Non League Daily

Mark Carruthers Blog: A Magical FA Cup Adventure

It's easy to become disenchanted with the cynical world of modern day football.

 

Millionaire footballers, billionaire owners, rising ticket prices and a mass saturation of the game on live television have all led to the creation of an ever widening distance between supporters and the game itself.

However every now and then you receive a short, sharp reminder that there is still room in the game for a bit of romance and normally that will be provided by the FA Cup.

In my role as Senior Press Officer at Blyth Spartans I was able to witness one of the most amazing FA Cup runs I can remember and fortunately got to experience it at close quarter.

Qualifying Round wins over Darlington 1883, Skelmersdale United, Mickleover Sports and Leek Town saw a whole host of remarkable moments.

Jarrett Rivers' 94th minute winner at Mickleover Sports was one of note but there were penalty saves, penalties missed, dramatic comebacks, injury time winners and some sublimes goals. Roy of the Rovers doesn't have a patch on this lot

In particular the Fourth Qualifying Round win at Leek Town will live long in the memory, although at half-time it felt like it was going to be anything but memorable. An abject first half performance saw Spartans head into the interval two goals down and had it not been for a quite frankly brilliant performance from keeper Peter Jeffries it could have been worse.

Fast forward twenty minutes and Spartans were 4-2 up after one of the most remarkable spells of football I have ever seen. There was still time for more late drama as Leek were awarded a penalty in the seventy eighth minute and it was dispatched by Andrew Kinsey.

Six minutes of added on time were signalled as the home side searched desperately for an equaliser. A questionable penalty was awarded in the final minute of injury time and Kinsey had the chance to make it 4-4 and force a replay. However the striker smashed his spot kick over the bar and Spartans were into the First Round. Over 400 Green Army members made the trip to Leek and celebrated long into the night after one of the most dramatic cup ties the club has played in.

As if the drama of the Qualifying Rounds wasn't enough Spartans were at it again in what I hate to call the "proper" rounds of the competition. The First Round draw handed them a home time with Conference club Altrincham. Many expected higher level opponents to be one step too far for a young Spartans side but that couldn't be further from the truth.

Braces from skipper Robbie Dale and striker Dan Maguire saw Spartans through with a 4-1 win that ranks amongst the best performances for many a year at Croft Park. It also set up a North-East derby in the Second Round at Hartlepool United and it was a game that captured the attention of the national press.

An intense week of media scrutiny saw many of the club's players featured in national newspapers. From Jarrett Rivers working in his parents'newsagents to scaffolder and goalkeeper Peter Jeffries, a former Pools season ticket holder no less the press lapped it up.

In a first for the club they were to take part in a Match of the Day live game and excitement was at fever pitch as over 1,000 Spartans supporters travelled down the A19 to Victoria Park.

That excitement was somewhat punctured by a low key first half as Hartlepool United's professional status shone through and they took the lead just after the half hour mark through the impressive Jonathan Franks.

However whatever was said – or thrown - in the Spartans dressing room at half time clearly worked as former Pools midfielder Stephen Turnbull got his side level with a free kick described by Alan Shearer as "one of the best FA Cup free kicks I have seen".

Jeffries made a couple of brilliant saves to keep the tie level and that gave Spartans a platform to go on and win the game. That is exactly what they did as Rivers scored in the very last minute to send Spartans into the Third Round for the first time in six years. A remarkable night for the club and one that saw the club's Blyth-born manager Tom Wade close to tears as the Green Army celebrated at full-time.

Championship club Birmingham City came out of the hat with Spartans with the Midlands outfit travelling to Croft Park for a tie surprisingly snubbed when the live games were decided by BT Sport and the BBC.

Again the media spotlight shone on Spartans with the previous round's hero Rivers attracting attention and manager Wade's Blyth roots being publicised.

The game itself would have been a TV classic. It seems ridiculous that I have gone this far into an article without many mentions Spartans legend Robbie Dale, a player synonymous with the club's recent history. I knew about Robbie before I joined the club two-and-a-half years ago and I knew he was a fan favourite.

What I didn't know was just how special a player Robbie was. A tall, powerful winger with unbelievable ability and technique he can win matches on his, trust me on that because I have seen him do so on a number of occasions.

The tie against Birmingham was to be Robbie's time in the sun. He had scored in every round barring the Second Round in the cup run but had seen others take the limelight. There was no taking it away from him against the Blues.

Two first half strikes saw him put his side two up at half time in front of a bouncing and more than anything full Croft Park. The first goal was a clinical finish as he latched on to a Rivers cross, the second a more special effort as he glided past four challenges before rolling home.

Reality hit in the second half as Birmingham hit back with three quickfire goals and despite a brave effort Spartans could find an equaliser and thus the curtain came down on a phenomenal cup run. As if to sum up the craziness of the cup run the weekend also carried such unique landmarks as Dale being honoured with his own Subbuteo figure, Luis Figo following, then unfollowing and then following the Spartans Twitter account and the club being named as BBC's Team of the Round. A weekend as wonderful as it was bizarre.

It has been an honour to work alongside the players and management at the club and to see them carry themselves with pride and dignity under fierce media scrutiny. They have been a credit to the club and most importantly themselves. No matter what happens in their careers from now on these moments cannot be taken away from them.

The challenge now for the club is to use the cup run and the financial rewards as a platform to rise up the pyramid. Wade's admirable work has seen him put together a young squad capable of kicking on and with a few smart additions promotion is well within their grasp. For now it's a time to reflect on an amazing run.

We will always have Mickleover Sports, Leek Town, Altrincham, Hartlepool United and well, for forty five minutes, Birmingham City.

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