Blyth Spartans have waited 44 years to avenge stardust-coated Wrexham

Wrexham’s Ryan Reynolds and Rob McElhenney add an extra layer of spice to a cup tie against Blyth Spartans which carries a lot of baggage.


This weekend the FA Cup reaches its fourth qualifying round, the last stage of the competition before EFL clubs enter.

One match stands out from all the rest. On Saturday lunchtime, Blyth Spartans of the National League North play at home against Wrexham of the National League in front of live television cameras which will broadcast globally.

This match is drawing huge attention on account of the involvement of the actors Ryan Reynolds and Rob McElhenney at Wrexham. With the documentary series charting their time at the club now streaming on Disney+, there has been considerable interest, but this weekend their club finds itself in the position of dragons to be slain – the clear favourites to beat a team playing and struggling a division below them.

But while this match will see a huge amount of publicity for Wrexham and their sprinkling of stardust, this is also a particularly big day for their hosts. This particular FA Cup draw gives Blyth a chance to right a wrong that has been festering for four and a half decades.

There’s history between these two clubs, and if revenge really is a dish best served cold then Blyth will be hoping that a chill wind blowing in off the North Sea might knock Wrexham off-course altogether.

Blyth Spartans’ run to the FA Cup fifth round in the 1977/78 season didn’t quite come from nowhere. Five years earlier they’d held Reading to a draw in the third round before losing the replay at Elm Park. But there was something about this club – their distinctive kit of green, white and black or their unusual name, perhaps – which really caught the public’s imagination, particularly in the north-east of England.

Then playing in the Northern Premier League, Blyth’s FA Cup run that season started against a humble backdrop, having to see off Shildon, Crook Town, Consett and Bishop Auckland just to get to the first round. And once they got that far, there was mixed news. The draw pitted them against another non-league team in the form of Burscough of the Cheshire League. Any disappointment at not getting a ‘big’ draw was comfortably offset by progression to the next round.

The second round draw pitted them against mid-table Third Division – now League Two – side Chesterfield, and this time there was a surprise on the cards: another 1-0 win for the Blyth and a place in the third round.

But again the draw was mixed news. Blyth were drawn at home against Enfield of the Isthmian League, but with Enfield having already beaten two league clubs – Wimbledon in the first round, in their first match at that level following election into the Football League the previous summer, and Northampton Town, to get that far. But Blyth prevailed with a third successive 1-0 win to book themselves a place in the fourth round for the first time in their history.

This time around, the draw took them to Stoke City. Stoke had been at Wembley six years earlier, winning the League Cup final against Chelsea, but they’d been relegated from the First Division at the end of the 1976/77 season and hadn’t acclimatised particularly well to life back in a lower division.

As Blyth travelled to The Victoria Ground, Stoke were 17th in the Second Division and just three points above the relegation places. Stoke were certainly nobody’s fools. Their team contained Howard Kendall, who’d won the league seven years earlier with Everton, as well as Stoke legend Terry Conroy and a young Garth Crooks. But a 3-2 win took Blyth into the fifth round.

Blyth player Terry Johnson later recounted that an attempt at gamesmanship from Kendall before the match had backfired somewhat:

“Howard Kendall came up to me and said, ‘never mind son, you’ve done really well to get this far!’ He was so bloody condescending. You should have seen his face when we got the equaliser, and when I belted in the winner I gave him the two fingers, the look on his face.”

This match was played nine days after it was originally scheduled after being called off due to a waterlogged pitch, a decision which was only taken at 1pm on the afternoon of the game itself, long after Blyth’s travelling support had left from Tyneside for the Potteries.

Those who made the trip for a second time didn’t leave disappointed, with a winning goal scored two minutes from time.

But as Blyth took to the pitch for this delayed match, they still didn’t know who their opponents might be. The draw for the fifth round had thrown up a tantalising possibility. Newcastle United and Wrexham had drawn 2-2 at St James’ Park, and the winners of the Stoke vs Blyth game would be away to them, which would make for a fascinating local derby if First Division Newcastle could win their replay against Third Division opposition. But when Blyth’s players returned to their changing room after the match they found that Wrexham had won the match 4-1. That much-desired trip to St James’ Park would have to wait.

Still though, by this time the Blyth Spartans FA Cup run had caught the imagination of the wider public and the cameras of the BBC were present and correct at The Racecourse Ground with commentator Barry Davies, to be recorded for that evening’s Match of the Day. And Wrexham were certainly to be taken seriously. They may have been in the Third Division, but they were just two points off the top of the table with several games in hand on the teams above them.

And after 12 minutes, Blyth Spartans did it again when a loose backpass from Alan Hill let in Johnson, who rolled the ball through the legs of the Wrexham goalkeeper Dai Davies to give the non-league team the lead.

It was a tense and febrile afternoon, with the noise inside the ground reaching a fever pitch in its closing stages as Wrexham poured forward in pursuit of a face-saving equaliser.

In the last minute they found one, but it came in extremely controversial circumstances. A Wrexham corner in the 89th minute was delayed after the referee became concerned at the condition of one of the corner flags, but his intervention only seemed to make matters worse. It was bad enough that the ball had quite clearly come off a Wrexham player last, meaning that it shouldn’t have been given in the first place.

The ball was swung over, and the Blyth goalkeeper punched the ball behind for another one.

Second time around the ball was easily claimed by the goalkeeper, but this time the referee spotted that the corner flag that had been troubling him a minute or two earlier had now been completely removed. With that put back in place, the corner was taken again, this time to the far post where Dixie McNeill met the ball with his head, down onto his shoulder, somehow bundling it over the line.

With seconds to spare, Wrexham had found themselves a lifeline.

By this point, interest in Blyth Spartans had reached fever pitch. No non-league team had made it to the quarter-finals of the FA Cup in the modern era, and the sixth round draw presented a home tie with Arsenal as the reward for the winners. But Blyth’s Croft Park ground was a fairly typical non-league ground for the era; it was deemed instead that the match should be switched to St James’ Park.

Few were expecting quite what happened next. The football supporting public of Tyneside threw all its weight behind Blyth Spartans. On the night of the replay the official attendance was over 42,000. There was an estimated 10,000 locked out, as well as subsequent claims that there may have been as may as 50,000 inside the ground after some gates were forced open.

For context, 29,344 people had turned out for Newcastle’s home match against Wrexham in the previous round to support their local team, but on this occasion it was to no avail.

Again, there was controversy. On an extremely heavy pitch, a debatable early penalty was awarded to Wrexham which was converted by Graham Whittle. Dixie McNeill doubled their lead on 26 minutes. Blyth were denied a penalty of their own for handball shortly before half-time.

Even though another Johnson goal scored with seven minutes left to play set up a grandstand finish, on this occasion Blyth ran out of time.

Wrexham progressed instead – they lost their quarter-final to eventual runners-up Arsenal – while Blyth Spartans were left to rue what might easily have been. It wouldn’t be until the 2016/17 season that Lincoln City would finally become the first non-league club in over 100 years to reach the quarter-finals of the FA Cup.

It can hardly be said that Blyth’s players didn’t benefit from this run. Their part-time players were on a reported wage of £7 a week, but they were gifted hundreds of pounds worth of furniture afterwards by a local company. Two of their players, Steve Carney and coalminer Alan Shoulder, earned full-time contracts at Newcastle United. Newcastle paid £20,000 for Shoulder, who made 107 appearances and scored 35 goals for them; he went on to enjoy a full decade of  career as a professional player.

Reynolds and McElhenney have already stated that they would like to take Wrexham to the Premier League – an… interesting sentiment, and one that with the best will in the world could only at best be years and years away. But 35 years of automatic promotion and relegation between the Football League and the non-league game have blurred the lines between ‘league’ and ‘non-league’ somewhat, and on Saturday lunchtime, they will at least get a taste of what it feels like to be the bigger club playing determined opposition with a point to prove.

Blyth Spartans have been waiting long enough for revenge. Their visitors will be hoping that there is no fairytale ending waiting around the corner this time.

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