It’s pretty special, in this day and age, for a manager to celebrate their 100th match in charge of a club. But to celebrate it managing your boyhood club in the Second Round of the FA Cup, live on BBC2? Special doesn’t quite cut it.
But Tom Wade is more than special. Guiding a Northern Premier Division side into the Third Round of the FA Cup, against all the odds, while on a hot streak in which his team has lost three times in 21 games justifies that.
As Wade keeps his feet firmly on the ground, though, the club and supporters around him continue to revel in the excitement that surrounds Croft Park.
Yet, the excitement won’t cease – not yet anyway. Spartans are bidding to reach the Fourth Round of the competition for the first time since 1978, when Wade himself was on the terraces cheering on the team he supported.
But this time, 36 years on, Wade is on the inside looking out, and the supporters sing and cheer for him.
“It’s funny, as I know most of them [the supporters],” he said, talking to Blyth’s Matchday Magazine. “I crack on with them all after the game and it’s pretty unreal actually. I’m a born and bred Blyth boy. Sometimes it’s pretty embarrassing! We went for an Indians on Saturday night and when we walked in there were some people shouting: ‘BLYTH SPARTANS!’ My lass was pretty embarrassed!
“It’s nice to be recognised sometimes in your life though so for me, it’s fantastic but a bit overpowering at times. God knows how Shearer feels!
“It’s not just me. There’s Colin Myers, who does a great job, there’s the backroom staff and then there’s the players who are obviously the main thing.”
And, when chatting to Wade, the most noticeable thing is his eagerness to praise those around him, those who have helped him to get to this position. The 56-year-old cannot talk enough about his “quality, committed” squad.
“I’ve worked with some great players. At Gateshead I had a young side with some good players, pretty similar to here, but for ability, quality, effort, attitude, commitment, desire, endeavour, this is the best [group],” Wade said, playing down his own influence.
“They’ve put a lot in. They’re good friends too. They look out for each other and I think collectively, it’s the best dressing room I’ve been in.
“I was at Benfield when we won the league and treble and it was a similar type of dressing room there, so you can feel the success. You can smell and taste it and I think they have a massive future if the club can keep them – and that’s the big ‘if’. The club needs to make sure they stay and it’s very important that they do that. If they do, we’ve got a great chance to grow in the future – in the next two or three seasons.”
It seems a having a young squad is paramount to success under Wade, and it’s something he wants to continue at Blyth Spartans. He signalled his intent to continue this during the summer when the likes of Jarrett Rivers, Ben Sayer, Dan Hawkins and Alex Nicholson were brought to the club, and the signatures of Nathan Buddle and Arran Wearmouth were secured.
And the manager makes sure he puts the time and effort into capturing his talents before they put pen to paper.
Wade said: “When we speak to players, we don’t just get them down to sign a form and come along. We bring them to the club and explain what we will be required from them. We don’t discuss money too often because we don’t have any! Well, we have a bit now! But they’ve got to show the desire to be here because if they don’t they won’t last two minutes in that changing room.
“They must fit in with the way the players conduct themselves and respect the club. They’ve also got to want to work because if they don’t, they won’t be here. That’s the way we survive as a club; by getting the right people in who graft first, put the effort in, and if they do that, we’ll win more games than we will lose.”
More recently, Wade’s concentration clearly hasn’t been distracted by the club’s famous FA Cup run too much, as he brought in young midfielder Michael Richardson in the thick of Spartans’ season.
“He’ll fit in right away because he’s a grafter,” Wade said of his new signing. “He and Ste [Turnbull], who has come back [to the club], have been absolutely outstanding. We’ve got some cracking players who will be a big part of our season and they’ve got to be able to fit in with our work ethic.”
While Wade’s focus has been shared between the Cup run and bringing in specific talent, the club’s league form hasn’t suffered. Blyth’s recent record speaks for itself. In their run of three defeats in 21 games, they have lost just once in their last nine league matches.
“The games we lost were against Frickley, where we didn’t manage to get much of a team out, Halesowen, which was the same, and Barwell away again, similar. So, we understand what a good side we are. The form is fantastic. People are panicking about the league position but if we win our games in hand we’re mid-table. Once we’re there or above, that confidence will come and we will kick on.
“If we’re good enough for the play-offs, that’s debatable, as we have played a lot of matches already this season. The depth of our squad will definitely come into play after Christmas.”
Spartans started the season slowly, but arguably needed a little time for their new collection of players to gel. Jarrett Rivers, for example, hero of Blyth’s Cup tie at Victoria Park earlier this month, started the season out the team and on the bench but has become an integral part of the side.
Ryan Hutchinson is another who began the campaign out the side – he played most of his early football this term in midfield. Since moving to the middle of the park, he’s kept Danny Parker out the side following his return from injury and has built a rock-solid defensive partnership with Nathan Buddle. Jordan Watson and Dan Hawkins deserve mentions for the way they’ve secured regular spots in the first team too.
But, arguably, the squad has taken shape and the bad form has vanished.
“I think our league’s a funny league,” said Wade. “Teams overachieve and kick-off in the first ten games and you get sides at the top who you never think would be near the top. It’s a marathon, not a sprint though, and we’ll slowly grow into it.
“If you can go to Hartlepool and win 2-1 against a pro side, turn over a Conference side 4-1, and go to top-of-the-league Skelmersdale and win 4-1, you’ve got a good side. They have just got to believe, and I think they do after [the] Hartlepool [game]. I think our young lads will kick on.
“The Cup run is a great distraction and something nobody expected. To get as far as we have is brilliant but the league is the number one thing and that’s how you get judged. We just need to keep going and play how we have been and I’m sure we’ll get in the top half.”
Wade knows Blyth need to just continue to do what they are doing on the pitch and they will climb the table in no time at all, but he feels the supporters will still play a key part.
“There’s an opportunity to get in the play-offs and we need to treat the league games like we have in the Cup. That’s how FC United do it, with their supporters driving them on, and we need ours to do the same. So don’t let it slip! There are times where we feel tired, and we know the supporters can get us through it.”
Whatever happens on the pitch, though, Blyth Spartans’ manager will always have support. He’s the fans’ boy; Blyth’s boy.