x Abu Dhabi, UAE Friday 21 July 2017

Blyth spirit will spark nostalgia

There is a certain type of FA Cup tie that is widely considered an anachronism. To the younger generation, it may appear folklore.

Blyth Spartans' Steve Carney, right, competes with Wrexham's Mike Evans, centre, and keeper Dai Davies during a fifth round replay in 1978 at St James' Park. Blyth lost 2-1 in what was their best FA Cup run.
Blyth Spartans' Steve Carney, right, competes with Wrexham's Mike Evans, centre, and keeper Dai Davies during a fifth round replay in 1978 at St James' Park. Blyth lost 2-1 in what was their best FA Cup run.

There is a certain type of FA Cup tie that is widely considered an anachronism. To the younger generation, it may appear folklore. When a lower-league club with a memorable moniker, an assortment of part-time players who experience the normality of life on Civvy Street and an utterly inhospitable venue hosts a Premier League outfit, however, it is entirely within the Cup's traditions.

Blyth Spartans and Blackburn Rovers meet tonight, separated by five divisions and much, much else. One individual contest provides a microcosm of the match. Richard Pell, Blyth's eloquent defender, may be marking Benni McCarthy. Both have endured a frustrating few months professionally: the South African was omitted repeatedly by former manager Paul Ince while Pell has been searching for a full-time post after qualifying as a physiotherapist last summer. A shortage of jobs in the National Health Service means his current, temporary employment is as a support worker in a school for children with autism. "We are all very much part-time," he said. "We have a joiner, a roofer and a couple of classroom assistants."

It goes without saying that this is the biggest game of his career. That description currently applies to an encounter with a side 91st in the Football League. He explained: "At Gainsborough Trinity, I played in the FA Cup first round twice, versus Hartlepool and Barnet, but the second round for Blyth at Bournemouth would supersede that." Yet Pell's - and Blyth's - familiarity with their lowly surroundings is an advantage. Blyth, north of Newcastle, is likely to be very cold tonight. Their ground, Croft Park, may be deemed an acquired taste.

"It is a very typical non-League ground," said Pell. "I don't want to say quaint, but it is cosy. I've been in the away changing rooms when I played against Blyth and they are very small. The facilities are basic at best. The proximity of the fans to the players will be a shock. The council maintain the ground and it's not the best. It's very sticky underfoot, a bit boggy and a bit of a leveller. It will be a massive culture shock for Blackburn."

For Sam Allardyce, the task is to avert a footballing shock. He has made an unbeaten start to life at Ewood Park, though two draws could have been converted into victories. Even without the injured duo of Roque Santa Cruz and David Dunn and the suspended pair of Andre Ooijer and Ryan Nelsen, he could field a side composed entirely of internationals. Needless to say, Blyth have none, but one name should generate recognition among the Rovers fans. Assistant manager and midfielder Graham Fenton is a former Blackburn player, perhaps best known for his influential role in Aston Villa's defeat of Manchester United in the 1994 League Cup final. "He was a little bit excited to get one of his old teams," Pell added.

Fenton is the exception in the Blyth side, as Pell accepts. While a third televised tie has accorded the club the opportunity to pay off debts, the players' motive is not purely financial. Most accept that this is a one-off. "I would be very surprised if a lot of us get the opportunity again," Pell concluded. "There is more to it than the money. There are the memories." And that, like the tie itself, sounds like a statement from another age.

rjolly@thenational.ae