FOOTBALL | Buoyant Bulls travel to Blyth

Hereford picked up all three points from their 1-0 win over AFC Telford United at Edgar Street on Tuesday, but now face the long trek to take on Blyth at the weekend.

The Bulls won the corresponding match at Croft Park last season and will no doubt be trying to emulate that success again on Saturday.

Simon Wright looks ahead to the match in the North-East.

Spartan at the Spartans

Back in January 2019, Hereford FC unexpectedly won 3-2 at Croft Park. Spartans were downcast that their 14-match unbeaten run was ended while us visitors were thrilled. And rather shocked.

Seven months later, the clubs meet again in Blyth. Same clubs but different personnel. While Hereford have re-stocked with hardened ex-pros, the home side were forced down a different route.

The Blyth Chairman, retired engineer Tony Platten, and his Board members, decided the club had exceeded its budget and reined in expenditure heavily. In a dormitory town of 37,000, with Newcastle just a bus ride away, crowds of 800 were a natural limit, despite their pleas for more support. Platten believes the Board has made a brave, sensible move rather than the easy option of keep spending and worry about the overdraft later. Certainly, Spartans last published accounts showed an alarming deficit of £300,000, which is more than a season’s income. Patten hasn’t forgotten that his money previously bailed out his club last time, Understandably, he would be reluctant to flash the cash again.

Manager Alan Armstrong was unimpressed. The Spartans qualified for their first ever Step 2 Play-Offs in April. This despite no overnight stays, no club tracksuits and only a 5 a side pitch to train on, according to the manager. Armstrong resigned and took the vacant Darlington job. And then returned for 6 players. Sensing blood, other bigger local clubs started a feeding frenzy. In the end, York City gained two Spartans, happy to turn full time. Newly promoted Morpeth grabbed a Blyth regular scorer while even Consett added a Spartan to their ranks.   Only 5 Spartans remain from last season, who are believed to have all taken a pay cut.

Striker Robbie Dale is among the few seniors that remain. Robbiedineo has played for 15 seasons for the Green Army. Golden Boot, Player of the Season you name it, he’s won it. He’s even been voted #2 on the all-time list of Northern Premier League players behind a certain Jamie Vardy. Dale works in his mothers’ pub and doesn’t enjoy being recognised. That is rather unfortunate in a small town. He’s Club Captain and part of Spartans last 5 FA Cup runs.

Blyth have an influx of assorted new young players by the new manager. The not terribly well-known Newcastle Benfield FC were heavily raided. They are a Step 6 club.

Now in charge is Lee Clark, an influential player in his day, and initially sounded like a successful manager. For his first match in charge of League One Huddersfield, his side beat Hereford United 2-0 in December 2008.

“Oh, wow Lee Clark” is a common reaction. Perhaps that is no longer the case. Clark didn’t last a year at any of his previous 3 clubs. Since being sacked at Bury after just 33 games in charge, Lee Clark has been out of work for nearly two years.  During a newspaper interview in mid-2018 after 9 months out of work, Clark admitted “the longer you stay out of football, the harder it becomes.”
He has zero experience of playing or managing in the Non-League game. I suspect this is a desperation move on the part of both club and manager. Clark’s assistant is Paul Stephenson who has ten years coaching experience in the Football League but again no knowledge of the unique challenges of Non-League.

And talking of challenges, our gallant few supporters will be re-living Hereford’s longest ever competitive away match. There is a metaphorical badge of honour for making this trip, a feeling of “I was there..” Would be nice if our club could recognise the fanatics in some way who travelled to both Norfolk and Northumberland on consecutive weekends, near enough one thousand miles travelling.

Just a few pointers about the home of the Spartans for any first timers:

Croft Park has one stand with 500 seats which covers approximately 40% the length of the pitch with uncovered standing areas to either side. There is a supplement of £2 payable to sit (in addition to £12 adults. £7 seniors at the turnstile). The other three sides are covered terraces, with 8 steps on each. For obvious reasons, segregation is rarely enforced. Car parking is side streets only and lots of it.

The club bar is outside the ground and feels like a dark working mens` club. The most interesting feature of the clubhouse is the Spartan Helmet on the bar. Refreshment is limited to Carling, Fosters & John Smiths plus some bottled beers. A selection of rolls and pies are available from the clubhouse.

A catering van is situated within the ground, near the main stand and the chip shop by the away turnstiles comes recommended. There is a pub called the Masons Arms approximately 300 yards along Plessey Road. Widely reported as being welcoming but no real ale is served here. The Wallaw is the local Wetherspoons based in Union Street. This is the cultural centre of the town and the venue for a Radio Hereford live broadcast in January.

Elsewhere in the town, there is a Marina with new developments and sculptures. There is also a well-preserved World War Two Gun emplacement plus a beach with copious dunes, where allegedly dogging is a popular pastime. Let’s not pretend this is an ideal place for a tourist. Blyth is mainly a dormitory town and the name of the Spartans.

Overnight accommodation is limited in the town. There just aren’t many choices. Booking rooms in the nearby seaside town of Whitley Bay or in the City of Newcastle may tempt.

The Blyth twitter feed claims that the Spartans are “the most famous non-league football side in the world.” Now that is an ambitious claim. I guess we’ll have to grant them that accolade. No Hereford team can claim to have won the Northumberland Aged Miners Homes Cup Winners five times. Not to mention securing the Tynemouth Infirmary Cup. But seriously… I’ve always considered Blyth Spartans to be a proud old club, with passionate support. I can just about recall the year Blyth Spartans reached the FA Cup Fifth Round in 1978 when big clubs took the competition very seriously. Another claim to fame is that the Northumberland club have only ever been relegated once. I wonder whether this season could be their second? Certainly losing at home to both York City and Gloucester City plus an away defeat  to Alfreton doesn’t look good. On that happy note…

Getting There:

By Road: Oh dear 563 miles return. (NE24 3JE.) Exit A19 onto A189 (Spine Road) at the Annitsford Roundabout. After two miles exit onto the A1061 (signed A192 Seaton Delaval, Cramlington and Blyth Beach.) Follow A1061 for 3 miles and exit left onto the A193. Turn right at the second roundabout onto Plessey Road. Ground on left up a side street.

By Train: Can’t be done from the Shire in one day. Tis a mere 4 hours from London to Newcastle and then another hour by bus to Blyth.

By Minibus: Check with Reg on Hereford Awaydays Facebook page