The Gladiators versus The Spartans

There can be few better feelings in life than watching a game of football with the sun beating down on your face, beer in hand surround by England’s green and pleasant land. Add in a view to die for and a pie with gravy and this could be Nirvana. I could have chosen one of twenty games in the Premier League or the Skybet divisions today that were within an hour’s drive of Northern HQ but instead I’m at Causeway Lane, Matlock, in the heart of Derbyshire’s Peak District. Even the sale of the naming rights to the ground (“The Autoworld Arena” conjures up images of Speedway to me) can’t spoil the beauty of the moment.

15007767741_867b992671_zNobody was telling me to sit down, taking my beer away or trying to sell me a credit card. Watching football at the highest level of the game in a England has been a joyless experience for a number of years. As each season passes and clubs find more ways to justify ticket price hikes whilst greedily scooping up more cash from TV deals, pre-season tours and bizarre commercial partnerships.  It’s no surprise that the governing body, the Football Association are just as guilty these days, happy to put aside their unelected mandate to run our game with a focus on all aspects and all levels for the latest sponsorship deal.  I still find it incredible that an organisation that talks about the importance of sport for children to maintain a healthy lifestyle by signing long-term commercial deals with the world’s most recognised fast food brand and a brand of beer.

I was here on a mission from God. Well, sort of.  The little Fuller’s had been enjoying a week of a Northern life at the in-laws and I was here to collect them and re-as simulate them back into normal life.  Whilst the Current Mrs Fuller was conducting a Southern language lesson I took my leave and headed 39 miles west to Matlock. How could anyone resist this game? The Gladiators versus The Spartans played in one of the finest arenas that England has to offer.

I was disappointed when I rang the club in the week and asked if I wore my toga I’d get in free? It appeared that the Matlock Town marketing machine had let the opportunity of a themed match day experience pass them by.  I’m sure Woburn Safari Park could’ve had done without a lion or two for the afternoon and as for an orgy? Well I’ve still got the numbers for a couple of trainee Bunny Girls I met at the Playboy Mansion a few years ago (Did I tell you I’ve been to the Playboy Mansion?).  But any sad face soon disappeared when I pulled into the car park on the cricket pitched, stopped at mid wicket and looked straight ahead at the three-sided Causeway Lane ground. Ruddy marvellous.

The Northern Premier League, just like its southern cousins, is a pig to get out of with only the winners guaranteed a spot in the Vanarama Conference North.  Last season, Blyth finished in 8th spot, not too far off the play-offs although quite how they would fair in tier 2 of Non-League football is another matter, with significant away trips to Oxford City(550 miles), Worcester City (500 miles), Gloucester City (550 miles) and a whopping 600 mile round trip to Lowestoft. This underlines the main issue with the current non-league structure – trying to fit clubs into a rigid structure that ignores geography.  The big elephant in the room, still, is FC United of Manchester with their travelling legions and inability to progress out of the NPL Play-offs. A visit by the bootleg Red Devils swells the coiffures of all the clubs in this league.

14824252268_da93451cac_zI handed over my £9 for entry, £2.50 for my pie and £2.70 for my pint and I was a happy man for the next two hours. My afternoon was completed by seeing two of the finest Non-League photographers known to man, Chris Hayes and Paul Paxford at the far end and made my way down there to get snap happy.

Matlock Town 1 Blyth Spartans 1 – Causeway Lane – Saturday 23rd August 2014
Opposite the ground is Hall Leys Park, where their Bank Holiday festivities were well underway.  As the two teams emerged the sound of Disney filled the air. Surely they had better walk out music than this? Then it dawned on me that it was the theme tune to Frozen which was being shown on a big screen in the park opposite. And so the songs punctuated the air for the rest of the afternoon as the two rivals cancelled each other out in an entertaining draw.

The Spartans started the game with the smell of blood in their nostrils. Roared on by a small group of away fans, the leader of whom loved nothing more than an occasional jig around the terrace outside the bar, spilling most of his beer each time. He had something to really shout about just before half-time when a Holland skipped passed his marker and fired the ball into the corner of the net.

14987846766_0633f5f872_zThe second half saw a re-energised (I.e bollocked) Matlock team emerge, realising the weaknesses in the Spartans right hand side.  The away keeper was forced into half a dozen good saves before he was finally beaten when Hawkins reacted fastest to a deflected cross and smartly headed home.  If the game was to produce a winner it was undoubtably going to come from the home side but then they sat back, almost inviting The Spartans to attack with numbers.

The final whistle saw a round of applause from the 260-odd souls in the ground.  “Better than the bloody rubbish we saw on Tuesday but we are still rubbish” said one fan as he waked past me “still liver and bacon for tea and Tess Daly on Strictly. Life isn’t all bad, son.” Wise words indeed and with that I headed back east to the Littlest Fuller’s. He was spot on, life in the Non-Leagues in the English Summer wasn’t bad at all.

Matlock Town face the same issue many Non-League clubs have each and every week. Within a 30 minute drive of the town this afternoon, Derby County, Nottingham Forest and Alfreton Town all played at home.  That’s the challenge – trying to encourage the locals of Matlock not to hop on the bus or train at 2pm but to stay at head down to Causeway Lane.

My good friend Mike Bayly is currently researching a book on the grounds you have to visit before you die. Matlock would be on my recommended top 10 list on a sunny day like today although I’d give it a swerve when the cold Peak District wind blows on a wet Tuesday in February.


Remember the Spartans

BlythSpartansThe name Blyth Spartans may not mean much to the younger football fan, but the Northern Premier League side are one of the most successful Non-League clubs in the history of the FA Cup.  Whilst Lewes can look back on a few forays into the First Round proper, including the memorable trip back in November 2001 to play Stoke City, Blyth Spartans have reached the first round 32 times in their 114 year history which is an amazing achievement and going onto the 3rd round on four occasions, the most recent being in 2009 when they lost 1-0 to Blackburn Rovers.

But it is the amazing exploits of the 1977/78 FA Cup campaign that made them a household name up and down the country.  In that season they entered the competition in the 1st qualifying round in mid-September, dispatching Shildon in a local derby 3-0.  Another local tie in the next round saw them up against Crook Town who took Spartans to a replay.  The next two round draws saw them get further local ties against Consett and Bishop Auckland, both defeated to put them into the hat for the First Round Proper.

Once again lady luck was at the FA when the draw was made and part-timers Burscough were drawn out at home, with a single goal enough to take them into Round Two where they met Chesterfield.  Whilst they had ridden their luck to get to this stage, there was no fluke about the win versus the Division Two side at Croft Park.  With the draw for the Third Round made on the Monday following the Second Round, the squad met at the ground and huddled round the radio hoping to get a plum draw.  At first there was delight that they were drawn at home, but soon that turned to disappointment when the ball of Enfield was drawn.  Whilst the game would prove to be a real test for Blyth Spartans as Enfield were one of the best Non-League sides in the country, they knew they had missed out on a money-spinning game.

But a single goal from Alan Shoulder was enough to take them into Round Four where they would meet Stoke City.  Now the footballing nation was sitting up and taking notice of the part-timers from the North East.  Unfortunately bad weather meant the game against the Potters at the old Victoria Ground was cancelled twice.  To add more spice to the game, the draw for the Fifth Round saw the winner of this game paired against Newcastle United or Wrexham.  To Spartans the dream of an away tie against many of the players heroes at St James’ Park was a huge incentive to try and beat Stoke City.

Fans who couldn’t get down to the Midlands for the finally re-arranged midweek game missed out on seeing one of the biggest FA Cup shocks in the competition’s history. Stoke were a recent top-flight side, had won the League Cup just a few years earlier and had Howard Kendall, Terry Conroy, Alec Lindsay, Viv Busby and a young Garth Crooks up front.  Blyth took an early lead but two Stoke City goals seemed to have won the tie for the Potters.  But the Spartans came back at them with an equaliser and then in the final seconds a free kick was turned in by Terry Johnson to take the Non-League club into the fifth round – only the second Non-League club to ever reach this stage of the FA Cup.

Once again, the dream of a tie against Newcastle United turned into a nightmare as they were stuffed 4-1 by Wrexham.  But once again the Spartans didn’t know the meaning of the word defeat and led in the game as it entered the final minute.  With the BBC Match of the Day cameras recording the game for the Saturday night footballing nation, the impossible seemed as if it was about to be the reality.  Alas, with the final throw of the dice, Wrexham equalised from a corner.  However, Blyth would get their day out at St James’ Park after all as Newcastle United offered up their ground for the replay.  The winners would be hosting the mighty Arsenal.

So on Monday 27th February, some five and a half months since they kicked off their campaign against Shildon, Blyth Spartans kicked off against Wrexham in front of a sell-out 42,000 attendance.  Though Blyth didn’t play badly, Wrexham were 2-0 up in the 20th minute. No one gave up, though, not on the terraces, nor on the pitch; with eight minutes left Terry Johnson blasted in a volley. But despite some close calls, the equaliser would not come.  The dream was over.

The £7-a-week part-time players each received £350 worth of bedroom furniture from a local business. Two of them earned dream moves down the road to Newcastle: centre-back Steve Carney and more famously Alan Shoulder, who adapted to life away from the Northern League well, scoring regularly for The Toon and Carlislie United.

Since Blyth’s exploits, Telford United, Kidderminster Harriers, Crawley Town and last season, Luton Town have all reached the Fifth Round whilst still playing in the Non-Leagues.  But none of those have played as many games in one campaign.  The story of Blyth Spartans is one that gives hundreds of clubs up and down the country hope every single September when the road to Wembley opens.