Fans of the Premier League & Championship clubs often complain about the kick off times when there clubs are featured in live games but many of these clubs rely on the massive fees they receive from the broadcasters and should be thankful for the income and coverage.
Non League clubs outside the Conference Premier (who have up to 30 games shown live by Premier Sports) rely on one competition alone to feature on TV, that being the FA Cup however thousands of Non League clubs don’t even make it through to the latter stages of the competition to be in with a chance of some or any TV coverage.
Currently TV rights to the competition are shared between ITV & ESPN, with the former taking over from the ill-fated Irish sports broadcaster Setanta Sports GB who went bust in June 2009.
While many viewers lost out when Setanta went bust disappearing from their screens after paying for channels and were rightly not very happy, however you would be hard pushed to find a Blyth Spartans fan who would have a bad word to say against Setanta Sports thanks to the events of winter 2008.
It all seems such a long time ago now, but back in the dark dreary winter months of 2008 Blyth Spartans we once again the darlings of the local TV companies thanks to another epic FA Cup run that had taken them all the way from a 2nd Qualifying Round tie away at Whitby Town to a 3rd Round Proper tie at home to Premier League Blackburn Rovers, BBC North East & ITV Tyne Tees were reporting on anything and everything connected to the club & the town in respect to it’s latest cup run.
However more significantly this time around, regional broadcasters were not the only TV Company filling Croft Park with cables & cameras, Blyth Spartans AFC had effectively become the adopted club of Irish broadcasters Setanta Sports.
Setanta Sports had taken a foothold in the lucrative live football market dominated by Sky Sports and won the rights to broadcast FA Cup games live games from Sky Sports themselves and were showing the earlier rounds with live games from the 1st Round onwards.
Blyth had pulled off the shock of the 1st Round when they beat high-flying League Two side Shrewsbury Town 3-1 at Croft Park, the game had been picked as one of the extended highlight games by ITV which resulted in the kick off being brought forward to 2.30pm to allow for day light aiding the camera men as they were concerned about the quality of Croft Parks’ floodlights if it had been a dark murky day. The game was played to the backdrop of massive articulated outside broadcast lorries parked up inside the ground and several TV gantries hastily erected around the ground, with a large gantry built inside the Federation Brewery Stand for the commentary team.
Blyth officials and supporters reveled in the clubs latest giant killing but more so in the national TV coverage and associated financial windfall that the extended highlights brought the club as being a featured game brought more from the FA’s TV broadcast fees.
The day after the game manager Harry Dunn & some of his players were then filmed in his local pub while they watched the 2nd Round draw live on ITV, mixed emotions ruled as Blyth were handed a mammoth 776 mile round trip to take on struggling Division Two side AFC Bournemouth.
The historic events that were to take place over the next 3 months on the coasts of Dorset & Northumberland would live with the club and its fans for years but could all be traced back to a random Thursday night in Metropolitan Borough of Tameside in Greater Manchester back in October 2007.
In 2007/2008 the clubs in the Conference Premier/North & South took part in the Setanta Shield, which was a League Cup for the Divisions at steps 1&2 of the English Football League System formerly known as the Bob Lord Trophy the competition had been held for 22 seasons since 1979/80 before being axed in 2000/01 season.
It was briefly reformed for 2004/05 as the Conference Challenge Cup but following an unfavorable response from clubs it was again scrapped. With the transfer of the leagues sponsorship to betting company Blue Square for the 2007/2008 season the cup was once again revived with Setanta Sports becoming the sponsors.
Plans were put in place to show some games live on their new sports channel which was showing live games from the Conference Premier.
It was thought the games shown would only feature clubs from the top division as the broadcasters had filming requirements that all the top division clubs had in place due to their league games being broadcast live, however that wasn’t to be the case thanks to some persistent fans of one club.
Blyth were drawn away to Stalybridge Celtic in the 1st Round of the Setanta Shield and the game was penned in for Celtic’s normal midweek night, however a number of Celtic fans decided to flood Setanta with requests to pick the game as the scheduled live game from that round stating the club could meet the broadcasting requirements and both clubs had real history in cup competitions and would give a suitable spectacle for their viewers.
There efforts paid off and the game was moved to Thursday 25th October for the benefit of being shown live, with few having the channel in their satellite package those days the Croft Park social club installed the channel and showed the game on their big screen to a packed clubhouse.
The events of that night undoubtedly had a baring on Setanta when it came to choosing which FA Cup 2nd Round game it was to show live in November 2008.
The game ended 0-0 after extra time and went to penalties which Blyth won in dramatic fashion when goalkeeper Adam Bartlett stepped up to take Blyth’s final kick only to see it saved however he then won the tie by saving the next Celtic penalty kick, queue wild scenes of joy by the traveling Blyth fans and players.
It was the first time the club had featured in a game broadcast live, little did then know then that the events of that night would become only a tastier for what was to happen over a year later.
Prior to that night in October 2007, Blyth’s main TV coverage had been on Saturday 18th February 1978 when Match of The Day had the famous Wrexham FA Cup 5th Round tie as the feature game that nights show.
Over the years the club had featured fleetingly on MOTD FA Cup highlight shows due to 1st Round appearances most notably in November 1995 earning slightly more air time with another famous giant killing at Bury and again November 1997 when MOTD showed extended highlights of our dramatic 4-3 defeat at Blackpool and Gustavo di Lella’s stunning goal even made the November goal of the month competition: blythspartansafc.co.uk/new_php/?p=3958
But excluding those notable exceptions it was mostly down to local regional show covering the late stages of the cup when reporters would attend final qualifying round games and run features before and after the games. So when Setanta announced it was to show the 2nd Round tie from Bournemouth live they clearly sensed an upset on the cards and Blyth were suddenly in line for TV fee bonus of £80,000 just for appearing live. All of a sudden fans became aware of the FA’s broadcasting fees and how they increased even radio coverage of games were bringing in varying fees depending on amount of coverage they broadcast.
However it was tempered upon realisation that the designated time for Setanta’s FA Cup games was Friday night or a Monday night !. The Friday night option was removed when Setanta showed Barrow’s 2-1 defeat of Brentford live but worryingly the Monday night option was becoming a stark reality.
Bizarrely that date of tie all depended on the outcome of a Tottenham Hotspur v. Liverpool Carling Cup game!.
If Liverpool beat Spurs then their scheduled live Monday Sky Sports game at home to West Ham would have not take place because the Carling Cup 5th Round was due to be played on the Tuesday/Wednesday night of that week so they couldn’t play on the Monday night giving Setanta a free slot to fill with the Bournemouth v. Blyth game.
Suddenly Blyth fans were aware of the situation fans of professional clubs complain about, being at the hands of a TV schedule and helpless to do anything about it because their successful club has effectively become the property of a TV broadcaster. The prospect of Blyth fans now having to travel to and from the South Coast of England for an 8pm Monday night live game was becoming a stark reality for Blyth Spartans fans.
Fortunately Spurs beat Liverpool 4-2 to seal a Carling Cup 5th Round at Watford on Wednesday 3rd December, and therefore allowing Liverpool to play West Ham at Anfield on Monday 1st December live on the usual Monday Night Sky slot in turning Setanta announced the Bournemouth v. Blyth game would fill the Saturday 29th November in the evening slot kicking off at 5.30pm.
It had been a worrying time for Blyth fans with the biggest game in the clubs recent history hanging in the balance due to the demands of broadcasters but the new date and kick off time worked to their advantage giving them almost a whole day to get to the south coast, and as result nearly 400 made the journey in what was a Northumbrian remake of Hollywood’s classic movie Planes, Train & Automobiles.
Some flew from Newcastle to Bristol then hired transport and drove to the coast, some drove to Glasgow then flew to Bournemouth, some drove to Edinburgh and then flew to Bournemouth (supporters even hired a coach themselves to get people up to Edinburgh), some drove all the way, some navigated the country on the rail network and some even traveled the entire journey on a coach !
Setanta certainly got there money’s worth out of their giant killers, filming the team arriving in the hotel and even staged & filmed Harry Dunn on a morning of the game walking on Bournemouth beach!.
Despite the highly impressive Dean Court Stadium having been redeveloped over the recent years one end was awaiting a stand so once again the game was played with the back drop of outside broadcasting lorries.
Of course we all know of the heroic events of the game ensured Blyth earned there replay and of course Setanta quickly announced it would show the replay live when the 3rd Round draw give the winners a home tie with Premier League Blackburn Rovers.
The broadcasting money was seriously starting to stack up with another £40,000 due to both clubs for the replay, so far Blyth club had earned a staggering £127,500 from TV broadcasts alone (£7,500 for Shrewsbury highlights, £80,000 for 1st Bournemouth game & £40,000 for the replay) add into that both the Bournemouth games were broadcast live on the radio bringing in another £18,000 !.
The replay was finally scheduled for Tuesday 16th December, allowing the Setanta to erect even more TV gantries around Croft Park. With temperatures plummeting forcing the Conference North game due to be played on the day the replay tickets went of sale to be postponed, as some clubs officials fought off the queues of fans wanting tickets others fought to defrost the pitch to no avail, so to make sure the weather didn’t scupper the well laid plans for the replay proper frost covers were brought in to cover the Croft Park pitch before the game.
The stakes were raised even higher when it was announced the winners of the tie (who were entitled to £30,000 a prize fund) would have the Blackburn Rovers tie broadcast live on Setanta which would then earn a staggering £160,000 broadcasting fee alone!.
Suddenly the winners of the replay were facing winners pot approaching £250,000 with all the TV, Radio & prize money.
See the goal here (jump to 0.33 seconds for Ged Dalton’s goal):
Setanta’s reporter Rebecca Lowe (and her now familiar white hat) had become a regular face in and around Croft park and around the team, interviewing Mark Bell & Richard Pell on the pitch at Dean Court after the draw and then attempting to interview the players in the dressing room after the dramatic replay victory.
With the Blackburn game was set for Monday 5th January it was 3 weeks of euphoria ahead of the clubs biggest game in their history. With the game due for the Monday the other 3rd Round ties took place on the Saturday & Sunday and the 4th Round draw was made on the Sunday tea time putting Blyth Spartans AFC into an FA Cup 4th Round draw for the 1st time since 1978, and as if the events could take another twist the winners of the tie were drawn away to Sunderland !.
Sales of ticket for the All Ticket game had to be organised, with Blyth fans from all over the country desperate for a ticket, the club made sure all those fans who deserved a ticket got one, as the demand out far out weighed capacity, it wasn’t helped when Blackburn failed to sell their allocation but due to safety & segregation requirements they still had the entire Plessey Road ‘away end’ allocated to them.
Croft Park club officials were inundated with well-known local companies enquiring about advertising opportunities around the ground with some hoardings earning thousands from the likes of Northern Rock & Northumbrian Water.
When the big day arrived the media attention went thought the roof as all major papers sent reporters to Croft Park to cover the game, The Telegraphs’ well renowned footballer writer Henry Winter even made the trip north to be squeezed into the extended media box:
There were so many freelance photographers the club turned the area of the Social club, which is normally the place of the pool table, into a media centre with reporters & photographers lined up at makeshift desk with Laptops and the likes filing their reports in time for the morning papers.
With the much-maligned former Newcastle manager Sam Allardyce having been appointed at Ewood Park since the draw was made the media interest intensified as even more TV gantries & camera points were erected around the ground.
Local regional TV shows had OB crews & reporters filming fans outside pubs near Croft Park and also filming those unlucky enough to get tickets and packing into near by social clubs & pubs to watch the game on big screens. The game was even broadcasts live on Radio 5 Live with Chris Waddle co commentating live from the game.
In total £169,000 was due from the FA Broadcast fund, £160,000 for live TV coverage & £9,000 for the live radio coverage !.
As for the game itself it unfortunately brought an end to another epic cup run the club is so famous for as a team packed with International players scrapped a narrow 0-1 victory, with the gallant Spartans coming agonisingly close to snatching what would have been a fully deserved draw & resulting replay at Ewood Park and of course the possibility of yet another live game.
Blyth bowed out but had once again won many accolades for there Cup exploits but inevitably had to get back to the nitty gritting of Conference North life and addressing the league form that had suffered so badly such had been the importance put on keeping players fit or suspension free for the important cup ties.
After all the segregated & all ticket games a relatively sparse but in context of Blyth’s league attendances healthy crowd of 651 turned up for the next home game to see Blyth finally win a league game for the 1st time since 2nd September.
It had been a whirlwind 3 months were the club was plunged into the lime light on an unprecedented scale even by Blyth’s famed Cup past.
It was a glimpse of a world professional clubs live in, with club officials who themselves had their own 9-5 jobs to tackle before dealing with and organising media requirements, policing & safety requirements on a scale Non League clubs could barely imagine.
Club officials at all levels of the game get flack from the supporters but the way the Blyth’s club officials organised and handled all the demands thrown at them over the last 3 months won praise from the FA, local authorities & Setanta themselves.
The involvement of Setanta Sports had brought the club a very welcome but unexpected windfall, however come June of 2009 their fortunes couldn’t have been more different.
Setanta Sports GB had been experiencing financial difficulties and pulled the plug on their channels and disappeared for our screens going into administration on 22nd June 2009, while thanks to their involvement Blyth Spartans AFC were in the process of building a new stand behind the goal Ged Dalton had famously scored in.
Importantly it proved justification for the Chairman & Vice Chairman who had almost rebuilt Croft Park and club since taking control back in the summer of 2001.
The financial windfall allowed them to finally pay off the remaining monies owed after they had led a group of local business in saving the club from a being wound up over unpaid tax bills, making a gasp drive to the local tax office to personally pay off an outstanding bill with only 10 minutes to spare and in doing so avoid the club being wound up by the Inland Revenue.
As they say it’s a funny old game fortunes can change in the blink of an eye or…
……a well-timed flick of Ged Dalton’s right boot !.