2014 saw the 125th Anniversary of the world’s second oldest football league:
The Northern League.
A commemorative book was launched there was exhibitions, a celebratory dinner, but to mark 125 years to the exact day that the league was formed in the Brown’s Hotel in Durham City, a team consisting of the league’s best current crop of players took on an FA Representative XI.
While Blyth Spartans may left the Northern League some 20 years ago seeking new challenges, having been members of the league for 30 seasons winning the title 10 times in the process (still to this day Blyth remain the last unbeaten Champions) and having hosted the league’s Centenary game back in May 1989 the fact the club played some part in the celebrations was only fitting.
However the part the club played was to supply 7 players for the FA Representative XI, which in itself was a huge credit to the club.
The Spartans 7: Left to Right:
Lewis Horner, Nathan Buddle, Danny Parker, Connor Grant, Daniel Maguire, Matthew Wade, Arran Wearmouth.
Far right is Paul Fairclough manager of the England C side who managed the FA side on the night.
To receive FA recognition was great reward for the players but being against the Northern League XI in that celebration game it took the club full circle back to being the only Northern League club that supplied players to the very first England Semi Professional team.
2 years after the abolition of the amateur status in 1974 the FA set up an Ad Hoc Committee upon the request of the Emergency Committee of the FA to organise the re-introduction of certain FA XI Representative games against the Services, Universities and other organisations that had played in some of the many games against the old FA Amateur XI sides. The 1st of these games took place in January 1976 against a Royal Air Force XI at Wealdstone which the FA XI won 2-1, the next game in March 76’ took place at York City’s Bootham Cresent against a Universities Athletic Union XI and Spartans right back John Waterson played in the 1-0 victory.
But it was the make up of that FA XI that was far more interesting the starting eleven included 2 players who within a couple of years became John’s teammates in that famous cup run side, North Shields midfielder Keith Houghton and Bishop Auckland forward Alan Shoulder.
However 3 other names stand out, the Boston United player manager Howard Wilkinson, who would later go on to manager the England C side, Under 21 & have 2 spells as caretaker of the England full side. The 2 other are very notable and all together stranger for their inclusion in a FA XI side that was supposedly for Non League footballers, they were World Cup winners Nobby Stiles & Bobby Charlton. Neither were still playing at the time having been Manager & Assistant at Preston North End earlier that season. Stiles returned to Preston NE as manager having initially resigned in support of Charlton when he quit over the John Bird transfer to Newcastle United saga.
John was again called into the FA XI side for the following years York fixture against Universities Athletic Union and once again lined up along side Bobby Charlton in the 2-2 draw, although this time ‘R.Charlton’ was officially as ‘guest’ player.
The FA XI representative fixtures continued up and down the country just as they had for the original FA XI Amateur side before 1974 but with no international recognition available for the top Non League players the games carried little importance other than giving the players recognition for the performances, unlike the old FA XI Amateur team that represented the county at the Olympics !.
In the 70’s the FA XI team’s weren’t the only Representative games a player could get selected for, Rothmans groundbreaking sponsorship deal with Non League football had led to sponsored leagues, an Inter-League Challenge competition and in 1978 they organised a Rothmans Tour, taken a nationally selected squad to the Canary Islands.
No Blyth players featured in the first tour but the party did include 3 Northern League players Spennymoor’s Dave Curry, Tow Law’s Fred Hissett and Bishop Auckland’s Alan Shoulder who played in all 4 games and scored twice in the 6-3 win over a Las Palmas Under 23 side.
The following year a Spartan did make the squad when Dave Clarke was called up along with Brandon United’s Colin Hammond & Tommy Holden as well as Derek Hampton from Whitby, Clarke played in the 2-1 victory over Tenerife and the 0-1 defeat to Las Palmas.
While Clarke’s performances for the Spartans earned him a somewhat exotic reward to play for a representative side his trip to the Canaries is somewhat local compared to the reward bestowed upon midfielder Mick Dagless for his efforts in the clubs historic 1973/74 season. Mick was selected in the Middlesex Wanderers squad for their summer tour of Malaysia!.
- The Middlesex Wanderers were formed in 1905 by brothers Bob and Horace Alaway to provide recognition to those players deserving of such,
whom, through differing circumstances, may well not have been given national recognition, tours to more than forty countries with the vision of establishing a touring football club to promote goodwill through the “beautiful game” to some countries in Europe.
- As standards improved in Europe the Wanderers looked further afield and toured in the Caribbean and Africa in the 60s and 70s. More recently they have visited Vietnam, Burma and The Gambia, the players are selected from senior non-league clubs and it’s viewed as a considerable honour to tour the far-flung corners of the world playing for the Wanderers.
8 Blyth Spartans players have been selected to tour with Middlesex Wanderers: –
– Mick Dagless toured Malaysia in May/June 1975. –
– John Waterson captained the touring party for South Korea in the September 1977.
– Dave Clarke went to Malaysia and Singapore in May 1979.
– Tommy Dixon was on the August/September 1983 tour to Bangladesh.
– Bobby Scaife traveled to Indonesia in May 1984.
– Peter Cartwright went to Indonesia in April 1985 and the Netherlands in May 1986.
– Paul Walker was on the tour to Indonesia in May/June 1988
and as recently as 2007 Robbie Dale was selected for the tour of Tanzania.
By 1978 the countless FA XI fixtures had began to lose their appeal and without a purpose clubs weren’t keen on sending players to take part in extra games which many considered of little importance, so by the summer of 1978 plans were already in place for an International Tournament for which an England Semi Professional team was required and give the FA XI’s some importance.
The news pleased many important figures who worked hard to keep the Non league game going strong, the FA Non League Football Annual edited by the influential Non League figure Tony Williams stated:
“The gap between the glamorous but at times rather unreal ‘amateur’ days has been bridged, and hopefully we can look forward to a new and exciting English International squad representing their country with distinction at Semi Professional level for years to come”
Howard Wilkinson was now part of Ron Greenwood’s backroom team and he was appointed manager of the Semi Pro team and aided by his assistant Keith Wright they tasked regional coaches to ‘produce a team worthy of representing it’s country’.
The selection process for the inaugural Semi Pro squad was aided by the new
O.C.S Inter-League Cup (Office Cleaning Services), the Cup saw the Northern League play the Northern Premier League at the Brewery Field, Spennymoor on Monday 23rd April,
the NPL won 2-1 after extra time having come from 0-1 down.
The Spartans had 3 players in the side, Dave Clarke, Tommy Dixon & Les Mutrie.
The Southern League beat the Berger Isthmian League 3-0 in the other game to set up a Final at Huish, Yeovil on 13th May which the Southern League won 1-0.
When the final squad selection came around it was a genuine surprise that neither Dave Clarke nor Tommy Dixon made it into the final 18 man squad, Clarke especially was a shock omission he was widely regarded as the ‘finest’ keeper outside the professional game and had already been awarded Player of the Year for his part in the famous 1977/78 season.
Tommy Dixon could count himself extremely unfortunate to never get the call up as a lynchpin in the highly successful Blyth side of the 70’s he featured in every single FA XI game against the Northern League but surprisingly never call the cap he deserved. Forward Les Mutrie did make the squad and there was a surprise inclusion for Spartans midfielder Keith Houghton who hadn’t featured in any of the selection games. The squad had training games victories over Barton Rovers, Moor Green & Telford United before their opening game of the tournament on 31st May against Scotland at Stafford Rangers.
The first Four National Semi Professional Tournament was staged from May 31st – June 2nd at Northwich and Stafford and featured Italy Serie C
U-21, Netherlands Amateurs and Scotland Semi-Pro. England’s first game was on 31st May when they beat the old enemy Scotland 5-1, Les Mutrie & Keith Houghton both started. Mutrie had the honour of scoring on his debut for England after a poor clearance from the Scottish keeper was swifted dispatched.
The England team for that historic game was: Jim Armold (Stafford Rangers), Brian Thompson (Yeovil Town), John Davidson (Altrincham), Dave Adamson (Boston United), Trevor Peake (Nuneaton Borough), Tony Jennings (Enfield), Eamon O’Keefe (Mossley), Brendan Phillips (Nuneaton Borough), Les Mutrie (Blyth Spartans), Keith Houghton (Blyth Spartans), Barry Whitbread (Runcorn).
Subs: Gordon Simmonite (Boston United) on for Thompson, John Watson (Wealdsone) on for Houghton.
The Final played Stafford Rangers on 3rd June and pitted England against Holland’s all Amateur team who had beaten a volatile Italy Under 21 team 3-0 in the other Semi Final which saw 2 Italians sent off.
In a close Final England won 1-0 thanks to a Eamonn O’Keefe header from a corner in the 75th minute sealed the trophy which was presented by the Chairman of the FA Representative Match Committee Barney Mulrenan to captain Tony Jennings, with all the players having exchanged shirts at the end of the Final Jennings lifted England’s 1st Semi Pro trophy in a Holland shirt!.
Keith Houghton didn’t play in the Final losing his place to John Watson who had replaced him in the Semi Final, that was the only change between the 2 sides Howard Wilkinson fielded. The whole fortnight had been a roaring success and FA’s Administor in charge Adrian Titchcombe had proved that football at this level could be organised and played to a very high standard.
Those events of May and June weren’t the only major change to the Semi Professional game in 1979, in late April plans had been finalised for the creation of a new Alliance Premier League creating a 2 tier where the Alliance Premier was feed by the Northern Premier League and the Southern Premier League effectively pushing the Northern League a step further down the pyramid ladder.
Blyth Spartans were offered a place in the Alliance Premier League but the board decided to turn down the offer due to the extra travelling & cost involved, this in turn meant that any future Blyth players to make the Semi Professional team would be from the lower level of the game that players they were competing against for a place in the squad.
In February 1980 Croft Park staged it’s first FA XI fixture when a Dryborough Northern League side took on a FA XI selected from Alliance & Northern Premier League club’s in the North such as Scarborough, Gateshead, Barrow, Workington & Gateshead. 5 Spartans were selected for the squad; Dave Clarke, John Waterson, Alan Walker, Tommy Dixon & Les Mutrie along with many of the stalwarts of the Northern League such as Kevin Reilly, Jackie Foster David Curry & Maurice Gormley.
The real interest on the night was the selection of a young 20-year-old winger who had earned weekly rave reviews in the Northern League.
Despite having a good game he didn’t get the call for the England Semi Pro squad but 4 years later gained an Under-21 cap and a year after that his first senior cap on 24th March in England’s 2-1 victory over Republic of Ireland, that winger was:
Come the 1980 Tournament 4 members England’s had to secured moves to League clubs, Jim Arnold (Blackburn Rovers), Keith Houghton (Carlisle United), Eamon O’Keefe (Everton) and Trevor Peake (Coventry City) so were no longer available to England manager Keith Wright. Arnold’s move opened the door for Dave Clarke who was finally rewarded with selection along with Les Mutrie for the Tournament in Zeist, Holland.
Clarke & Mutrie played in all 3 games during the tournament held from June
3rd – 7th, both started the 2-0 win over Italy then Clarke came off the bench to replace the injured Brian Parker in the 2-4 defeat by Scotland in which Les Mutrie scored. England beat Holland 2-1 in their final game to finish 2nd in the table to Tournament winners Scotland.
A sign of how much more importance the Scottish FA put on the Tournament they were far better prepared and manager Jock Stein selected a far more experience squad with some talented youngsters including an up & coming striker from St Johnstone by the name of Alastair McCoist!.
In 1981 Les Mutrie was playing for Hull City so ended his Semi Pro career with 5 caps & 2 goals, it was Italy’s turn to host the Tournament which was staged in Lucca, Empoli and Montecatini Terme between 9th – 13th June.
By now Dave Clarke was rightfully the first choice goalkeeper for England and played in all 3 games, a 2-0 win over Holland then a 0-0 draw with Scotland and the 1-1 draw with Italy to give England the trophy thanks to goal difference over the Tournament host’s.
In 1982 an extra warm-up game had been arranged in Gibraltar at the end of April was added to the full programme of FA XI representative matches to give the managers the opportunity to test promising players. There was a new face in the squad for the game at The Victoria Stadium on Tuesday April 27th, a young striker from West Midlands club Alvechurch by the name of Alan Smith had attracted plenty of attention. Smith made his debut in the 3-2 win that saw Dave Clarke watch from the bench as an unused sub.
Dave Clarke however did play in all 3 games of the Tournament held in Aberdeen, Scotland from June 1st – June 5th, which saw England draw 0-0 with Italy then beat Holland 1-0 before holding the host’s to a 1-1 draw which this year saw England lose the trophy to the hosts on goal difference!. Alan Smith played in the first 2 games but his pending move to Leicester City saw him miss out on the game against Scotland.
The 1983 Tournament was staged in Scarborough from May 31- June 4th and saw Blyth’s experienced defender Peter Robinson called into the squad. The Newbiggin born defender started his career as a 16 year debuting at Burnley, then in July 1980 signed for Dutch club Sparta Rotterdam in a £30,000 transfer.
He returned to the North East after a 3 year spell playing in Holland. The classy defender made his debut in the 2-0 victory over Italy but Clarke didn’t feature in the game.
Both did play in the 6-0 hammering of Holland and the 2-1 win over Scotland that sealed their 3rd Four Nation’s Trophy.
It was Italy’s turn to stage the 1984 Tournament and it was staged from June 5th – 9th in Parma, Modena and Reggio nell’Emilia.
Both Dave Clarke & Peter Robinson were included once again, the host’s finally won the Tournament at the 6th attempt, becoming the 4th country to win the Tournament they had staged. England finished Runners Up after a 3-3 draw with Holland a 2-0 victory over Scotland set up a winners takes all last game with Italy which the hosts won the 1-0.
Dave Clarke played in all 3 games while Peter Robinson was to only feature in the crucial Italy game. That game was to prove to be Dave Clarke last game for the England semi Professional side ending a wonderful period of his career with a record 14 caps all gained with selection ahead to goalkeepers from 3 leagues higher than he played at and, it also turned out to be Peter Robinson’s final cap as he moved back into full-time football with Rochdale in 1985.
The 1985 squad for the Tournament, which was won by Scotland and staged in Holland, saw no Blyth players selected for the 1st time since it’s inception.
The 1986 Tournament which was due to be staged in Scotland but was cancelled so the FA staged a series of International instead which once again Blyth players involved with midfielder Paul Walker & forward Dave Buchanan selected. Paul Walker started in England’s 1-3 defeat to Wales in Merthyr on 26th March, once the domestic season had finished England played a Republic of Ireland team in a double-header staged over the Spring Bank Holiday weekend.
The 2-1 victory at Kidderminster on Saturday May 24th saw Paul Walker start and
Dave Buchanan come off the bench to make his International debut.
2 days later England played Eire again at Nuneaton. England won 2-1 again and this time Dave Buchanan started while Paul Walker came off the bench this time.
- Dave Buchanan had returned home to the North East having been released by Peterborough United in 1984 and was snapped up by the Spartans and his performances were soon attracting attention from League clubs hitting 31 goals in his first season at Croft Park. Dave came through as an apprentice at Filbert Street and made his league debut in the same game as Gary Lineker on News Years Day 1979 at Oldham Athletic and he was initially seen as a better prospect than Lineker. After 5 seasons at Leicester Dave signed for Peterborough United and made his debut in a Posh side featuring another future England player;
It was no surprise with a pedigree like that he was soon called up to the England Semi Pro team but a return to the professional game limited his England appearances to only 2 games when Lawrie McMeneny snapped Dave up. He made his Sunderland debut in August 1986 in a 2-0 win at Huddersfield, going on to make 34 appearances scoring 8 goals. Dave had a spell on loan at York City in 87/88 season before being released and returning to Croft Park for a season then moving to Blue Star for 2 years before ending his playing career at Whitley Bay.
In 1987 the Tournament returned and was staged in Scotland this time with Italy recording the 2nd triumph but that was to be the last Four Nations for some time it disappearing from the Non League calendar for one reason or another until 2002.
In May 1989 Tottenham Hotspur’s Chris Waddle made a return to Croft Park as part of Football League XI that included Manchester United & England captain Bryan Robson that played a Representative XI including Blyth’s Neil Howie & Nigel Walker to mark the Northern League’s Centenary. Another Spartan involved in the Northern League Centenary celebrations was David Scope. The 22-year-old winger was signed from Killingworth Juniors in the summer and had made such an impact in the 7 games he played for Blyth before a Northampton Town manager Graham Carr snapped him up. One of the last games Scope played as a Spartans was to represent the club in a game at St James Park. The game in September 1989 was against a Combined Juventus & Liverpool Under 21 side.
By 2002 the Non League game had changed dramatically with most players of Conference clubs now being full-time professionals so it was probably no surprise that no Blyth player was selected, however that all changed in May 2007 when goalkeeper Adam Bartlett was selected for the now named England C side for his debut against Finland in Helsinki.
It was just reward for the much sought after keeper who had been released by Newcastle United as a youth player and then within a year of being the 1st Blyth player to play for his country in 21 years he went on to play in the Football League.
In November 2007, the iconic bible of all things Non League ‘The Non League Directory’ celebrated its 30th Anniversary by recognising those clubs which have achieved outstanding success over that period, editor and leading advocate of Non League football in England Tony Williams presented the club with an award to mark their unique achievements in those 30 years and to mark it’s unique record of providing players for the England Semi Pro team:
“Following on from the great FA Cup run of 1977/78 the Spartans have consistently been successful and have led the way for non league football in the region.”
Now called the England C team home matches are played at various League and Non-League grounds around the country. Friendly matches are played with equal teams from other nations, and compete in the Four Nations Tournament each season, along with Scotland, Wales and the full Gibraltar team.
They have more recently begun playing against Under 23 teams from the likes of Belgium and Turkey, which have included players capped at full international level.
- Weather any of the ‘Spartans 7’ go on to make the England C squad remains to be seen, either way the players can be proud of their achievement in representing their country and in doing so they now have the honour of joining an exclusive group of famous former Spartans who have earned International or Representative honours while playing for the club.