The Run of a lifetime: The story of Blyth Spartans’ history in the FA Cup

Blyth Spartans and Curzon Ashton walk out to Croft Park ahead of their league game on Good Friday 2024. (Credit: Andrew Beharie)

Blyth Spartans and the Emirates FA Cup. It’s a love affair that has been well-documented in English football.

Prior to the 1970s, Blyth had been known as a very small Northumbrian mining town, who had very little influence in the footballing world. But that was soon to change.

It all started in the 1971-72 season, where a Spartans side led by soon-to-be New Zealand manager Allan Jones made it all the way to third round of the FA Cup, frustrating Reading 2-2 at home before losing 6-1 to the Royals in the replay.

That looked to be the best chance of making it in the big time for the Green Army. It looked as though it would take another generation at least to get back to that position. Six years later, they managed to better it, and former club secretary and honorary life member George Watson described the full emotions of 1978 with me in an exclusive interview:

The run was almost over before as after dispatching Shildon 3-0 in the first qualifying round, Blyth were seconds away from being knocked out away to Crook Town but managed to scramble home a last-gasp equaliser to take the tie to a replay, before easily seeing off the Durham-based outfit 3-0 at Croft Park to progress.

Spartans then saw off Consett and Bishop Auckland to reach the first round proper, where they defeated part-timers Burscough 1-0 to set up a tie with Chesterfield at Croft Park in round 2, their first tie against a league side thus far, but not out of the realms of experience, having beaten Crewe Alexandra and Stockport County in the 1972 run.

Blyth again came out victorious, 1-0 yet again, to record their joint-best ever performance in the club’s history in the competition. Only two Non-League outfits remained in the competition at this point, Enfield and Blyth Spartans. As luck would have it, the two would face off against each other in round three at Croft Park, a bittersweet draw in the eyes of every Blyth fan.

FA Cup Fifth Round Replay between Blyth Spartans and Wrexham in 1978 (Credit: PA Images/Alamy)

A scoreline synonymous with this run was at it again. 1-0 to Blyth Spartans. The Green Army were now in the fourth round for the first time ever. Cup fever had started to hit the streets of Northumberland.

The luck of the draw sent Spartans to their hardest venture yet, a trip to Second Division side Stoke City. To make matters worse for Blyth, the tie was called off twice due to bad weather, leading to the club being stranded in hotels on the days of the original ties.

The tie was eventually played on February 6, 1978, and it is a day that has become one of, if not the most famous day in the history of Blyth Spartans AFC. 2-1 down with just 10 minutes to play, Blyth rallied to inflict one of the biggest shocks in FA Cup history, a 3-2 victory, with Terry Johnson bagging the winner.

The draw for the fifth round had been made prior to the fourth-round ties being played, with a trip to Newcastle United on the cards for the winner, once they had taken care of Wrexham on the same night. Newcastle proceeded to get humiliated 4-1 in the replay, leaving Blyth to take on the Welsh side.

But the Green Army’s luck ran out in round five, as a corner was controversially taken three times for a fallen corner flag before being forced home in the final minute in Wales to force a replay. A tie with Arsenal at home awaited the winners, but Wrexham made their experience count in front of 42,000 fans at St. James’ Park to take a 2-0 lead after 20 minutes. Johnson pulled one back, but Spartans couldn’t find an equaliser. The historic run was over.

Blyth did get revenge months later by winning the Debenhams Cup against Wrexham at the end of the season to complete the one of the greatest campaigns by Non-League outfit in football history.

Nowadays, the run still holds its legacy across the North-East, and the club have been back to the third round of the FA Cup since, reaching that stage of the competition in 2009 and, most recently, 2015, being knocked out by Blackburn Rovers and Birmingham City respectively.

Blyth Spartans fans shield their eyes from the sun during the FA Cup Third Round match at Croft Park against Birmingham City. (Credit: PA Images/Alamy)

Former Blyth head of media, and North-East reporter, Mark Carruthers said: “The FA Cup will always hold a special place in the heart of any Blyth Spartans supporter and the town as a whole.  Obviously people focus on the 1978 run and that is perfectly understandable – but the club and the town’s love affair with the competition was already firmly in place before then.  But it would be safe to say the FA Cup has played a significant role in making Spartans one of the best-known non-league clubs in the country and the club probably receive a lot of warmth from supporters elsewhere because of their achievements.

I think the chances of seeing a Spartans, Maidstone or any non-league club reaching that stage of the competition on a regular basis will be greatly reduced because of the widening gap between those at the top end of the game and the rest of us.  At times it feels like the elite are simply pulling up the ladder on everyone else and there is little care given for clubs in the EFL or the non-league game.  The FA Cup, as a result, has become a far poorer competition for that and the clubs beneath the elite are the ones that will suffer.”

Will we ever see a run like this from Blyth ever again? Who knows, but the fact it happened is something that will be cherished by the town forever.