the occasion proud, holding Sam Allardyce’s side for almost an hour and providing enough scares along the way for them to ensure this was nothing like an easy ride into the fourth round.
Having taken the lead thanks to Carlos Villanueva’s superb free-kick, Blackburn were clinging on at the end as both Andy Wright and Alex Gildea had chances to force the game to a replay – Wright volleying agonisingly wide from eight yards and Gildea missing a free-header at the near post as panic spread through the visiting defence.
A victory and a fourth-round tie against Sunderland would have been an unbelievable spectacle for North East football, but no Spartan should have any cause for regret following this wonderful adventure.
For 31 years the teams of Blyth have had to hear the triumphant story of the club’s cup heroics, which ended in front of more than 40,000 people at St James’s Park in 1978, and for 30 of them they have had to listen politely to those who have compared them unfavourably to the heroes of old – but not this lot.
When Spartans fans reminisce in the future they will have two separate memories to cherish and a whole new generation of Blyth fans will have cause to identify with the club’s proud FA Cup history.
Such memories are priceless, although fortunately it has been rather easier to put a price on what this run means for those who have to worry about making sure the books are balanced and the figures add up.
These are tough times for any small business and, with the economy slowing to the point of reverse, several professional clubs are likely to fall under the threat of closure in the months ahead. For the part-timers of the Blue Square Conference North and South, the future may be even harsher.
This cup run, though, should ensure Blyth are able to ride out the coming storm. The extra revenue generated is likely to exceed £400,000 and that is a direction-changing amount at this level.
As chairman Tony Patten admitted over the weekend, the timing could not have been any better for a club which is now debt free and able to look forward with a new degree of confidence.
It was, as you would expect, given the difference in quality between the two teams, almost one-way traffic with Blackburn’s slick Premier League stars perhaps finding the Croft Park pitch harder to play against than those in green and white stripes. Yet, those who wore them with such pride were everywhere, constantly harassing the visitors as they looked to protect goalkeeper Mark Bell.
It is testimony to their effort – epitomised by inspirational captain Gareth Williams – that Bell had only one quality save to make in the first half, getting down superbly to turn Keith Treacy’s low shot around the post.
It was clear who the Premier League side were, but they were mainly confined to trying their luck from outside the area as Harry Dunn’s side lined up with two banks of four and made it as difficult as they could for Rovers to get in behind them down the wings.
Villanueva twice got a glimpse of an opening, but on both occasions his execution of the shot was poor, pulling the first effort across goal and slicing the next.
Still Blyth clung on and they even had a couple of moments themselves, Ged Dalton failing to find the empty net from the right of the area after Blackburn goalkeeper Mark Bunn had got himself stranded in no man’s land following a breakdown in communication with Zurab Khizanishvili.
Dalton was the last-minute match winner in the previous round against Bournemouth, but this time his attempted lob sailed well wide of the target.
Having become used to watching for a safe distance, a sluggish Blackburn defence did look vulnerable whenever Blyth did manage to get the ball into an area from which they could attack – sadly such moments were all too rare.
And, as half-time approached, Blackburn cranked up the pressure, Matt Derbyshire smashing an overhead kick into the net only for his acrobatics to go to waste because of an offside flag.
The striker followed that up with an embarrassing air-kick after he had drifted in behind the Spartans back line and it took a goal-line block from the magnificent Richard Pell to keep out a fierce Vince Grella effort after Bell had failed to claim a cross cleanly. The half-time whistle brought a huge cheer from the home support and it was a victory of sorts to have frustrated their illustrious opponents so well and for so long.
A breakthrough felt as though it was coming and it was typical of a Sam Allardyce side that when it did, it came from a set-piece. It is difficult to criticise, but there was a little bit of over-eagerness in Gildea’s challenge from behind on Villaneuva.
The South American stayed on his feet, but still won the free-kick and the Chilean curled a delightful shot into the top corner.
Blackburn had their chances to extend their advantage, Keith Andrews twice failing to make a proper connection with the ball when he should have done better, but in the end they were clinging on grimly to their slender advantage. The stuff of legend.
BLYTH SPARTANS: M Bell; Boyle, Pell, Leeson, White (Todd 63), Reay, McCabe, Williams, Gildea, Dale, Dalton (Wright 70). Subs (not used): Farman, Brown, Hume, Poole, Watson.
BLACKBURN ROVERS: Bunn; Simpson, Mokoena, Khizanishvili, Olsson, Vogel, Grella (Andrews 60), Treacy, Judge, Villanueva (Roberts 59), Derbyshire (Hodge 83). Subs (not used): Brown, Gunning, Doran, Haworth.
Goal: Villanueva 58.
Referee: Andre Marriner (W Midlands).