With a £4,000 carrot being dangled in front of their noses and a chance to be in the first round draw of the F.A. Trophy on Monday this was an extremely important game for Blyth Spartans F.C.
On occasions like these the performance is secondary to the result and Mick Tait would have taken a victory by hook or by crook prior to kick off, or should that be by Hooks or by crook?
For it was Neal Hooks with five minutes to spare who ensured the home side’s progression and prevented the long journey to Staffordshire on Tuesday night.
Played on a heavy surface and in the midst of a downpour, 391 hardy souls were rewarded for their patience as late drama prevailed in a game which otherwise produced very little.
Blyth had the first chance of the game when Michael Tait’s shot was flicked on by John Alexander but the striker’s intervention took the sting out of the effort and it failed to trouble the Stafford Rangers goalkeeper.
Rangers have two former internationals at their helm in the shape of Tim Flowers and Matty Elliot as Manager and Assistant respectively and the latter would have certainly appreciated his side’s physical approach to the opening stages. When a late tackle from Levi Reid on Robbie Dale went unpunished by referee Mr Backhouse the home support were particularly vociferous in their appeals for action to be taken. When the man in black refused to whistle for subsequent infringements on Blyth players the Croft Park faithful became increasingly frustrated at the official’s inability to stamp his authority on the game.
On a lighter note the crowd saw the funny side and almost an opener when Stafford goalkeeper Lee Evans miss-hit a clearance from a back pass, with the ball looping comically over his own head. He managed to regain composure and eventually clear the ball to safety with Nicky Deverdics in hot pursuit.
Without the creative input of Messrs Brayson and Turnbull, both sidelined for this fixture, Blyth struggled to fashion any clear cut chances in the opening period.
The trickery of O’Mahoney had Stafford defenders back pedalling when he made a strong run from the half way line and supplied Alexander who’s lofted effort drifted over the cross bar.
Alexander threatened again after receiving a pass from Dale, he drove in to the box but his goal bound shot was blocked by Stafford’s Seb Harris.
The best chance of the half fell to the visitors when Levi Reid connected with a cross from Fabrice Kasiama but saw his header claimed at the second attempt by Mark Gillespie.
Blyth centre half and captain for the day, Wayne Buchanan rose to meet a cross from Nicky Deverdics but his header failed to hit the target and the referee brought an end to a half of football which will not live long in the memory.
Mick Tait’s threadbare squad took another blow after the restart with Alexander limping off to be replaced by Callum Morris.
Things could have looked even bleaker for Spartans moments later if it wasn’t for the experience of Swailes who sensed danger and positioned himself on the goal-line to head clear from a Ben Mills strike.
The game then began to look more like a cup-tie with an ebb and flow which had been absent from the contest for 70 minutes.
Deverdics somehow prevented a clearance from going out of play and cleverly flicked the ball on to O’Mahoney, who had his initial shot blocked and his follow-up tipped over by Evans.
O’Mahoney then added his name to the injury list on 75 minutes and was replaced by debutant Kris Wilkinson.
Gillespie was brave in punching a cross in a crowded area and took a knock for his troubles but was soon up on his feet to save from Mills.
The breakthrough eventually came for Blyth when Dale set up Hooks with a low cross who then delivered the punch-line for Evans when his hard shot flew past the goalkeeper in to the net. The relief was evident all around Croft Park but there was still time for further incident in what had become a gripping cup-tie.
Stafford captain Craig McAughtrie forced Gillespie in to a fine save from close range. Blyth then exploited their opponents on the counter attack with Robert Dale, through on goal being fouled by Martyn Naylor who then appeared to stamp on the Spartans player. After much deliberating by the referee and pleads of innocence from the Rangers players he produced the red card.
Another win, a place in the 1st round proper and a timely cash injection will be warmly welcomed by all at Croft Park but it’s yet to be seen whether Blyth’s wafer thin squad can cope with their latest injury problems.
After Blyth’s clash at home to North Shields in the Northumberland Senior Cup on Tuesday they make the trip to Lincolnshire to face Gainsborough Trinity on Saturday.
Blyth Spartans: Gillespie, Groves, Swailes, Buchanan, Cave, O’Mahoney (Wilkinson), Hooks, Tait, Dale, Deverdics, Alexander (Morris).
Stafford Rangers: Evans, Naylor, McAughtrie, Harris, Mcdonald, Francis (Sterling), Davidson, Reid, Kasiama (Wellecome), Mills Clarke.
Ref: Mr Backhouse.