Following a season of agony for supporters of Blyth Spartans, their team finally gave them something to sing about – in the penultimate game – with a scintillating first half performance at the Greene King Stadium on Saturday.
Hinckley United may have worn a blue and red kit not too dissimilar to that of Barcelona but it was the visitors who resembled the boys from the Camp Nou with their style of play during the opening 45 minutes.
Spartans found themselves 3-0 up before the interval thanks to strikes from Robert Dale, Joe Kendrick and Dan Groves with the Knitters scoring a late consolation through substitute Craig Farrell in front of a crowd of 624.
Tommy Cassidy’s relegated side produced their best football of the entire season in Leicestershire – which left many wondering why they had failed to show such guile, class and ruthlessness before it was too late.
At the heart of things for Spartans, who else but the irrepressible Dale, whose afternoon was unfortunately cut short on 55 minutes when he was forced out of the game with a head injury.
After losing their talisman, Spartans never regained the attacking flair they had displayed so fluently before the break but managed to see out the game in comfortable fashion for only their second league win on their travels this season.
The warning signs were there for the hosts after just nine minutes when a short corner from Kendrick found Wayne Phillips with time and space, allowing the winger to drive into the area before unleashing a powerful shot which was palmed away by Dan Haystead.
Blyth’s first goal on 14 minutes was both incisive and clinical.
A deep ball by Phillips was headed down by Glen Taylor and Dale did the rest with an emphatic first time finish from just inside the area for his 99th goal in a Spartans shirt.
Taylor then almost doubled his side’s lead when he latched on to a long ball from Kendrick but couldn’t keep his effort down from 20 yards.
Taylor had another chance moments later when he received the ball after a mesmerising run from Dale but failed to connect properly with the shot.
In a carbon-copy build up to their first goal, Blyth’s second arrived just before the half hour mark when another deep cross from Phillips was nodded down by Taylor and this time Kendrick stormed in to fire home from close range.
Hinckley – a side still very much in a dogfight at the bottom of the table – looked nervous and uncomfortable in front of a large home support which was in contrast to free-flowing Spartans – whose shackles were broken two weeks ago when relegation was confirmed.
And relentless pressure from Spartans showed no signs of subsiding as Kendrick almost scored his second in as many minutes but couldn’t quite connect with a free-kick into the area from Dale.
The travelling supporters didn’t have to wait too long to see their side score a third after another breathtaking passage of play on 37 minutes.
Taylor found Dale on the wing, whose defence splitting pass through the middle was simply sublime, and not to be outdone by his fellow full-back – Kendrick – it was Groves who raced onto the ball to fire past Haystead to effectively kill off the contest before half time.
Hinckley managed their first shot on target on 40 minutes but Omar Bogle’s effort was comfortably saved by the underworked David Knight.
What had seemed like a slight breeze in the first half had developed into a strong wind by the start of the second period and it was Spartans who would play against this for the remainder of the contest.
This coupled with Dale’s departure through injury ten minutes after the break saw the visitors pose less of an attacking threat but great efforts at the other end must also be recognised for limiting the hosts to very few chances.
The central defensive partnership of Wayne Buchanan and Carl Jones stood firm and were also helped by a dogged display by the midfield trio of Richie Slaughter, Sam Hodgson and Neal Hooks.
Hinckley substitute Tom Byrne fired over from the edge of the area before Knight tipped a dangerous corner from Lloyd Kerry over the crossbar.
The Blyth goalkeeper then spilled a shot from Sam Belcher before reacting brilliantly to save at the feet of Bogle.
Knight was finally beaten four minutes from time when Farrell turned sharply on the edge of the area before firing his shot into the bottom corner of the net.
It proved too little, too late for the Knitters to stage a dramatic late comeback and there is a chance the two sides could meet again next season in the Evo-stik Premier Division, with the result leaving Hinckley a place above Spartans in the relegation zone.
On Saturday Spartans will bid farewell to the Blue Square Bet North when they welcome Nuneaton Town to Croft Park and a repeat of this performance is sure to see them bow out in some style against the play-off hopefuls.
Hinckley United: Haystead, Newton, Flanagan (Gooding), Bragoli (Farrell), Lister, Richards-Everton, Kerry, Belcher, Bogle, Clarke (Byrne), Dudley
Blyth Spartans: Knight, Groves, Kendrick, Hodgson, Jones, Buchanan, Slaughter, Hooks, Taylor (Armstrong), Dale (Utterson), Phillips
Referee: Mathew Bristow.